The San Francisco 49ers have improved the talent on their roster from a year ago. Now it’s time for the upgraded roster to win. To do so, the 49ers will need to improve on a few areas on the field. I’ll give you one area in each phase of the game that is an underrated aspect where the team struggled last year. Let’s start with the offense.
Consistently taking care of the football
We know about the red zone issues in 2018. Many factors caused the 49ers to struggle at putting the ball in the end zone last year. One of the main reasons was due to interceptions. The team was 30th in the league in interceptions per drive. While the quarterbacks deserve the lion’s share of the blame, there were a few bad bounces and drops that led to interceptions as well.
Assuming quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is under center for the entire season, that number will naturally regress to the mean. It will be on him, and the new crew of pass-catchers the Niners brought in to make sure the interceptions number is on the right side of average in 2019.
If you look back at the teams that made the playoffs last year, the only two teams that made the playoffs and a below average interception rate were the Chicago Bears and the Indianapolis Colts. The Bears were comfortably the best defense in the NFL last year, while the Colts were also a top-10 unit defensively and their explosive plays allowed them to put points on the scoreboard still. You have to have something drastically offset the interceptions. Last year, the 49ers didn’t have that.
Where’s the return
The 49ers struggled to get stops on defense, and then turned around and gave their offense the longest field of any team in the NFL to start a possession. That’s not the formula for success. I’m well aware of what’s at stake from an injury point of view, but again, this is football, and there’s a possibility of injury each time the ball is snapped.
Putting the ball in your best players hands gives you the best chance to win. Deebo Samuel will provide the 49ers the best field position as a kick returner. Dante Pettis will give the 49ers the best field position as a punt returner. That is before you get into both players ability to take it to the house each time the ball is in their hands. If the team wants to reach their ceiling, those two will be the return men in 2019.
Having a dangerous return man puts pressure on the opposing kickers and punters. A punter is trying to avoid Pettis, and now he shanks one 15 yards short. A kicker squibs it after Samuel just returned a kick to the opponents 40, and now the ball dribbles out of bounds. This is only one example of the benefits that will come by putting a consistent threat as a return man.
Turnovers were the story for the 49ers defense in 2018. The unit had to be one of the unluckiest in the league. There were several mental mistakes. A handful of players that shouldn’t have been out there, but the amount of bad luck your team has to have to not register more interceptions in such a pass heavy league is tough to fathom.
That’s far from an under the radar improvement. The 49ers were 18th in both pressure rate and adjusted sack rate in 2018. Slightly below average, but those numbers might be better than you would have guessed. It’s going to be about getting off the field on third downs in 2019 for the Niners. They were 21st a year ago in opponent third down conversions. It’s one thing to get pressure and sacks. It’s another thing to do it on the most critical down. I’d love to see where the team ranked on third down pressures and sacks. I’m also interested in seeing where they will rank this year.
If the 49ers are going to turn things around this upcoming season, they’ll need to improve on the three areas listed above.