There are plenty of reasons that the San Francisco 49ers are 3-0. For starters, they have a bunch of good players, and those players are performing to the level they are capable of. There has undoubtedly been some luck involved, but that’s every team. It’s a matter of capitalizing on those opportunities. There are a handful of reasons that we aren’t mentioned for the 49ers’ early-season success.
There are also areas where the 49ers have to improve, so we don’t have to hear about the teams that they play, or if they are a “pretender.” You can point to a few different areas that are concerning, but I’ll keep that to two as well. I’ll start with the positive and end with the opportunities to improve.
With turnovers come field position. Last season, the 49ers averaged starting field position was the 25-yard line, which was far and away the worst in the NFL. Seven turnovers and Richie James being one of the better punt returners in the league have helped the Niners in a big way. The 49ers have the fourth-best starting field position through three games. Their average position is now the 31-yard line.
James isn’t flashy, but he catches the ball. It sounds simple, but every Sunday you see punt returners let the ball bounce, or go over their head, and it costs the offense ten or more yards of field position. James averaged 8.1 yards per punt return may not seem like much, but it is. He’s done a good job early on this season of taking care of the football.
Jimmy’s and the Joes
It’s obvious, but we still should address the fact that the roster is worlds better than this time last year. Jimmy Garoppolo was lost for the year. Weston Richburg and Richard Sherman aren’t dealing with nagging injuries, and that’s paid off.
The famous quote goes, “it’s not the X’s & the O’s, but the Jimmy’s and the Joes.” I don’t think that’s true for offense, as you can scheme players open, and hide deficiencies. That’s 100% true on defense. You can only scheme so much. In the case of the 49ers, Robert Saleh looks much better this year because he has capable pass rushers. Arik Armstead is having a productive season because he’s not asked to be your top rusher. Ronald Blair is a great role player. Nick Bosa has been one of the most prolific pass rushers in the NFL. Dee Ford has been limited, but when he’s on the field, he’s had a few game-changing plays.
The upgrade at linebacker has been significant, thanks in large part to Kwon Alexander’s speed. Fred Warner has another year under his belt, and you can tell he’s more comfortable. The speed is noticeable at the second level. Having players that are athletic enough to match up and make plays in space has been the biggest difference so far this season.
Settling for three
The 49ers can’t get out of their way when they get down in scoring position. Penalties, fumbles, and miscues have cost the offense a handful of touchdowns. They’ve gotten away with it because they’ve been the better team through three games, but they can’t continue to settle for field goals in the red zone. Their 42% touchdown percentage is 27th in the NFL through three weeks. That’s only up one percent from 2018.
The blueprint is there. Throw the ball to George Kittle, dial-up a play-action pass, or just maul the defense and let Jeff Wilson punch it in. The problem is 2nd & goal from the four-yard line has turned into 2nd & goal from the 14-yard line. That’s not going to fly against divisional opponents, or the better teams the 49ers will face.
Gifting third downs
My lone critique for the Niners defense has been their inability to get off the field on third downs. This should be the strength of schedule arguments we hear about. There have been first downs gifted by penalties, or too many “gimme” throws of opposing offenses. Overall, the pass defense has been very good. For whatever reason, the efficiency takes a step back on the most critical down.
The 49ers are allowing offenses to convert on third down 42% of the time. It’s early, but, again, look who the opposing quarterbacks have been. That ranks them 19th in the NFL. The Patriots and Cowboys have faced similar offenses that have struggled, and both of those teams are allowing offenses to convert under 20% of the time. That’s how it should be when you are the superior team.
Execution on both sides of the ball in the most vital situations is something the 49ers have to improve on. The defense isn’t going to be able to bail themselves out with turnovers consistently. That’s not sustainable.