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Assessing whether 49ers can turn momentum into playoff push



© Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

What should we make of the 2021 San Francisco 49ers?

With a deluge of putrid play engulfing most of the first half of the season, this looked like a team heading towards playoff irrelevance.

Then, their savior, the Los Angeles Rams, arrived to lift them out of the murk and mire.

And now, after lambasting a Jaguars team which has an argument to make as the most poorly coached team in football, the 49ers are on the playoff fringe, with a couple of 5-5 teams in the Vikings and Saints ahead of them.

Next Sunday’s matchup with the Vikings might as well be a playoff game.

To go from 5-5 to the playoffs might only mean four more wins from the next nine, especially if the Vikings are one of those wins.

For all the sorrow of the early part of the season, the 49ers have gained a helpful reminder that most teams in the NFL are not all that great, at least not consistently. Even the seemingly great teams, like the Titans, Bills, Chiefs, Buccaneers, etc. have all lost a number of head-scratching games.

There are just five winning teams in the NFC at this point.

What is working against the 49ers, though, is that they have a fairly weak schedule and their strength of victory tiebreaker is also poor. So if they don’t beat the Vikings this week and it comes down to a tie for the final playoff spot, they lose most tiebreakers.

Wild Card tiebreakers work like this:

  1. Head-to-head, if applicable.
  2. Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the conference.
  3. Best won-lost-tied percentage in common games, minimum of four.
  4. Strength of victory.
  5. Strength of schedule.

That might mean going 5-2 the rest of the way if they lose to the Vikings (really going 5-1), or 4-3 including a win over the Vikings.

There is cause for both optimism and pessimism the rest of the way, but at this point, it leans more in the direction of a playoff berth.

What’s working for the 49ers right now is a domineering control of time of possession through an assiduous commitment to running the ball. In each of the past two games, they’ve exceeded 40 carries and won the time of possession battle by about 18 and 16.5 minutes, respectively.

That has meant their defense stays fresher, opposing defenses get tired, and opposing offenses get limited possessions and lose the ability to stay in rhythm.

It also means that, thanks to a substantial decrease in penalties, they’re staying in short-yardage situations on third down, where Jimmy Garoppolo has been excellent.

That shift in committing penalties has been monumental. The greatest change over the last four weeks, for the most part, has been the 49ers’ ability to not beat themselves with penalties.

In the first six games, they were penalized at untenable rates, committing more than six per game for 80.8 yards per game. They’ve cut that to just over three penalties per game and 25.8 yards per game. They’re giving teams 55 less yards per game over the last few weeks on penalties alone.

Here’s what that looks like visually:

And the yardage numbers:

What’s also working for the 49ers lately is their ability to not turn the ball over and secure turnovers. Before the win over Chicago, the 49ers failed to win the turnover battle a single time. They’ve done it three times in the last four weeks and won every time.

Here’s what their record looks like accounting for turnovers:

  • Games with a positive turnover differential: 3-0
  • Games with a negative turnover differential: 1-4
  • Games with an even turnover differential: 1-1

The last part of the equation is the third-down conversions.

Through the first six weeks of the season, they converted just 31.6 percent of their third downs. Over the past four weeks, that number is 47.8 percent. For reference, the Chiefs lead the NFL in that category, converting a prodigious 51.5 percent of third downs.

The recipe is clear. San Francisco is frequently getting in short-yardage situations, trudging the ball upfield with a running game that’s actually not been all that efficient. But by taking a while to move the ball, they’re nickel-and-diming defenses into submission. Kyle Shanahan is giving Garoppolo the targets he loves, and Garoppolo is mostly executing on those throws (with some egregious exceptions, like the missed touchdown to a wide open Jeff Wilson Jr.).

There is one caveat to this and it’s that Garoppolo thrives targeting the middle of the field, and that has worked exceedingly well in recent games. Those performances also came against three teams with terrible linebackers.

While PFF grades aren’t anywhere near a perfect science, they’re the closest thing we have to an objective player grade. The average PFF grade for linebackers this season is roughly 54.

In the 49ers’ wins, they’ve faced linebackers with an average game grade of 43.58. Those players had an average season grade of 44.72.

In the 49ers’ losses, they’ve faced linebackers with an average game grade of 58.65. Those players had an average season grade of 62.23.

Cause does not equal correlation, and one position group will rarely ever determine the result of a game on its own. But the 49ers’ approach is benefited in an outsized way by facing poor linebackers.

Better linebacker groups can shut down the middle of the field that Garoppolo loves to target more consistently, cut down short throws and make it tougher to run the ball.

They’ll face three teams (Falcons, Texans, Rams) with poor linebacker groups, two with roughly average linebacker groups (Bengals, Titans) and two with good linebacker groups (Vikings, Seahawks).

In Week 12, they face Eric Kendricks, who is a top-five coverage linebacker, and Anthony Barr, who’s also above average in coverage.

Yes, this is the same Vikings team the 49ers ran riot over in the playoffs two years ago. It was also the game Kyle Shanahan took the ball out of Jimmy Garoppolo’s hands following a near-interception to Eric Kendricks and then an actual interception to Kendricks.

What’s worrisome, too, is the lack of pass rush production the 49ers have. It’s Nick Bosa, then a drop off, then Arik Armstead, then a slight drop off, then Arden Key. Charles Omenihu has been alright in his limited attempts since joining the 49ers and Samson Ebukam looks at least competent at this stage, but it’s Bosa carrying a huge weight on his shoulders.

This is all to say that the 49ers have been using a recipe that relies on controlling the ball and being safe with it, without committing errors. In wins, Garoppolo has thrown an average of 24.8 times. In losses, he’s thrown an average of 32.5 times, or more accurately, 37.1 times if doubling his attempts against Seattle, when he did not return in the second half.

The short answer as to whether the 49ers are likely to make the playoffs is yes, especially if they beat the Vikings.

The causes for concern are a lack of a consistent pass rush outside of Nick Bosa and to a lesser extent, Arik Armstead. They ask a ton of Jimmy Garoppolo on third down, who has been fantastic there, but has also done so against subpar linebacker groups; the counter is that the running game and use of Deebo Samuel in the backfield have also helped to open gaps in the middle of the field.

This success is also predicated on winning the turnover battle; it seems like the 49ers have turned a corner in that respect, but it’s not definitive. They haven’t proven that they have the firepower at the quarterback position to win a shootout; Green Bay was the closest example, but that came after the offense started off slow.

On the other side, this team has made drastic improvements in all the areas — turnovers, third-down conversions, penalties — that were killing them, and have shown that if they don’t kill themselves, they will be competitive in every single game.

For the first time since 2019, they have a trident of receiving weapons all healthy in Deebo Samuel (playing at an MVP level), Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle, with Garoppolo starting to trust Aiyuk more. They also established the run last week without Elijah Mitchell, who should return soon.

On the whole, there are more reasons to be optimistic than pessimistic about the 49ers’ chances to make the playoffs, but this is still a team which wins largely by controlling the tempo, and it will likely have to prove it can win in other ways down the stretch.