Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Is the sky falling or are your expectations set too high? Maybe it’s a bit of a both. Clearly, this is not the team that tore through the NFC en route to a Super Bowl berth last year. The skeleton of that team is still in place, but it’s been stripped to just those bare bones.
What San Francisco has lacked thus far is its muscle. Last year, that was a dominant running game, a ruthlessly efficient pass rush and mostly reliable pass protection.
That muscle is gone. You can blame injuries, clearly. The drop-off from Jimmy Garoppolo to Nick Mullens/C.J. Beathard is clearly substantial, and the losses of Nick Bosa, Dee Ford and Solomon Thomas are colossal. But there are underlying issues, some independent of injuries, some not, that this team must sort out.
There is no pass protection
No team protects its quarterbacks worse than the 49ers have thus far.
Per Pro Football Reference, the 49ers are leading the league in multiple pressure stats. Not pressuring opposing quarterbacks; their own quarterbacks are being pressured the most in the league:
- 28 quarterback hits allowed – Leads NFL (2nd-most is 19!, fewest is Cleveland at two)
- 50 pressures allowed – Leads NFL (2nd-most is 49, fewest is Green Bay at 18)
- 32.3 percent pressure per dropback Leads NFL (2nd-most is 31 percent, least is Green Bay at 12.3 percent)
If you compare this to last year, when the 49ers were in the upper echelon of pass protection, the drop-off becomes even more staggering.
The cause is evident.
Mike McGlinchey is the main culprit. He looks like he is fundamentally unable to anchor himself and has no plan in his pass protection sets. At this point, he’s an oversized blocking tight end. It may have been an attempt by McGlinchey to become lighter on his feet to deal with the speed rushers he frequently struggled with last season, but if that’s the case, it has backfired.
He said this offseason he lost “five-ish pounds” and weighs 295 pounds, but was also given the nickname the “Big Slim” by Richard Sherman.
The former ninth overall pick is getting bull-rushed into oblivion as was evident on the unimpeded pressure on Nick Mullens’ first interception, and how C.J. Beathard was left out to dry on the final drive of the game. McGlinchey is a liability.
And just before the end of the half pic.twitter.com/ZHpAY0SWTp
— Jake Hutchinson (@hutchdiesel) October 5, 2020
Trent Williams had one of the worst games of his career, but he wasn’t getting tossed around like a rag doll. He was stellar in the first three games, and no one should worry about this being a persistent issue. He’ll rebound.
Trent Williams obviously struggled too with his worst game of the early season – had a holding call, allowed this sack (and another, though Mullens had a pocket to step into) and had a false start to open the #49ers’ final drive, along with a handful of other errors pic.twitter.com/mLd8Ku2SvJ
— Jake Hutchinson (@hutchdiesel) October 5, 2020
The other issue is the interior, specifically, Daniel Brunskill. Ben Garland’s had his struggles too, and is likely to get beaten badly once a game, but he’s fairly reliable otherwise and staunch as a run blocker.
Brunskill, who was so impressive last year at tackle, looks uncomfortable at guard. He was torched on Mullens’ sack fumble, and allowed a sack on the penultimate drive which forced the 49ers to burn a timeout. That’s becoming a common theme. The right side of the offensive line simply cannot be relied upon in pass protection, and even in the run game, the 49ers are opting to aim for the left side more often.
— Jake Hutchinson (@hutchdiesel) October 8, 2020
Per Football Outsiders, while the rush attempts at both tackle spots (13 percent to left tackle and 16 percent to right tackle) is similar, and in the range of last season, the 49ers are actively staying away from rushes towards right end, with 19 percent of their attempts going to the left end, and just 9 percent outside of the right tackle. McGlinchey is a fantastic downfield run blocker, but clearly the 49ers are preferring to stay away from his side on outside runs.
How do you fix this? There’s no clear remedy other than McGlinchey adding weight, strength and cleaning up his technique. But doing that mid-season is a harrowing proposition.
The other option, and one which might be unlikely for Shanahan to seriously consider, is benching him, moving either Hroniss Grasu to center and Ben Garland to right guard with Daniel Brunskill at right tackle, playing Justin Skule at right tackle, or moving Tom Compton to right guard and Brunskill to right tackle. It seems unlikely, but the current level of play is not sustainable, especially if Jimmy Garoppolo returns with a not-quite-healed ankle.
The run game is not where it was, and Shanahan needs to give in
Jeff Wilson Jr. did not step on the field with the offense until the second half of Sunday’s game. Jerick McKinnon took an absolutely absurd 67 offensive snaps. Wilson had 6.
