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49ers mailbag: Who replaces Ansah?

We answer how the secondary adapts without K’Waun Williams and the offensive line struggles.

Philadelphia Eagles v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

We’re back with another mailbag. This week, the 49ers are once again big favorites at home. Unlike Week 4, the Niners will have their starting quarterback under center, along with Raheem Mostert.

Who replaces Ezekiel Ansah? -Milan

The answer appears to be on the PUP list. San Francisco will likely tread water until Ronald Blair, and Jullian Taylor return to the lineup. Both players are eligible to return after the first six weeks of the season. Hopefully, those two play sooner than later, as it doesn’t appear that the Niners are interested in “renting” another 30-some-old pass rusher off the streets after Ziggy Ansah gave the defense next to nothing. Expect to see the usual suspects and Robert Saleh continuing to blitz at a higher rate than he did last season.

When Blair and Taylor return, that’ll be a significant boost for the defense, and it’ll ensure Arik Armstead and Kerry Hyder Jr. remain fresh as the season goes on.

Why was Sanu released? -Emmanuel

While the sideline videos of Mohamed Sanu giving knowledge to the wide receivers looks great, the 49ers weren’t getting any production from the veteran wideout. Sanu, not playing on any special teams, hurt him, too. With Deebo Samuel returning and the likelihood that Richie James Jr. will be back soon—as the Niners opened James’ practice window—there was no role on offense or reason to keep Sanu around. By waiting until Week 2 to sign Sanu, the 49ers didn’t have to guarantee his base salary, and that allowed the team to cut Sanu at any time.

Sanu was never going to be a long-term fix. He was more of a stop-gap.

Can the Niners win 10 games? -Keith

Yes, but it won’t be easy. To win ten games, the Niners can’t afford any slip-ups for the rest of the season. That means taking care of business against Miami this Sunday. San Francisco has two wins right now. Beating Miami, Washington, and Dallas are all “musts” based on how those three teams have to start the season. That means San Francisco would have to win five games against Rams x2, Seahawks x2, Patriots, Packers, Saints, Bills, and the Cardinals.

The 49ers will beat the Cardinals, so let’s make that six wins. Let’s say they split against the Rams/Seahawks, so now we’re up to eight. If you split against the remaining games between the non-divisional opponents, there are ten victories. Again, it won’t be easy, but San Francisco could get to 10 wins, and that wouldn’t be a surprise. They’ll need to get healthy and start to build some confidence on offense. Getting in rhythm with your starters against a struggling Dolphins defense is a great start.

Given the plethora of injuries, how would Shanalynch have coped had the three week IR rule not been introduced due to COVID and the lack of an off-season? -Nathan

Oh, man. I don’t want to make it seem like the 49ers are the only team hit by injuries, but 13 players are currently on the injured reserve through four games. I’m not sure how it would have been possible to field a team. You’re not going to place Jimmy Garoppolo, Raheem Mostert, Richard Sherman, Deebo Samuel, and the list goes on, on season-ending injured reserve.

Would Lynch have sacrificed more draft capital to trade for players? Imagine we’d see a veteran edge rusher like Terrell Suggs on the roster without the three-week rule, and Sanu would be on the roster still. It’s a great question, Nathan, and I’m not sure how any front office would cope with double-digit losses through four games if you could only designate one or two players to return from the injured reserve after six weeks.

How bad will our secondary suffer without Williams playing? He’s one of the best nickel corners in the game. How will our defense adjust? -Jesus

Having Ahkello Witherspoon back healthy should help. I know he had a sack last week, but there’s a clear drop-off from Jamar Taylor to K’Waun Williams. Think about it for a second; the 49ers chose to play Dontae Johnson and have Ken Webster, a player who they signed off Miami’s practice squad during the week, over Taylor. During training camp, Taylor struggled mightily to cover the likes of Trent Taylor, and we’ve seen how effective Taylor has been during the regular season.

With that said, Williams hasn’t been great in coverage through four games. He remains one of the best run defenders on the team, but Williams has given up a few first downs to receivers who you’d expect him to lockdown. Miami does a lot of their passing short and over the middle of the field, but that’ll be where the linebackers will be, which is good news for the Niners. Hopefully, Emmanuel Moseley is cleared from the concussion protocol next week and can fill in for Williams in the slot.

How long can we go on with our OL playing this poorly? -Stephen

Not too much longer. Having Jimmy back should help, as Nick Mullens took sacks that Garoppolo didn’t and held onto the ball far too long at the worst possible times. Having Mostert’s explosiveness on the field should also mask deficiencies as he’s a threat to score every time he touches the ball. I’m glad that Trent Williams spoke out about his play. Both him and Kyle Shanahan have taken shots at PFF this week. If you’re reading this now, you probably know how I feel about their grading. In short, it’s not accurate. I’m not sure how you watch Sunday night against the Eagles and blame Williams for two sacks.

That doesn’t mean Williams or the line, in general, have played well because they haven’t. If the line’s issues have shown up against four teams that have combined for three wins, then they’ll show up against playoff teams. The run blocking has been significantly worse than the pass protection, and you don’t want to have Garoppolo dropping back 45+ times a game, so that should be at the front of problems to solve for San Francisco. But if the blocking doesn’t improve upfront, goodbye, playoffs.