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This is who the 49ers were always supposed to be

© Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

There is no question that this has been the oddest year of Kyle Shanahan’s tenure with the 49ers.

At one point this season, the 49ers had lost four-straight games. They’ve now won three straight, two of which have come against teams above them in the NFC playoff picture.

They also lost a game to the Colt McCoy-led Cardinals, who didn’t have DeAndre Hopkins to throw to, or the benefit of J.J. Watt to rush Jimmy Garoppolo. San Francisco nearly went to overtime and almost bungled at 43-17 lead against the Jared Goff-led Detroit Lions, who are now 0-8-1.

This very same team destroyed and seems to have broken the Los Angeles Rams, who have gone from unquestionable Super Bowl contender to a flailing mess atop the Wild Card heap.

On Sunday, this team was one rush short of going for 40-plus carries for the third-straight game. They bullied their way to a win which gives them, at 6-5, and per multiple playoff oddsmakers, a 72 percent chance to make the playoffs.

Over the past three games, they’ve rushed for 535 yards and are averaging 41.67 carries, 178.33 yards per carry and 1.67 rushing touchdowns per game. It has been a lesson in physicality and winning the NFL’s endless wars of attrition.

San Francisco is now just one game behind the Rams for the fifth Wild Card spot after the Rams’ third-straight loss. They will face them in Los Angeles on the final day of the season to potentially decide who flies to Tampa Bay and who heads to Jerry World.

Something says the 49ers would find Dallas an easier matchup than the reigning Super Bowl champions, which is much likelier in the fifth seed than their current sixth seed.

This is all a tremendous shift in fortune from the 3-5 reality of three weeks ago, but given the talent on this roster and coaching staff, it’s a much more predictable representation of where this team should be.

Before this season began, San Francisco seemed like a team capable of contending for a Super Bowl, even with Garoppolo at quarterback.

But we knew the recipe for the 49ers to win from the 2019 season:

  1. Run the ball effectively
  2. Get the ball into the hands of the yards-after-catch virtuosos
  3. Convert consistently on third (and some fourth) downs
  4. Win the turnover battle
  5. Rush the quarterback consistently, or at least when it matters

Since that bizarre first half of the season, a weighty change has occurred in three aspects: penalties, third-down conversions and turnovers.

Those were the three areas in which this team was failing consistently in the first half of the season, and in which they have been in the top half of the league over these last five weeks.

Without a defense that’s rushing the passer consistently (had a second-best 28.7 percent pressure rate in 2019, and an eighth-worst 22.4 percent rate entering Sunday’s game), the decrease in penalties and uptick in turnovers means that offenses aren’t getting bailed out nearly as often. Even if they’re getting chunk plays, some of those drives are ending in turnovers.

It’s not the elite defense it was supposed to be, but it is clearly making offenses work. Over the last five games, they’re averaging 22.6 defensive penalty yards, compared to an average of 51.67 defensive penalty yards per game over the first six games.

The losses of Jason Verrett and Javon Kinlaw, with Dee Ford’s return still in question, have dented the ceiling for this defense substantially. The looming injuries to both Dre Greenlaw and Fred Warner loom very large, but have been met with borderline Pro Bowl-caliber play from Azeez Al-Shaair.

But the coverage, with the exceptions of Josh Norman and Talonoa Hufanga, has been less reckless with an improved rate of takeaways.

Norman, though he is poor in coverage at this stage in his career, has managed the art of the Peanut Tillman punch. It means, essentially, that while he’s going to be terrible 90 percent of the time, the other 10 percent might earn you a game-altering turnover.

San Francisco seems to have determined that’s a risk worth taking, or that their rookie corners are somehow worse than Norman is, which seems impossible, given we saw competence from Deommodore Lenoir in the first three games of the season.

Given that the 49ers are undefeated in games with a positive turnover differential this season, it’s not the most outlandish bet:

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

The offense, meanwhile, has been what it was meant to be. Elijah Mitchell has replaced Raheem Mostert near perfectly, and Garoppolo is now converting on third down at a rate much more similar to 2019. They’ve converted 46.5 percent of their third downs over the last five weeks — which would rank fourth in the NFL this season — compared to a 31.4 percent conversion rate over the first six weeks.

At this point, the main source of concern is the injuries sustained on Sunday.

Greenlaw looks to have re-injured the groin injury which sidelined him since Week 1 at the same time that Warner, who has never missed an NFL game, left the game with a hamstring injury and did not return. Trey Sermon sustained an ankle injury and was quickly ruled out. The early assessment from Shanahan was not optimistic.

But Deebo Samuel’s groin injury is the most significant. Shanahan said he believes he avoided a major injury and Samuel said he’s “not too concerned” about it, but time shows again and again that coaches and players are poor evaluators of injury severity. A Monday morning MRI will reveal the extent of his injury.

Even if it’s one game that the 49ers are without Samuel, that would be a colossal loss. His impact over the last three games has unlocked this offense; he’s become not just a quasi-running back, but a bona fide running back.

That, unfortunately, is also how he injured himself. It’s also a reminder of last season, how the 49ers’ reliance on Samuel in a multifaceted role meant that when he was injured — which was frequently — there wasn’t an adequate replacement for him.

Samuel’s impact was already seismic before his increased shift to the backfield, and he was having the best receiving season in 49ers history since Jerry Rice was on the roster. He was already a legitimate MVP candidate, and even more so now that he’s proved himself as the force that makes the offense tick.

Asked what Samuel’s impact has been the last three weeks, George Kittle paused, then pointed towards his omnipotence, saying Samuel is “everything” for the 49ers’ offense.

“We can just go out in every personnel and they don’t know if we’re going to be throwing the ball or he’s going to motion in the backfield and when he’s in the backfield you don’t really know what we’re going to do,” Kittle said. “I think he just adds a dynamic to our offense that you can’t really prepare for. Like yeah, sure, load the box and you can put out your base personnel if you want to when we have four wide receivers out there and he’s a running back, but we can just throw it out of that. You’re gonna get someone matched up on a linebacker; that’s bad for you. So he just allows us to put the defensive in positions where we want them. I think that’s why we’ve been winning so much.”

And as Samuel’s role has adapted, Brandon Aiyuk has found his rhythm. That started in Chicago, two weeks before Samuel started to get regular carries, but it’s only increased in recent weeks. Here’s how Aiyuk’s season has gone in the first six weeks compared to the last five.

First six weeks: 16 targets, 9 receptions, 96 yards, 1 TD

Last five weeks: 32 targets, 23 receptions, 336 yards, 2 TD

As Jimmy Garoppolo said Sunday, “the guy’s a different guy.”

What the 49ers have working right now is most of their recipe for success. They’re running the ball effectively, putting the ball into the hands of the guys who should have it in their hands, converting on key downs and winning the turnover battle.

The most unreliable part of the equation, now, is the ability to create defensive pressure. Nick Bosa, who has 11 sacks in 11 games, is their one consistent option, and he’s starting to draw holding calls, too. But the defensive line can’t be leaned on like it was in the past, and the secondary is nowhere near as reliable as it was in 2019.

So for this year’s 49ers, the offense must remain the dominant force, and it may have to do so, at least in the short term, without the man who makes it tick. The defense may also have to do so without its quarterback in Fred Warner.

This is much more of the team we expected to see this season, and even three wins out of the next six will assure some version of this team makes the playoffs. But without its MVP and defensive quarterback, San Francisco may have to look to innovate, and find alternative routes towards the winning recipe they’ve rediscovered.

 

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