Why? For a man who only scores touchdowns and is the master of efficiency, why on earth would you not give Wilson an extended run?
More importantly, why not given JaMycal Hasty a chance?
What’s evident is Kyle Shanahan has also been stubborn about certain things, particularly running backs. For most of the past year, it’s been evident Wilson is a superior back to Tevin Coleman, who is losing a war of attrition that naturally occurs with most backs.
But Shanahan sticks with Coleman because Coleman can run two yards dead ahead and not fumble.
It’s the same thing here. Hasty is the so-blatant-it-hurts best backup option for Raheem Mostert. He is the only active running back with a similar skillset, and most importantly, speed to hit the line of scrimmage.
I believe the 49ers are trying to hide Hasty in plain sight. Back to that stubbornness; at some point, Coleman will return. And when Coleman returns, that means five running backs on the active roster, leaving Hasty on the chopping block. But if there’s no film on Hasty, maybe, just maybe, the 49ers can get him back on their practice squad, where he’d still have one game left to be activated for gameday and retained to practice squad in an emergency situation.
If that is indeed their approach, it’s an idiotic one.
Why isn’t the running game working? Blocking is a huge part of it. But the other part is McKinnon. He’s slow. McKinnon is a great third-down back, but unlike Mostert, he fails to hit the line of scrimmage with the speed required to make the zone scheme successful. He’s done some fantastic things, and bounces off tackles to turn nothing plays into something. He provides a unique wrinkle to this offense.
But he is far too patient to be an every-down back in this running scheme, which is why he had three touches in each of the first two games. Don’t believe me?
McKinnon, by far, takes the longest to reach the line of scrimmage out of any back in the NFL, at an average of 3.24 seconds, per NextGenStats. Melvin Gordon, at 3.02 seconds, is the second-slowest. That’s a chasmic gap.
Raheem Mostert, by comparison, hit the line at an average of 2.87 seconds last season. That 0.27-second gap is monumental in a scheme which prioritizes following blockers at full speed, without hesitation. It’s almost enough time to get a last-second shot off in the NBA. McKinnon hesitates, and it’s costing the 49ers.
Huge difference in #49ers run game is that Jerick McKinnon is the slowest RB in the NFL to the line of scrimmage, at an average of 3.24 seconds per carry. Raheem Mostert averaged 2.87 seconds last season. That’s almost enough time to get a shot off the in the NBA pic.twitter.com/uXtsfRHyVm
— Jake Hutchinson (@hutchdiesel) October 8, 2020
Hasty wouldn’t be Mostert, but he’d fulfill many of the same traits he has, which exemplify all the best qualities and hide the worst qualities in the zone run scheme. Maybe the 49ers think he’s their future replacement for Mostert, in which case, let the kid play and keep Coleman on injured reserve.
Far closer to Mostert than anyone else they have pic.twitter.com/iCRfrVYqCt
— Jake Hutchinson (@hutchdiesel) October 8, 2020
This team, which has been defined by those untouched Mostert and Matt Breida touchdown runs, is now an after-contact rushing game. That might seem like a deathknell, but the entire scheme is about putting backs into open space, not bouncing off contact. It’s why backs like Derrick Henry and Leonard Fournette don’t fit. They’re bowling balls, but this system needs quick backs who sprint full speed through the line of scrimmage.
McKinnon is great at bouncing off contact and creating yards that way, but it’s not a reliable formula, and is a net negative in this system.
And if that’s the case, if this offense is relying on evasion and yards after contact, Wilson should absolutely be used more. He lacks the same burst as those speed backs, but he much more elusive and physical than McKinnon, which is to take nothing away from what McKinnon’s done. At the very least, you have to mix up your rushing approach and get away from a bell cow approach Shanahan tends to use only when one back has the hot hand (McKinnon did not).
Since Mostert has departed, and McKinnon has started two games, McKinnon has 92 rushing yards and 2 TDs on 28 attempts, a 3.28 yard-per-carry average. Wilson has fared worse, with 21 yards and 1 TD on 15 attempts (a woeful 1.4 yard-per-carry average) largely on poorly-blocked carries up the middle.
Shanahan is aware of the difference, clearly, saying how valuable Mostert is to the offense on Monday. But he still won’t give Hasty a chance.
