© Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports
What the 49ers did on September 15 was demolish a Cincinnati Bengals team that was only a week removed from nearly beating the Seattle Seahawks on the road. While they have a first-year head coach in Zac Taylor and first-year defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, there was a sense of confidence and an intelligent approach brewing in Cincinnati.
Then, Sunday happened.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh basically took one of those sound dampeners shaped like a toilet plunger and shoved it down the barrel of the Bengals’ theoretical trumpet. The noise of Jimmy Garoppolo’s Week 1 dud, the promise of the Bengals’ supposedly deadly defensive line, nada. Instead, the 49ers crescendoed into their greatest performance in the Kyle Shanahan era and the Bengals produced a figurative fart-like noise of a game.
Sometimes, you watch Jimmy Garoppolo throw a football and wonder, “What on earth was he thinking?” Other times, you think he’s the NFL’s next breakout quarterback. On Sunday, both thoughts occurred, though it was the latter thought which dominated the former. Aside from his “idiotic” interception — Garoppolo’s own words — the 27-year-old was impressive.
Much of Shanahan’s offense was set up by a dominant run game, increasing the potency of short, play-action throws on perfectly designed leak-outs from George Kittle or Deebo Samuel on crossing routes over the middle of the field. Those throws could be made by anyone. But what was impressive about Garoppolo was not the deeper throws he connected on (though a notable improvement from Week 1, no doubt). It was the throws he didn’t make.
Garoppolo read the defense in a way he seemed incapable of just a week ago, and while he still demonstrated a tendency to lock onto one receiver and fail to go through his progressions, when a route was closed off, Garoppolo would throw the ball away. This happened on at least two occasions; once on a pass to the left flat to Kyle Juszczyk (which was ripe for a pick-six if thrown towards Juszczyk) and the second at the end of the first half, when Garoppolo intentionally overthrew a covered Deebo Samuel in the end zone to ensure the 49ers would at least come away with a field goal.
Running backs: A+
The running back group was faultless and each of the 49ers’ backs brought something unique. Breida was as shifty as ever, breaking inside and outside zone carries for huge chunks of yardage, finishing with a 10.1 yards per carry average (12 carries, 121 yards). Raheem Mostert showed, once again, that no linebacker is capable of running with him.
He bounced pitch plays outside for gains when they seemed doomed from the start and was the team’s most dynamic pass-catching running back; a huge bonus with Tevin Coleman out until at least Week 5. And Jeff Wilson provided something the 49ers didn’t really have: power rushing. Coleman has a bigger frame, but his style isn’t as contact-driven and forceful as Wilson, who scored a pair of red zone rushing touchdowns a la Brandon Jacobs for the New York Giants in the late 2000s.
Their collective effort amounted to (including one six-yard rush from Kyle Juszczyk, who was, as always, a massively important blocker and receiving option) 36 carries for 244 yards and 2 TDs, along with five receptions for 84 yards and 1 TD. It set up the play-action pass from the get-go and made Jimmy Garoppolo’s job, in combination with head coach Kyle Shanahan’s staggeringly good play-calling, very easy.
Wide receivers: B+
This is effectively a review of Marquise Goodwin and Deebo Samuel. The only wide receivers to make catches besides them were Richie James Jr. (targeted four times, one reception, seven yards) and Kendrick Bourne (one reception, four yards). Dante Pettis also had a catch of a reverse lateral before connecting on a 16-yard, cross-field screen pass to Raheem Mostert.
There’s a lot that can be improved in this group (Samuel had a bad drop), and it will certainly help when both Trent Taylor and Jalen Hurd come back (expected in Week 5 after the bye). Samuel (five receptions, 87 yards, 1 TD, the first of his career) and Goodwin (three receptions, 77 yards, 1 TD) did show their abilities to pull off big plays and both came up with touchdowns, but the rest of the group has to show more.
Tight ends: A
George Kittle remains one of, if not the best tight end in the NFL. His blocking is crucial to what the 49ers do, and he’s still the most reliable target on the team (three receptions, 54 yards). But it’s not all about him. Both Levine Toilolo and Ross Dwelley continue to take the pressure of Kittle on special teams and in the pass game by blocking well. They opened up lanes for the run and created opportunities for play-action and openings for Kittle as much as any players on the field.
Offensive line: A-
The biggest knock here was yet another nullified touchdown for Raheem Mostert, courtesy of a pair of holding calls on Mike Person and Laken Tomlinson. There were four holding calls on the 49ers in Week 2 (two on Person, one on Tomlinson, one on Joe Staley) along with one false start by Mike McGlinchey. With Staley likely out for the next six-to-eight weeks, they’ll need to clean up those errors.
Despite those mistakes, the line was, for the most part, impressive. Their run blocking was tremendous, and they did not allow Jimmy Garoppolo to get sacked once (he did run four times, a credit to him).
Defensive line: A+
They sacked Andy Dalton four times. It didn’t matter who was in (Dee Ford was taken out after the first half with quadriceps irritation), as Ronald Blair, Jullian Taylor and Solomon Thomas showed, wreaking havoc as the second unit. There was not much to fault in what they did, and Arik Armstead has looked leaps and bounds ahead of where he was last season. The frequent double teams on DeForest Buckner (who secured his first sack of the season) continue to create one-on-ones elsewhere, and the line has made opposing teams pay for those decisions so far.
Kwon Alexander and Fred Warner aren’t Navorro Bowman and Patrick Willis; that’s the pinnacle of middle linebacking tandems, and both had a level of talent, tenacity and synchronicity that may never be seen again. But for an organization which had that duo in the recent past, Alexander and Warner are a pretty nice downgrade.
Both players continue to attack the line of scrimmage and blow up run plays before backs can get downhill. Even when a back gets a few yards, it seems like time and time again, one of those two will be there to stop the play at manageable yardage rather than exploding into the secondary. Warner had seven tackles including one for a loss and Alexander had six tackles, three pass deflections and an interception which almost made up for the one he dropped last week.
Oh, and Dre Greenlaw remains an exciting option at SAM (when the 49ers do play a standard 4-3, which isn’t all that often) and picked up three tackles for himself.
Defensive backs: B+
The only issue with the secondary in Week 2 was K’Waun Williams. He struggled mightily and it showed twice on a busted coverage and a miscommunication with Jaquiski Tartt, leading to Tyler Boyd and John Ross’ 122 yards and 112 yards and a touchdown, respectively. That last touchdown to Ross went for 66 yards over the middle of the field and provided garbage time stats for Andy Dalton in a game in which he was otherwise shut down.
It gave Dalton 311 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT as opposed to the 245 yards he had with no touchdowns, and 1 INT before that. Both Richard Sherman and Ahkello Witherspoon had very good games yet again, as did Tarvarius Moore and Tartt, which bodes extremely well for a team that’s struggled mightily in the secondary in recent years.
Special teams: B+
Robbie Gould missed a field goal that had no effect on the game, but Mitch Wishnowsky dropped a punt on a pin into the hands of D.J. Reed, and Emmanuel Moseley, for the second week in a row, dropped the hammer on a tackle on a return. This time it was on a kickoff. Last week was on a punt return.