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When healthy, the 49ers are the NFC team no one wants to play

The offense is one of the best units in the league when everyone plays

Los Angeles Rams v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Heading into the 2021 season, there were only two games in 2020 where Jimmy Garoppolo, George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, and Brandon Aiyuk played the entire game. Those games came in Week 6 and 7 when the team dominated the Rams and Patriots, or, another way to look at it, Brandon Staley’s No. 1 defense and Bill Belichick.

That small sample size wasn’t enough to convince those who consume 49ers news nonstop daily, which is why we spent the offseason discussing who the team’s fourth pass-catcher would be.

There’s a month left in the season. We know who these teams are. The 49ers are fourth offensively in weighted DVOA, which puts more weight on recent games. Injuries, inconsistencies, and turnovers have weighed the offense down on a drive-by-drive basis. Despite being 21st in turnovers per drive, San Francisco ranks 10th and 11th in yards and points per drive and 11th in drive success rate.

Sacks and penalties killed the 49ers Sunday. You don’t overcome 3rd & 19 without star players. The Athletic’s Sheil Kapadia joined SB Nation’s Off Day Debrief, where the question posed was which NFC team nobody wants to play. Here’s what Sheil said:

“I think maybe the 49ers. They’re getting healthy. If you look at their splits, their stats when they’ve had Garoppolo, Deebo, and George Kittle on the field together- they’re a top-five offense.

Are those guys all going to stay healthy? I don’t know, but you watch these games with the 49ers, and they certainly could have lost last week against Cincinnati, but you’re looking at it from a defensive perspective, and, man, they have guys you have to account for who can score on any given play.

Kittle has been absolutely ridiculous the last couple weeks. Unguardable, clutch plays, jaw-dropping plays where you have the Red Zone Channel on and you’re going ‘Oh my gosh,’ that’s got me out of my seat. Deebo Samuel’s been doing it all year, now Brandon Aiyuk is doing it with the game-winner, so I think that could potentially be a tricky team in the NFC.”

Health matters for every team in the NFL, but it’s paramount for the 49ers. There’s no replacing what Deebo brings to this offense. The Niners weathered the storm without Kittle for three games, but we’ve seen his impact in recent weeks. The guy has 332 receiving yards in the past two games.

So long as the 49ers take care of the ball, they’re a potent offense. When you look at the playoff teams in the NFC, Tampa Bay ranks first in weighted offensive DVOA, Green Bay is second, the Rams are eighth, and Dallas is 13th. Surprisingly, the Cardinals rank 15th while Washington is 19th.

You’re not going to win a playoff game without scoring 3+ touchdowns. So what’s the easiest way to generate points? By creating big plays. The 49ers' offense looked dead in the water for large stretches of Sunday’s game, but, thanks to their trio of playmakers, explosive plays saved them.

Since Week 6, per Sharp Football Stats, no NFC team has more passing plays over 20 yards than the 49ers. They’re tied with the Cowboys and the Rams, with Tampa Bay and Arizona ranking eighth and the Packers at 10th. Washington is near the bottom of the league.

The perception of the 49ers is that they’re a mediocre team. We’ve watched them every game. The things this team has endured on the injury or turnover front remain puzzling. Monday’s are a sigh of relief when Kyle Shanahan doesn’t report a player missing time. It’s almost expected at this point.

Unfortunately, San Francisco has earned their reputation. There’s a month left in the season for them to start hitting on all cylinders. The biggest area the defense has to solve is limiting big plays through the air. San Francisco has given up the 7th-most plays over 20 yards since Week 6. There’s no timetable for Emmanuel Moseley’s return, which makes it difficult to believe that number will change.

Fortunately, the defensive line has been on a tear. Nick Bosa has finished, but they’re getting contributions from every player who steps onto the field. Not many teams can say that, which is why the Niners have a puncher's chance in the playoffs. They’re hitting their stride up front and at linebacker. Now, they need the cornerbacks to come along.

Taking it back to the article’s title and the topic Sheil discussed with our Rob Guerrera. I say it every week; football is a game of matchups. There isn’t a team in the NFL that has stopped the 49ers' offense. There’s not an offensive line that’s contained their defensive line.

It comes down to two to three players on each side of the ball holding up. If they can, the Niners have a chance to make noise in the playoffs. Because of their star power, that’s why no team wants to play San Francisco.