You don’t win ten games in a row in the NFL without getting valuable contributions from your role players. This league has too much parity to rely on two or three players each week. Team’s are too skilled at taking away what you do best, so somebody else has to step up.
Getting players to step up this season was far from an issue for Kyle Shanahan and DeMeco Ryans. However, there was a stretch during December where players named T.Y. McGill and Michael Dwumfour — real humans playing in the NFL — were making plays for the 49ers' defensive line.
Injuries at running back forced the team to play Jordan Mason. After losing left guard Aaron Banks, Daniel Brunskill, old reliable, filled in at left guard for a couple of games, yet, the offense didn’t miss a beat.
When you think about the unsung heroes of the 49ers, you come up with a lengthy list. We’ll omit Christian McCaffrey, as he’s been one of the most celebrated players on the roster and one of the chief reasons many consider the Niners the favorite in the NFC.
Here’s an unsung hero in each phase of the game.
The offensive line
Instead of leaving somebody out, let’s give a round of applause to the entire offensive line. Statistically, the 49ers had the second-lowest pressure percentage allowed in the NFL. This unit allowed the fifth-fewest sacks and the eighth-lowest quarterback hits. In addition, per Pro Football Reference, the 49ers were seventh in the NFL in rushing yards before contact at three yards per attempt.
The void Alex Mack left at center felt irreplaceable and like something the 49ers would be up against all season, considering there were no in-house replacements with extended playing time at center in recent years.
Jake Brendel hadn’t started a game since 2018. And we’ve been over the importance of the center position in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. He’s making all the line calls and checks and ensuring the pass protection is set. There have been three quarterbacks under center this season for the 49ers, which hasn’t affected the five linemen up front.
According to Sports Info Solutions, there’s been a slight drop-off from Mack to Brendel — which was expected. Mack earned 35 points in 2021 compared to Brendel’s 31 this season. Brendel was penalized more and had more blown blocks against the run, finishing with the 14th-highest total points earned among all centers this season.
The sum was always going to be greater than its parts this season, with effectively four new starters next to Trent Williams. Mike McGlinchey was coming off a season-ending injury, and there was no guarantee how he’d look. Aaron Banks and Spencer Burford hadn’t started a game in the NFL.
The line gave Kyle Shanahan and the skill players much-needed stability. McGlinchey bucked the label of him being a sieve in pass protection. McGlinchey allowed six sacks on the season but only one game after Week 10. The first-year starters improved each time they took the field. The offense flourished down the stretch, and the offensive line deserves just as much credit as the skill players.
It’s not often your No. 1 cornerback doesn’t receive the proper amount of praise, but that was the case all season for Mooney Ward. You’d be hard-pressed to find five players that played the position better than Ward this year. The 49ers played much of the season with two former fifth-round picks in the secondary and a safety they signed off the street to begin the year.
That put more pressure on Ward to live up to his $40.5 million contract. Per Sports Info Solutions, Ward finished the season allowing a 52.2 percent completion percentage and only surrendered two touchdowns on 69 targets. Ward was among the league leaders in pass breakups, but Ward's run defense put him over the top.
Ward had 52 solo tackles this season, with three going for a loss. His average depth of tackle was 1.4, and he only missed two, yes, two tackles on the season, which was the lowest among all of the top cornerbacks by over six percent.
Ward’s consistency was refreshing. It’s impossible to shadow the opposing team’s No. 1 wide receiver all game. You tip your hand defensively. Ward had three games this season where he allowed zero yards in coverage. He had another four where he didn’t surrender more than 15 yards.
On third downs or in obvious passing situations, Ward proved to be the lockdown cornerback the 49ers hoped they were getting when they signed him. At 26, we haven’t seen Ward’s best football yet.
In a defense that features the best players at their positions, Ward put himself in the conversation as one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL this season, and you rarely hear his name mentioned.
There’s a theme here; they all tie into John Lynch and the personnel department’s eye for talent and ability to get tremendous value. For example, Ray-Ray McCloud’s guaranteed salary is $1.035 million for this season and next year.
Since Week 12, the 49ers have been 12th in special teams DVOA. As many of you know, they were far from the league's top half a season ago. Thanks to McCloud, San Francisco is in the upper echelon in kick return DVOA and fourth in punt return DVOA.
The 49ers haven’t had the benefit of hidden yardage under Kyle Shanahan. So, the 33-yard kick return and 14-yard punt return McCloud had Sunday get taken for granted because he’s flipping the field once a game.
That’s how spoiled we are this season.
McCloud has the second-most punt return yardage this season, averaging over 10.7 yards per return. Ray-Ray “this close” McCloud has been his moniker this season. Arm or shoe-string tackles have prevented McCloud from scoring a touchdown, but he’s brought immense value to a 49er special teams unit that has brought nothing to the table in recent memory.