Not much changes for the 49ers after last week’s bludgeoning.
Let’s be clear: that was bad. They collapsed in every facet.
A game initially hoped to be minor recompense for the 2019 Super Bowl loss was instead Kansas City rubbing more salt in the wound (see: below, from Frank Clark, a man currently suspended for two weeks stemming from a 2021 gun charge).
The Chiefs exposed the 49ers in a number of ways. But that smackdown might not be the worst turn of events.
It might be better for that to happen now, with a bye week on the horizon, than later in the season. Ideally, it’s a wakeup call of a loss heading into a week that could make them favorites to win the division, or send them spiraling to another 3-5 record.
Here’s where the 49ers stand, and where they might be headed.
Defense: 100 to 0, real quick
Their defense, still recovering from missing seven starters a week prior against Atlanta, couldn’t stop anything.
This was a group which was, through five weeks, pretty clearly top-five in the league. At their best, it was the league’s best. We don’t know what group will show up on Sunday, but it’s going to be better than last week.
Emmanuel Moseley’s departure hurts
Deommodore Lenoir played well in the slot, but he’s no Emmanuel Moseley on the outside, and he’s not nearly the physical, instinctive tackler Moseley is in the run game.
Ambry Thomas apparently hasn’t done much to suggest he should start. A potential return for Jason Verrett is not something that can be relied upon, but it would be an enormous boon to the defense.
Jimmie Ward, who has obviously taken plenty of slot snaps over his career, is coming back from multiple injuries at a time when the team hasn’t had a full practice in “a number of weeks,” per Kyle Shanahan. He’s being tasked with lining up against Cooper Kupp this week and didn’t exactly seem thrilled about it, but said he’d do what’s best for the team.
Armstead and Kinlaw leaving a void
The interior of the defensive line is the main concern, though. That’s not exactly a surprise after watching training camp. Behind Arik Armstead and Javon Kinlaw, there was a group of gap pluggers. One of them, Maurice Hurst, who was signed to San Francisco after a solid three years with the Raiders, tore his biceps in camp and has played just two games in his two-year 49ers tenure.
The rest of the group has been fine rotationally, and on clear run situations, but you’re giving something up with those matchups when it’s an every-down situation.
Hassan Ridgeway and Akeem Spence are two veterans who can be productive mainly in the run game, but whose best days are behind them. Kevin Givens is the best pass rush option on the interior, but he’s not exactly elite in that facet.
Kerry Hyder Jr. and Charles Omenihu are being asked to line up inside, which is intriguing for pass rush downs. But they are coached in the Kris Kocurek style of being aggressive and getting upfield. So you’ve got two edge rushers trying to get upfield and two non-traditional interior players.
Without the likes of one or both of Armstead and Kinlaw, the task of maintaining gap integrity is much more difficult.
That leaves openings up the middle and a lot of gaps able to be exploited if you don’t get to the quarterback quickly.
As Nick Bosa said Wednesday, the 49ers’ identity has remained the same since 2019. They’re not going to try and reinvent the wheel because the Chiefs exploited them with chips, touch passes and various other end arounds and clever motions.
For the 49ers to keep their aggressive identity, they either need to get to the quarterback or tackle more effectively. The linebacker group, which is still down Azeez Al-Shaair and lost Dre Greenlaw, leaned on Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, who was not impressive. It’s tough to evaluate Oren Burks outside of his special teams opportunities.
The Chiefs consistently eliminated the threat of the defensive line by allowing them to get upfield, then giving the ball to a speedy receiver or back, usually Mecole Hardman or Jerick McKinnon, then getting multiple one-on-ones.
On their first touchdown to Hardman, the Chiefs had three clear one-on-ones for their receivers. They all blocked well. Talanoa Hufanga was the final line of defense, but an offensive lineman split the space between him and Fred Warner like a battering ram, and Hardman was in the end zone in a blink.
While Sean McVay will certainly try to attack the 49ers in similar ways, it won’t be a surprise. And these teams know each other too well to be totally surprised by any wrinkles.
All that said, there’s far more reason to believe this is an upper tier defense than what we’ve seen the last couple weeks.
The real question is whether we see improvement this week. And there’s cause for optimism against a Rams offense which has been one of the league’s worst. They’re averaging 17.3 points per game, fourth-fewest in the NFL.
Cooper Kupp’s going to get his touches. Tyler Higbee gets involved. But if the defense can continue to stifle an otherwise anemic Rams run game which no longer has Cam Akers, Los Angeles gets awfully one-dimensional.
They have, by a fairly astounding margin, the fewest first downs, 24, running the ball in the NFL. That’s nine fewer first downs than the second-lowest teams in that category, the Miami Dolphins.
There’s no explosiveness out of the backfield, and it’s behind an offensive line which lost Austin Corbett to free agency, Andrew Whitworth to retirement and his replacement Joe Noteboom to injury, as well as David Edwards, Coleman Shelton and Tremayne Anchrum to injuries.
There is every opportunity for the 49ers, even hobbled to continue to tee off against the Rams. They showed last time and in their first matchup in 2019 that even if the Rams get chunk yardage, they can force them into field goals.
Is the offense close to turning a corner?
The offense has been the eyesore for this team.
After their 45-rush, 189-yard, two-TD bullying of the Seattle Seahawks in Week 2, it’s been a team which has struggled to stay committed to the ground game.
