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3 areas where the 49ers must improve in the second half to make the playoffs

On offense, the team has struggled to consistently catch the ball. Defensively, they’re as good as it gets, except for two categories.

NFL: OCT 30 49ers at Rams Photo by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When we asked you to predict what the 49ers' record would be now that we’re beyond the bye week or you see predictions floating around on social media, most suggest the Niners would finish 8-1, 7-2, or, at worst, 6-3 in their final nine games.

For San Francisco to reach double-digit wins, health is paramount. That’s a dangerous assumption, given this team’s injury history under Kyle Shanahan. Then, there’s the variance that comes with playing in the NFL. There will be a game or two during the second half where the 49ers don’t have it that Sunday. It happens with every team.

But if we focus on what the team can control, let’s narrow it down to three areas where San Francisco can get out of its own way and come out victorious.

Offense - Do away with the drops

The 49ers are the 10th-most penalized team in the NFL and the sixth-most when you narrow it down to penalties before the ball is snapped. Between those and the six sacks Mike McGlinchey has allowed this season would probably be most fans' biggest concerns. And while it’s difficult to disagree with those, the Niners have the firepower offensively to overcome those mistakes.

San Francisco is one of three teams with a conversion rate of over 30 percent on 3rd & 10+ this season. The other two teams have Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes at quarterback. The sample size is large enough where sacks and penalties aren’t my biggest worry on offense.

Drops, however, are a different story. This goes against everything I stand for, as drops are one of the most overrated stats and a poor way to judge wide receiver play. But when they continually affect your offense’s production, you can’t ignore them.

The graphic below shows the magnitude of production each team has lost from dropped passes this season:

This list is fascinating as it matches the eye test. Here’s a list of the drop rate percentage from the top 4 wide receivers on the roster, per Sports Info Solutions:

49ers drop rates through Week 9

Player Drop rate %
Player Drop rate %
Brandon Aiyuk 2.6
Deebo Samuel 7.3
Jauan Jennings 11.1
Ray-Ray McCloud 9.1

The league average drop rate in 2021 was 6.6 percent. Of course, everyone remembers McCloud’s potential touchdown drop against the Falcons, but Deebo and Jennings both have dropped multiple first downs.

Drops make for momentum shifters. If the penalties and occasional sacks continue, then the 49ers would need an uptick in explosive plays to overcome the drop. Or, they could catch the ball.

Defense - Getting off the field on third downs and generating turnovers

The 49ers are top-10, read, elite, in the majority of major statistical categories:

49ers defensive stats through Week 9

Statistic Ranking
Statistic Ranking
DVOA 9th
EPA/play 6th
Success Rate 7th
Yards/Drive 7th
Points/Drive 6th
Pressure rate 5th
Adjusted sack rate 7th
Turnovers/Drive 24th
3rd down conversion % 21st

Except for the two that win you games. San Francisco’s opponents converted third downs at an identical clip last year. That number is a bit inflated this season, as offenses have a 64 percent conversion range during the past three games.

Untimely injuries, losing your 1-on-1 battles, and playing Mahomes will do that. In an ideal world, Mooney, Jimmie Ward, Jason Verrett, and Talanoa Hufanga give the team consistency in the secondary.

To start the season, it felt like Hufanga was primed to set records. But the turnovers have fallen off a cliff. The Niners are tied for 19th in takeaways per game. You're probably not on the right side of things when you are tied with the Lions in a defensive statistic.

An optimistic outlook would be that when the 49ers do turn you over, they do so in bunches. In Week 2, 4, and 7, the defense forced multiple turnovers. Moving forward, with a healthier roster and a secondary that’s stabilized, the hope is those takeaways become a norm and not something that happens every few weeks.