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What to make of 49ers’ chaotic first five games, and outlook for rest of season

© Chris Coduto-USA TODAY Sports

We are not re-living the 2019 season. That much is obvious. For all the optimism of the 49ers reclaiming their lost glory, spoiled by an injury-riddled, hellish 2020, the last three games have highlighted glaring flaws in this team.

As early as it still is, San Francisco is suffering from an unsuccessful quarterback balancing act, injuries (again) at key positions, and a damning lack of execution.

Defense is not the main problem

Holding the Arizona Cardinals to 17 points is nonsensically impressive. Russell Wilson didn’t score until the final drive of the first half three weeks ago, before which he was forced into five-straight three-and-outs.

The 49ers have allowed the seventh-fewest passing yards per game and are middle of the pack in rush defense. Some of their early scoring numbers (23.8 points per game allowed, 15th) and stats were skewed by the bizarre, late-game meltdown against the Lions in the season opener, and the early failures to stop the run, plus some key Jalen Hurts scrambles against Philadelphia.

Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead have both been elite, with Bosa once again making the case that he’s the best defensive end in football. He’s in a class of his own given how often he’s double-teamed and chipped. He sometimes wins in spite of that.

Meanwhile, Dee Ford has been very effective in his limited pass rushing reps, and was the cause of the the Dre Greenlaw pick-six in Week 1.

Ford’s pitch count would be more amenable if the second-team defensive line had any threat of rushing the passer. But they’re not getting much from Samson Ebukam — a massive disappointment at this stage — or Arden Key, who at least doesn’t lose ground like Ebukam does, and tracks down the ball well.

Both D.J. Jones and Javon Kinlaw started off reliably good, and Jones has remained a crucial component, especially in the run game. But Kinlaw’s been hobbled by the lingering knee issues, preventing him from exhibiting the burst which defined him coming out of college. That’s a letdown, and started showing up especially against the Cardinals, when he mostly succeeded in holding his gaps on double teams, but was otherwise a non-factor.

The linebacker corps, by the way, hasn’t missed Greenlaw much given Azeez Al-Shaair’s steady performance. Al-Shaair came on a bit overzealous against the Eagles, but settled down and started making use of his speed without it being reckless.

Fred Warner has had more hiccups than expected, as was highlighted by an especially poor game against Green Bay, but that’s basically an outlier, and he’s still a dominant middle linebacker and the anchor of the defense.

The safety play by Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt has been great, with some exceptions. Both have made drive-altering plays and taken some of the burden off of a cornerback group which put way too much on Deommodore Lenoir’s shoulders early, before leaning on Josh Norman.

Clearly the corner group is thin, but it hasn’t been as much of a liability, yet, as it was expected to be. There have also been some missed opportunities to attack that group against soft zone coverages from opposing quarterbacks, but that’s the power of a starting defensive line which gets home with four rushers.

Quarterback approach has been detrimental

Kyle Shanahan has tried to be definitive in saying Jimmy Garoppolo is the starting quarterback. At times, he’s expressed annoyance with the amount of questions regarding Garoppolo and Trey Lance and whether Lance is competing for the starting job.

Before the game against Seattle, in which Garoppolo exited in the second half with a calf injury, he affirmed there was no competition.

“There’s not a quarterback battle right now,” Shanahan said. “Trey’s our backup quarterback. This isn’t the preseason, going back and forth all the time. Trey goes into specific plays… There’s not a big decision going into each week.”

But the last six quarters have been Lance’s. They’ve been a mixed bag, but to put Lance at fault for the results is a mis-assessment of the situation. He has clear flaws which need ironing out, but he extends plays in ways in which Garoppolo is fundamentally incapable. He has the arm talent and confidence to attempt throws which Garoppolo can’t or won’t on any regular basis.

Both Shanahan and McDaniel have admitted that Lance has the ability to make off-schedule plays, which Garoppolo does not.

“As a coach, you’re kind of a product of your environment. And you get used to plays needing to be on schedule for them to be good plays,” said McDaniel on October 6. “So you adjust as a coach. When you have a skillset such as Trey’s, you have to remind yourself, ‘Hey, it’s okay if it goes off schedule because we’re in a bottom line business and did it get yards or score points.’ So it is an adjustment for us, but it’s a very quick and easy adjustment.”

Here’s the issue. The offense, under Garoppolo, has looked predictable and uninspired. Part of that, to be fair to Garoppolo, is a result of drops and Brandon Aiyuk becoming predictable in his route-running. Shanahan has not explicitly said what Aiyuk is doing wrong, but tape shows that he has tells in the way he runs routes at different levels, which defenders can pick up on.

With Lance, the offense has at least had a spark, but has been plagued by major errors like drops, holding calls, poor blocking, and yes, mistakes and missed reads by Lance.

If you compare the two offenses, it’s evident that the one with Lance has the higher upside in both the short and long term, but he and the surrounding starters don’t have enough reps together yet for there to be consistency.

