Start the tank! That’s going to be the saying from a group of San Francisco 49ers fans after every loss; it seems. I know the Niners are pretty banged up, but so were the Philadelphia Eagles, and there was absolutely no reason for the 49ers to lose that game in that fashion on Sunday night. Every week, we overreact, win, or lose.
The offensive line will cost the 49ers a spot in the playoffs
Nick Mullens had 45 attempts and was hit or sacked on 15 of those plays. That’s not counting the plays where Mullens had to scramble due to pressure. I’m not absolving Mullens from how he played. The expectations shouldn’t be high for a backup quarterback, but Mullens made a handful of inexplicable decisions. A professional quarterback should not miss some of the throws or make some of Mullens’s decisions. I feel like we could all agree on that. That doesn’t take away from how the offensive line was outclassed once again.
On Sunday night, the Niners offensive line didn’t just play poorly; they looked out of sorts. Multiple players were missing blocks, free rushers were coming on blitzes, and even when Kyle Shanahan decided to “max protect,” Mullens, a rusher still got through. What’s troubling is that these issues are nothing new. Against the Eagles, the offensive line’s issues were highlighted at the worst possible times.
Trent Williams and Mike McGlinchey were both high first-round picks. Suppose the team is going to continue to try and get by with Daniel Brunskill at right guard and veteran journeymen Ben Garland at center until Weston Richburg returns. In that case, the 49ers will need their offensive tackles to play to their potential. The blocking has trickled over into the running game. Yes, the offense averaged 5.8 yards per carry against Philadelphia. The running backs had 17 carries for 60 yards. There are no rushing lanes for them to run through. Everyone must improve upfront if the 49ers are going to be playing in January, or it won’t matter who is throwing or carrying the ball.
The 49ers receiving corps still lacks depth
We saw from an athleticism standpoint from the 49ers pass-catchers a glimpse of the future, and, boy, was it exciting. Brandon Aiyuk soared threw the air after breaking a tackle on a 38-yard touchdown. He’s still coming along as a wide receiver, but that was his third game as a pro. Aiyuk finished with two receptions for 18 yards on five targets and had a critical diving catch that converted the first down towards the end of the game.
Deebo Samuel couldn’t have been in great playing shape as he didn’t start the game’s final drive. Samuel subbed in but also subbed back out during the drive. It’s hard not to be infatuated with Samuel’s style of play. Players bounce off Deebo when they try to tackle him. He fights for every yard and is a pain to bring down. Samuel had one carry for 10 yards and caught all three of his targets for 35 yards. He’s practiced three times this season.
George Kittle does a fantastic job of reminding you how valuable he is when he plays. The 49ers threw the ball to Kittle 15 times against the Eagles. He caught all 15, including a touchdown and a crucial 38-yard reception where he beat a Philadelphia defensive back on a wheel route. Kittle had a play where he casually stiff-armed another defensive back to the ground. You know Kittle’s going to do something special when he touches the ball, and he never fails to impress.
He had a drop that we’ll discuss later, but Kendrick Bourne as your No. 4 threat is ideal for all parties, and that means he will take advantage of those matchups as well. Four reliable pass-catchers are plenty for this offense to move the ball once Garoppolo returns.
Nick Mullens should be released!
Remember when Mullens impressed you in his debut against a bad defense then quickly reminded you why he was a backup after that? Well, it feels like deja vu. Mullens is an impressive backup quarterback, but we know how pressure affects even the good starting quarterbacks—see Garoppolo, Jimmy—so what did we think would happen with Mullens? I’m seeing more backlash for the backup quarterback after the Eagles game than the starter after Week 1, and for the life of me, I can’t understand why.
Mullens missed a slant to Kendrick Bourne off the bat, where there was a gaping window to hit Bourne. On the next play, Shanahan dialed up a fullback wheel to Kyle Juszczyk. All of the Eagles defenders ran with Brandon AIyuk, leaving Juice and about 40 yards of room to run. After that, I’m not sure Mullens ever got his confidence back. The plan was never to start Mullens for multiple games. If you knew he would start before the season, you’d figure there would be a few “oh site decorum” moments. We had a few of those Sunday night. Mullens shouldn’t be released, but if the Niners are going to compete, they can’t have Mullens’ type of mistakes against the Eagles. They were backbreaking and soul-crushing all in one.
Carson Wentz and three wide receivers that you’ve never heard of should not beat the 49ers defense that took the field. I’m not arguing against that, and I’m not sure anyone should. That does not mean the 49ers’ defense played poorly. They played plenty good enough to win. Wentz had a few impressive scrambles where he extended and made a play, but he did not throw the ball well. Statistically, C.J. Beathard had a higher EPA/play, quarterback rating, and completion percentage over expectation.
The Eagles averaged 4.5 yards per play, went 4-for-13 on third down, turned it over, and only averaged 3.3 yards per carry. Wentz’s scrambles, losing contain on a few plays, and the Eagles converting both of their fourth downs were the difference. It’s naive to expect the 49ers defense to play flawlessly in the spots that they were put in. The defense allowed only two of the Eagles 10 drives to go for more than 60 yards. The offense failed to convert an interception into points. Even worse, they went three-and-out, and Philly scored on the next possession. When the defense took over after an interception, they forced the Eagles to punt.
There are a lot of fingers to point, and yes, there is no excuse to give up long touchdowns to—*looks up Eagles Roster*—Travis Fulgham, but when you consider how many injuries that are on this side of the ball at the two most important positions on the field makes it hard to fault the 49ers defense.
The 49ers need to get back to playing complementary football. Injuries have made it impossible for players to get on the same page with one another, and those issues are starting to show more and more. Health will help, but it’s not fair or realistic to assume that once the starters return, that’ll fix all of San Francisco’s problems. It starts with playing better upfront on both sides of the ball. Too many missed blocks on one side, and too often does the defense lose contain on the other.
We’re going to find out what kind of fight this team has in them. During October, the 49ers will get back their starting quarterback, center, and running back. Raheem Mostert’s game-changing speed helps mask some offensive woes. Richburg keeps Jimmy G upright, and the ceiling for the offense triples when Garoppolo is under center. They’ll also get back their starting cornerbacks and Ronald Blair, who the Niners could desperately use.
The 49ers season is far from over. They were never going to run through their schedule as the team did last year. At 2-2, with their backs against the wall and a brutal stretch of games on the horizon, San Francisco needs to play like the team that is the aggressor that is constantly on the attack instead of letting their opponent hang around. Health will help, but the style of play must improve.