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What Thursday night’s game tells us about the 49ers

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Spoiler: They’re better than we feared

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Presidential candidate Andrew Yang complained about the Democratic debate being scheduled during Thursday Night Football.

What we learned from that is that he’s probably not a big football fan, however much he wants to appeal to us. Everybody knows Thursday Night Football sucks.

What did we learn from the game itself? That the Niners aren’t nearly as bad as they looked on Sunday.

A quick recap of Sunday’s action: The Rams barely hung on to beat the Carolina Panthers by 3 points. The game was basically a statistical tie, except for takeaways (3-1 Rams) and missed field goals (one each, but the Panthers’ miss decided the game). Christian McCaffrey got more yards rushing than any Ram — AND more yards receiving.

Meanwhile, the Niners had some struggles against Tampa Bay — the running game was sluggish, Jimmy G’s inaccuracy cost the team a lot of yards after the catch, and two three touchdowns were called back due to penalties (corrected, h/t McCoven). But the defense started to gel, notably with three interceptions, surpassing the total number of interceptions for all of 2018 (2), and the Niners won 31-14. Jameis Winston looked pathetic, completely rattled and inaccurate, and threw two pick-sixes.

OK, we’re all on the same page then, right? Well, here’s what happened Thursday night.

That Carolina team that gave the NFC Champion Rams so much trouble? They lost to Tampa Bay 20-14. Jameis Winston was a stud, completing 16 of 25 passes for 208 yards and a touchdown, racking up a QB rating of 103.4.

The Tampa Bay defense throttled the Panthers, who scored 27 against the Rams. McCaffrey needed 16 carries to rush for 37 yards total, and garnered just 16 yards across six targets. A 4th quarter goal-line stand cinched the game for the Bucs.

What does this tell us?

1) Tampa Bay’s defense is legit.

Media coverage (including mine) focused on offensive genius Bruce Arians taking over as Tampa’s coach, but one of his smartest moves was signing up Todd Bowles as his defensive coordinator. Maybe Bowles didn’t work out so well as a head coach, but the guy is a great DC, and it has shown in both games so far this year.

Yes, Jimmy G. was inaccurate in his first game back from an ACL tear, and that needs to get fixed. He left a lot of yards on the field. But he still completed two-thirds of his passes and outscored Tampa 17-14 even without those defensive points. Yes, San Francisco’s running game was not great, but Carolina gained just 37 yards on the ground. Total. With one of the best running QBs in football.

So San Francisco’s offensive sputtering had a lot to do with playing against an excellent defense.

2. Tampa’s offense is pretty good, too.

Chris Godwin was pretty much invisible against the Niners, a great disappointment to those of us who drafted him in fantasy. Against Carolina, he racked up 121 yards on just nine targets (8 receptions); he and Mike Evans averaged over 15 yards per completion each.

So the Niners aggressive pass rush and invigorated secondary did a lot to stifle Tampa Bay’s offense. Jameis Winston isn’t terrible unless he’s playing against the 49ers defense.

This is only a second data point in a long season, but we got a second opinion tonight on Tampa Bay, and the news is good. They are much stronger than they looked against San Francisco, and they were able to handle the team that gave the Rams fits.