The only time in the last five weeks this team has rushed more than 22 times in a single game was the steamrolling over the Carolina Panthers. SF ran 29 times for 153 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
They’re averaging 21.4 carries per week over the last five weeks. They averaged 29.4 per game last year and 31.1 in 2019. Kyle Shanahan has stated his goal is to run the ball 30 times per game.
Instead, as they’ve worked back from deficits, they’ve become dropback heavy. That’s not their strength.
Jimmy Garoppolo has thrown the ball 87 times over the past two weeks, a period in which he has 4 INTs, a safety, a lost fumble. He’s the only quarterback in the league with two safeties and has eight turnovers on the year.
Kyle Shanahan blamed that on getting off balance:
“When you get throwing too much, that tends to happen,” Shanahan said.
What he meant was that when you get throwing too much with Garoppolo, that tends to happen. Below are the only quarterbacks with as many or more attempts than Garoppolo and four or more interceptions.
- Baker Mayfield
- Marcus Mariota
- Andy Dalton
- Jameis Winston
- Justin Fields
- Mac Jones
- Kenny Pickett
That is atrocious company.
There are only three quarterbacks with more turnovers than Garoppolo when factoring in safeties. Two are tied with him. The bright side for the 49ers? No. 2 on the list is the guy they’re facing this week:
- Matt Ryan (benched for Sam Ehlinger this week), 12 turnovers (9 INT, 3 fumbles lost – 11 total fumbles)
- Matthew Stafford, 11 turnovers, (8 INT, 3 fumbles lost)
- Jared Goff, 9 turnovers (6 INT, 3 fumbles lost)
- Jimmy Garoppolo, 8 turnovers (4 INT, 2 fumbles lost, 2 safeties)
- Trevor Lawrence, 8 turnovers (4 INT, 4 fumbles lost)
- Carson Wentz, 8 turnovers (6 INT, 1 fumble lost, 1 safety)
This is not to say Garoppolo’s been woeful, or that the offense’s struggles are entirely his fault. He’s been his usual up-and-down self, delivering some excellent on-time passes, plus some deep passes negated by penalty.
Those penalties, while around the league average for the 49ers, tend to come at crucial junctures and set their drive backs. They’re usually accompanies by a play or two gone awry with a questionable playcall.
Despite their inconsistencies and struggle to score points, the offense has been trending in a positive direction — for the most part — over the last two weeks.
Kyle Shanahan said on KNBR this week that he feels like the team has progressed offensively in those two games, but getting off balance in their play calls made them go away from their identity. It was a team built around Trey Lance this season, in part, because there was a belief he had the big play potential to make comebacks easier.
With Garoppolo, comebacks have always been difficult for the 49ers. They are 1-30 when trailing by three or more points going into the fourth quarter during Shanahan’s tenure. Most of those games were with the likes of Brian Hoyer, C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens at the helm, but this is decidedly a team predicated on maintaining leads, not erasing late deficits.
Games between them and the Rams don’t tend to be shootouts, though. They’re physical battles of scheme, patience and talent. For the most part, the 49ers have the edge there.
The major concern is missing Deebo Samuel. He’s crushed the Rams.
Samuel has five career touchdowns against the Rams, scoring four times over the last three matchups the two teams have had. He’s averaging 6 catches for 92.6 yards per game over their last five matchups (3 receiving TDs), and has had 107 rushing yards on 20 attempts and 2 rushing TDs over the last three.
He has carried the 49ers against the Rams in recent matchups. Losing him stings.
The bright side? Christian McCaffrey, now with more than a week under his belt in this offense, is a very similar player. You can’t compare many people to Deebo, and McCaffrey isn’t nearly as bruising or as big, but his versatility and talent allows you to run many of the same things for him that you would for Samuel.
The Rams may account for him the same way they do Samuel, but Shanahan has shown time and time again that he’s able to get his playmakers the ball in space. When that happens, and the 49ers can grind yards out on the ground, it wears on other teams.
Sunday and the reality beyond
The likeliest outcome on Sunday is that the 49ers beat the Rams. San Francisco has more playmakers and somehow has a more reliable quarterback right now. Their offensive line is better, and while the Rams have Aaron Donald, their defensive line hasn’t looked the same without Von Miller.
The 49ers haven’t looked the same without Armstead, either, but they faced an early deficit in Atlanta followed by a bruising rushing attack, and arguably the league’s best offense against Kansas City. Los Angeles has been objectively bad offensively.
Here’s the reality. The 49ers are likely to win the division if they win on Sunday. It feels like a team long destined to go 10-7 this season, and they’d need to go 6-3 after their bye to accomplish that.
But trying to go 7-2 in back-to-back seasons would be a tall order. And maybe 9-7 is enough to make the playoffs, but that’s not something you’d feel confident about in the final few weeks of the year.
That said, even a loss this week won’t be a death knell. The NFL’s current hierarchy looks like this:
3. Everyone else
That’s the reality. The NFC is bad. It’s wide open.
If the 49ers win on Sunday, they are fine. Truly.
If they can pressure Matthew Stafford this week, not get gashed by a borderline nonexistent run game and get into the bye at .500, there are more reasons than not to believe they’ll get back to form.
A win would mean the Rams, without a capable offense, would have to finish with a better record than the 49ers to jump them for the division title. They’d be 3-5, leaving the erratic Arizona Cardinals and are-they-actually-good Seattle Seahawks as the main threats to win the division.
A loss wouldn’t kill this team’s playoff hopes, but like last season, it would leave almost no margin for error. Preventing that situation would be a salve for many of these early-season woes.