What happened in the offseason was the creation of an offense which Shanahan, offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel and their staff attempted to build to fit both quarterbacks. McDaniel said that was the greatest challenge of this year thus far.

“The toughest part was in the offseason, trying to make sure that our system highlighted both players, but also allowed the rest of our players to know what to do,” McDaniel said. “You can’t put in too much offense or two different offenses, otherwise you wouldn’t be good at anything and your players would be spread thin. So that was the toughest part systematically. We’ve gotten used to it where now we go into a game and we have certain plays for Trey every week, but Trey is trying to master the art of quarterback. And so, he’s working at every single play that you see Jimmy run on Sundays.”

Given that these two quarterbacks are as glaringly dissimilar, constructing an all-encompassing offense for both seems like it would be a major challenge.

In their endeavor to create a system for both players, they may have created one which is not a snug fit for either one.

Shanahan said it himself back when he took over in 2017, before his first draft, that if you have different styles of quarterbacks in your ranks, you run the risk of putting too much on your offensive players.

“You’ve kind of got to commit to something and do it over and over and over again and once the type of running game or the dropback game, you’re going to commit to one quarterback is completely different from the other, then that does affect your team,” Shanahan said. “So, if you have your pick of the best world, you’d like those guys to be somewhat similar, not just because that’s how you want your quarterbacks, just because of the work you’re doing for the rest of the guys on the roster.”

The playbook may have been similar to Garoppolo’s version, aside from the zone reads and designed quarterback runs, but Lance is a fundamentally different player.

Before he was called for two holds, and the offense as a whole was called for six against the Cardinals, Trent Williams said the greatest challenge with the off-schedule plays that Lance can make is not holding.

There were multiple examples of receivers not coming back to the ball the way Lance had hoped, an indication that they weren’t used to running the scramble drill and finding open pockets of space when the play was extended.

When you go from a quick-passing quarterback to an escape artist, the switch isn’t going to be hand-in-glove.

On Wednesday, Shanahan responded to the quote above. His defense was that Lance is so impressive and adaptable that it’s not necessary to build a system for him. Not impressive enough, apparently, to even be allowed to compete for the starting job, but impressive nonetheless.

Shanahan argued that Lance can operate just fine in the system he built with Jimmy Garoppolo in mind for more than four years now.

“That’s one reason I really like Trey,” Shanahan said. “I don’t think you have to do a totally different offense. I think Trey can add a lot to your offense and you can do a lot of different things that you might not be able to do with a guy who doesn’t have the athletic ability in terms of running like Trey does, but you don’t have to do a whole new offense. But you have to give the guys a chance to develop a few different things. But you never want to get away from your foundation.”

Shanahan also admitted that Lance had been getting about 20 percent of the reps, if that, with the starters, before Garoppolo’s injuries.

It’s an offense crying out for a spark, which Lance can provide. But the system isn’t built for him, and he hasn’t taken the extended reps needed to make himself and the surrounding offense totally comfortable just yet.

Shanahan could solve this problem by providing more reps to Lance, but he’ll go back to Garoppolo. It’s a bet on the just-efficient-enough offense eventually becoming productive by cutting down on mistakes. It’s not an outlandish bet, but it’s a very conservative approach which risks harming Lance’s development and having him prepared for next season, when it will be his team.

Lack of execution is a greater problem than poor play-calling

This is not to say there is not fault in Kyle Shanahan’s play-calling. He put Trey Lance at risk far too often in his first start and Lance sprained his knee. The running game has lacked creativity, and there has been a lack of manufactured targets for both Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle (though Aiyuk has done little to help his case).

While you can argue that the lack of targets for those players is a result of a lack of separation or just the nature of the scheme, Shanahan has proven over the years that he can find easy touches for his best players, and has not done that as effectively as he has in the past. Some of his most iconic plays, like “leak“, haven’t been on display.

But a lack of creativity may be due in part to an inability to run the bread-and-butter plays of this offense.

Center Alex Mack has struggled in multiple ways. He’s had more than a handful of poor snaps, and a few in which he’s snapped the ball before the rest of the offensive line was ready, leading to some plays which, if not blown up, put players in harm’s way. He moves like you’d expect a 35-year-old center to move, and any play which relies on him to move laterally at the second level is not likely to result in the explosives Shanahan loves.

The tight end depth is anemic. Charlier Woerner is athletic, and shows some moments that indicate he could be a solid blocker, especially in-line, but he has made some egregious errors. Ross Dwelley is a soft blocker in tight splits; put in space or cutting, he’s fine, and certainly displays effort and awareness, but having him fill Kittle’s role is a chasmic drop in production.

Here’s a prime example against the Cardinals. This play is on Dwelley. He tries to provide help to Trent Williams, who does not need it, and then — because he didn’t have a full running start — lacks the power to clear out this hole. The result of this play is on him.

