The 49ers have shown that they are one of the toughest teams left in the NFL playoffs. San Francisco has slain the dragons of the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers and is on to face the Los Angeles Rams for the third time this season.
Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan and defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans should be credited for turning this 3-5 team around. For weeks it felt like it was disappointment after disappointment, and it was mainly due to the 49ers being unable to finish games.
San Francisco’s last three wins have all come down to what feels like the final play. Shanahan was asked if there was a specific way to finish coaching a game.
After the game, DB Jimmie Ward referenced the Super Bowl a couple years ago and said, we could have won that game except the last six minutes and said that you have emphasized finishing, I don’t know since then or just recently. Is there a specific way to coach finishing a game? Have you done anything, installed anything in practice, in camp, whatever, to make sure this team plays very well in the last five-six minutes?
“I don’t think so, there’s not like a practice situation or anything like that. I think players and coaches, usually you should get better through experiences that you have in situations and that was a pretty big one for us there in the Super Bowl. I’ve had, not just in those games, but you have those a ton the more you coach. But those ones when you get that close to something, those are the ones that really stick out in your mind forever. So I know that was a big deal for all our players, a big deal for me, but every time we’re in a game we talk about it, and not just the Super Bowl, about how quickly all these things can change and how quick a game can get out of hand. You go back to our first game this year with Detroit and being up 41 to 17 with a 1:58 left, and we win by eight points and they have the ball at the end. I think we won by eight, but they had it with the last possession. And so the more experience you get on that, you start to realize you should never be comfortable. You should never be comfortable until that game ends. And I think it helps you stay more humble, more grounded and never get too cocky until you get the job done. And that job is never done until you’re shaking hands and the game’s over.”
Grit and resilience are words you can use for this football team. I said in my five takeaways that the 49ers’ resilience is a quality of a Super Bowl-winning team. Their last three wins have all come down to the wire, and they could see a similar finish against Los Angeles next week.
The disappointments throughout the season have turned this team into a fire-breathing dragon. Ryans’ defense is playing at an extremely high level, Shanahan’s offense has a ton of playmakers, and let's hope the special teams keep it up. We can start by looking at some resilient plays from Week 18’s matchup against the Rams.
I said that Week 18 was the hardest I've seen this team fight all season, and that started with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Garoppolo constantly climbed the pocket, delivered under duress, and consistently hit Brandon Aiyuk against quarters coverage.
I have to give Garoppolo credit for getting the ball out quickly. He did not settle for the easy throws and showed he could deliver with velocity. The 49ers were down 17-0, and Garoppolo drove 61 yards in 38 seconds to set up a Robbie Gould field goal before the first half.
This drive woke the offense up, and it gave you a glimpse of what a dialed-in Garoppolo looks like. We have seen this offense put up drives where they look unstoppable numerous times this year. However, the 49ers' offense as a whole has to be locked in. The offensive line has to limit the penalties, and the pass catchers must avoid drops. Some of Garoppolo’s best throws were ruined by drops last week.
The 49er secondary had a solid day against one of the better wide receiver groups in the NFL. Dallas got explosive plays out of Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and Cedric Wilson, but San Francisco’s defense was able to contain them for the most part.
San Francisco is looking to prevent Cooper Kupp from getting his third 100-yard receiving game against them this season—he would be first in NFL history to do so. Kupp’s toughness and ability to get open are contributing factors to him winning the triple crown.
Stafford was 4/4 on passes of 20+ air yards last week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Limiting Kupp is only half the battle against an aggressive passer like Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford. Let’s hope the Niner secondary carries on with the consistent play down the field and even comes away with a few interceptions.
I mentioned that I thought the season was over when the Packers opened the game with a 10-play touchdown drive. It felt like they couldn't be stopped, and I feared that Aaron Rodgers would continue to carve up the defense. But Ryans made adjustments and finished the game with an all-time defensive performance.
He funneled the run through Fred Warner, giving Warner one-on-one opportunities with the running back. The two first clips show why Warner is so important to this team. His forced fumble helped change the mood of the defense, and his coverage continues to be a massive asset to Ryans’ play-calling.
The most uplifting thing about San Francisco’s season turnaround is the pass-rush. We knew this was a talented group going into the season, but they were underwhelming at times. Arik Armstead’s move to defensive tackle continues to positively impact the pass-rush production as he dominated guards with ease.
Disrupting Stafford, limiting Los Angeles’ playmakers, and having a sharp Garoppolo are my three keys for finishing against the Rams.
San Francisco's playoff run has been anchored by the defense with disruption upfront and holding up in coverage on the back end. Garoppolo’s enhanced play can get the 49ers' offense out of this slight rut.