“He affects everything,” Shanahan said. “When he‘s out there, just the way- his explosiveness, I don’t think there’s anyone in the league that you can compare to him right now. That’s shown in both of the weeks that he got to play in. I think our backs have done a great job since he‘s been out. I thought [RB Jerick] Jet McKinnon has been running his tail off, running very physical. He‘s created a lot of stuff when some stuff hasn’t been there, but we can’t wait to get Raheem back.”
The defensive line is missing it’s killer instinct, plus ill-timed penalties
If you want to blame the 49ers’ 2-2 start on the defense, go ahead. Then keep going. Almost there. Shut the door on your way out.
This isn’t the defense which carried San Francisco through the early parts of last season, but it’s damn near close, especially given who’s been lost: Nick Bosa, Solomon Thomas, Dee Ford, Richard Sherman, Emmanuel Moseley, Ahkello Witherspoon, Dre Greenlaw and now Ziggy Ansah and K’Waun Williams.
They are still elite at limiting scores. Last season, 29 percent of drives ended in scores (3rd-best). This year, it’s 31.7 percent (4th-best).
San Francisco’s pass defense still limits long plays. They allow just 5.3 yards per pass attempt (2nd best) compared to 4.8 yards per pass attempt last season (best).
Throughout all those losses, the defense has remained staunch, getting burned basically by only two things: mobile quarterbacks and ill-timed penalties.
For the most part, the run defense is improved, allowing 4.2 yards per attempt compared to 4.5 yards a year prior. That’s a shift to 11th-best this year from 10th-worst last season.
Unfortunately, of the 443 yards allowed, an astonishing proportion have been to quarterbacks. In four games, Sam Darnold (7 yards) was the only quarterback to have fewer than 37 rushing yards. Kyler Murray had 91, Daniel Jones had 49 and Wentz had 37. In theory, that’s improvement, but it’s still 184 rushing yards by quarterbacks, only one of whom, in Murray, should really be allowed more than 30. That’s 41.5 percent of rushing yards by quarterbacks. It has to get fixed.
One bonus here is that Kwon Alexander, who looked slow, lost and completely out of place, was much closer to his old self last Sunday. If he continues that form and isn’t beaten in the open field like he was, that’s a substantial help in defeating off-schedule plays.
Shanahan admitted Wednesday that, “Yes, definitely,” technical adjustments are required to fix the issue, and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said it is the responsibility of the defensive ends to contain.
Which brings us to the crux of the defense’s issue.
Without Bosa, Ford, and even Thomas, who isn’t stellar, but is athletic and helps in tracking running quarterbacks, the speed and commitment to assignments is lost. What would happen last year is when one of Bosa, Ford, Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, D.J. Jones or anyone else collapsed the pocket, someone else was there to contain and grab the quarterback.
They weren’t pressuring quarterbacks at an elite rate; far from it. But they were masters of efficiency. Thus far, it’s the opposite. The pressure is consistent, but there’s no execution at the end because the quality isn’t there.
There’s also the issue of manufactured pressure. The 49ers have blitzed 34.2 percent of the time compared to 20.9 percent last year. That’s an indication that the four-man rush is not getting there consistently, meaning the linebackers and corners are relied upon to come up with pressure 13 percent more frequently. If that pressure doesn’t convert, it leaves gaps for first-down conversions.
Again, the pressure is getting there, it’s just not converting. Right now, San Francisco has forced pressures 30.3 percent of the time, which is the third-best rank in the NFL. But at eight sacks, they have just a 5.7 percent sack percentage, 16th-best in the league.
Compare that to last year, when they had pressured 28.7 percent of the time, which was second-best, but an 8.5 percent sack percentage, third-best in the league.
The last factor is ill-timed penalties.
It’s not so much that this time is egregiously committing penalties with regularity. It’s that the penalties they do commit tend to be of the back-breaking variety.
Their 22 defensive penalties are the 17th-most. But half of those penalties have resulted in first down, which is tied for the 5th-most in the NFL, and they’ve allowed 220 penalty yards, which is 11th-most; again, higher than should be expected with the amount committed.
When you compound that with an inability to bring down scrambling quarterbacks, and can’t sack them, you have a recipe for a defense which is holding offenses for the most part, but faced with frequent back-breaking plays or penalties which extend drives and tire the defense out.
The 49ers’ identity is an elite pass rush and run game, with play-action passes given time to develop. Right now, they have none of those things. The run game will improve when Raheem Mostert returns, but it remains to be seen how they’ll suddenly fix the right side of an offensive line which cannot currently pass protect, and a pass rush which has done everything but get to the quarterback.