So much sits on Kittle’s shoulders. He takes one-on-ones in pass protection. He’s the key blocker in multiple run plays. He eats up space if he’s not being targeted in pass plays, and has unmatched run-after-catch ability. Multiple run plays have failed due to his absence.

What has made this offense fail to tick are basic failures across the board.

There are missed reads from both quarterbacks, egregious dropped passes, devastating penalties, and just flat-out incorrectly run plays. There are very few plays blocked well enough across the board to break through the second level.

A prime example of this was against Arizona. Shanahan’s fourth-down aggressiveness against the Cardinals was well-founded, just improperly executed.

This was supposed to be an option play for Lance and Mitchell, with Trent Williams as the lead blocker. Shanahan knew the line would crowd once Kyle Juszczyk went under center, but inexplicably, the ball was snapped to him for a sneak which was doomed.

Also against Arizona, a great play by J.J. Watt, which Woerner wasn’t well-equipped to handle, caused a pulling Laken Tomlinson to be delayed getting to the hole, where he was supposed to pave the way for Trey Lance. Lance, though, was overeager, and went through the gap before Tomlinson, blowing the play up before it had a chance.

Another element of that poor execution is penalties. The 49ers’ 72.6 penalty yards committed per game are on pace to be by far the most in the Kyle Shanahan era. The previous high was 61.75 penalty yards per game in 2017.

The 55 offensive penalty yards committed against the Cardinals are the second most in Kyle Shanahan’s tenure, and the most since the 58 offensive penalty yards against the Houston Texans in 2017.

The 81 defensive penalty yards committed against the Packers are the third-most in Shanahan’s tenure, and the defense’s average of 42.6 penalty yards allowed per game is far higher than the worst of his tenure, when the defense averaged 29.75 penalty yards per game in 2018.

But most damning of all has been the offense’s failure to find any hint of consistency, and its struggle to produce in third-down situations.

They are 25th in third-down conversion percentage at 36 percent (league average is 40 percent). They only convert 61 percent of their 3-or-fewer-yard situations (league average is 64 percent) and that number drops to 50 percent on third downs (league average is 61 percent).

That drop has come over the last two games. Here’s how they fared on third down over their last two:

Against Seattle: 2-for-14 (14 percent)

Against Arizona: 3-for-10 (30 percent)

Because there’s been a failure to break off those chunk rushing plays and Garoppolo hasn’t challenged defenses vertically, those defenses are stacking the box, daring the 49ers to run the ball inside or attack them over a congested middle of the field. With Lance, they had more options, but were plagued by a failure to execute.

The offense is, again, better-suited for Garoppolo, but also has less room for error, and less upside with him at the helm.

There’s still an avenue towards being a playoff team

As bleak as things have seemed through these last three weeks, the 49ers also just endured one of the most difficult stretches of their fourth-place schedule.

On the docket, still, are games against Jaguars (1-5), Falcons (2-3) and Texans (1-5). The the Colts (2-4), Bears (3-3), are tricky, but teams that should and must be beaten if this team actually intends to prove its competitive.

There are toss-up games against mercurial competition, like with the Vikings (3-3), Titans (4-2) and Bengals (4-2). Seattle (2-4) should have Russell Wilson back by Week 13, but regardless of his return, it seems near impossible for the 49ers to fail to win a single division game this year, let alone two.

These next two games, though, are monumental. If they lose to either the Colts or Bears, this equation gets very complex. They realistically need to win both of these upcoming games and split one of the two games with the Cardinals and Rams over the next four weeks.

If that happens, the 49ers would be sitting at 5-4 after four division games and one against the Packers. After that, their final eight games include three of the worst teams they’ll face in the Jaguars, Falcons and Texans.

In that final stretch, they should beat beat all three of those teams. Let’s assume they lose to Minnesota and lose one of the two games between the Bengals and Titans (the latter is a Thursday road game, which could be a scheduled loss). They need to beat the Seahawks in this scenario in Seattle, which would clearly be the most important game of the season.

Heading into the final week, they’d be 10-6, with the final game of the season against the Rams in Los Angeles.

Given what we’ve seen so far, this seems a little far fetched. But these losses have been accrued by an unprecedented failure at key junctures in the game, which doesn’t seem like a sustainable trend.

If this team can execute some of its fundamental plays properly, it will set up what made them imposing in 2019. But it has to happen now.

They’ve missed multiple, explosive run plays, have had uncharacteristic, devastating penalties on both sides of the ball, have had both quarterbacks miss opportunities, receivers drop undroppable passes, and faced excellent defensive play from teams like Seattle, who are normally atrocious.

The question is how much of that gets corrected, and when? The last three losses have largely been of the 49ers’ own doing. Even if it’s Jimmy Garoppolo the rest of the way, this team can be competitive — in theory, at least — but not if it continues to shoot itself in the foot.

 

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