Last week, we said that the San Francisco 49ers needed to beat the Rams in the fashion that they did to remind themselves, “that’s right; we are that good.” The team has found its identity, and their confidence has returned because of it. Let’s get into the other takeaways from Sunday’s victory.
The 49ers need that version of Jimmy Garoppolo
If the 49ers are going to come close to reaching their potential on offense, they’re going to need the aggressive version of Jimmy Garoppolo—who used his legs for a scramble on Sunday that resulted in a first down. Too often this season, Garoppolo has passed up throws down the field for a check-down receiver. Defenses are not respecting the Niners intermediate to down the field passing game. On Sunday, the Patriots tried to do what most teams do: crowd the line of scrimmage and force throws outside.
San Francisco’s skill players were too good 1-on-1, and Jimmy made them pay. He had the errant throw that resulted in an interception, and you could argue that a few of his other throws were off-target, but the point remains that Garoppolo wasn’t attempting these throws. Even on the final throw of the first half that was an interception should be viewed as a success, despite the play’s result.
You’d much rather see a deep heave that could result in a penalty or a touchdown instead of a checkdown before the half to pad stats. After the game, Kyle Shanahan said Brandon Aiyuk should have done a better job fighting for that ball. He also said Aiyuk’s 35-yard reception should have been a walk-in touchdown. Either way, “aggressive Jimmy” is what will keep teams honest and allow the passing game to win at every level. That way Brandon Aiyuk and the rest of the wideouts aren’t relegated to a “gadget” player.
“Bully Ball” is back
For the majority of last season, the 49ers controlled the lines of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. We hadn’t seen that from San Francisco this season consistently. We have for the past two games. The 49ers averaged 5.5 yards per carry on 36 attempts on the ground, and the Patriots only hit Garoppolo once all afternoon. You’d have no idea that Hroniss Grasu was starting at center, and that’s quite the compliment. The offensive line was excellent all game.
The Patriots finished the game with 94 rushing yards, but 48 of those came on their final two drives when the game was well out of hand. The defensive line gave New England nowhere to run. Coming into this game, the Patriots boasted one of the best rushing attacks in the NFL. They were No. 1 in EPA and success rate and No. 3 in rushing DVOA. You’d have no idea if you watched the game Sunday.
What helped was the Niners sound tackling. The defense only missed one tackle in the back-seven Sunday. The Niners’ consistency on defense from wire to wire was as impressive as it’s been all season. Give defensive coordinator Robert Saleh a ton of credit for forcing the Patriots to get out of their comfort zone and throw the ball down the field. He relied on coverage instead of a pass rush against the Patriots, and the Niners’ speed was too much for New England to overcome.
Pass rush remains a problem
Speaking of the pass rush, it remains an issue. The 49ers had two sacks on the day. One came on the final play from scrimmage from Kevin Givens. The other came in the third quarter when Dre Greenlaw was unblocked on a blitz from the edge. We mentioned in the game recap how the defense was using more of a “pass push” as opposed to a pass rush to maintain their rushing lanes and takeaway Newton’s QB scrambles.
That went away as the game went along, but the defensive line failed to get after Cam. There were no QB hits on the afternoon, and most of the pressures were tied to Newton holding onto the ball because his wideouts weren’t getting open. This pass rush needs help, especially when you consider the next quarterback this team plays.
Shanahan is special
We all know that Shanahan goes out of his way to put his players in a position to succeed, but I’m not sure fans grasp how special a play-caller Kyle is. Everyone knows the Patriots are a predominant man coverage team. How’s Shanahan use the Patriots coverage against them? By running the receivers off and using Deebo Samuel as an outlet wideout underneath.
Samuel’s first reception was a simple swing pass out of the backfield that went for 23 yards. There was no New England defender near him, thanks to Shanahan’s design. Three plays later, Shanahan runs “four verticals,” but uses Jeff Wilson Jr. as one of the vertical routes. This leaves Samuel underneath with a player wearing No. 51 to guard him. In a surprise to nobody, Samuel beats the linebacker to the edge and picks up 14 yards.
That was on the first drive of the game. The 49ers motion created bigger throwing lanes for Garoppolo. Kyle leaned on play-action more than ever. The 49ers either ran by design or used play-action on 51 of their 63 offensive plays (81%), their highest percentage of such plays in a game since ESPN began tracking in 2008, and the highest for any team in a game this season.
Garoppolo went 6-for-7 over the intermediate portion of the field for 100 yards. That’s where the 49ers passing game needs to live. These throws are easy and efficient, and if Jimmy pulls the trigger and hits his guys in stride, this offense is difficult to stop.