San Francisco 49ers

Looking Ahead: the San Francisco 49ers

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Sudden Change. Short Memory. Use whatever cliche you want but the Green Bay Packers need to rebound and prepare for the San Francisco 49ers on a short week.

At 4-4, the San Francisco 49ers are the only .500 team in the league. They’ve looked good in a handful of games this year and reminded us of the team that had a 10-point lead in the fourth-quarter of the Super Bowl. They’ve looked much worse in other games – their performances against the Philadelphia Eagles and Miami Dolphins come to mind.

Those two losses will likely come back to bite the 49ers, as they are just now reaching the most difficult part of their schedule. Their remaining opponents have a combined 36-23 record. The 49ers have to step it up if they want to make another playoff push this year. They have the coaching staff to get it done but they may be lacking the personnel.

Offense

It’s all about numbers for Head Coach Kyle Shanahan and the San Francisco 49ers’ offense – strength in numbers in the run game. The goal is to get more blockers at the point of attack than there are defenders.

It’s the West Coast, zone-blocking offense – the same run game that ripped up the Green Bay Packers last weekend against Minnesota – the same run game that ripped up the Packers in the NFC Championship game last year – and the same run game that Kyle Shanahan’s father, Mike Shanahan made famous with the Denver Broncos.

The way that Kyle Shanahan does it looks a little different. He’s known for using motion to flood an area with bodies just before the snap. He also uses a lot of tight formations to out-number the defense in the box.

Shanahan’s offense is reliant on skilled players that can block, and General Manager John Lynch is on board. He’s added pieces that fit the offense every offseason. Whether it’s at receiver, running back, H-back, or tight end, the 49ers block for one another. This allows the 49ers to be productive running the ball from any formation and with any personnel group. It’s a selfless system that only works when everyone buys-in and it’s worked so far.

The San Francisco 49ers ranked just 21st in rushing yards per game in 2017, Shanahan’s first year as Head Coach. They increased productivity on the ground in 2018 finishing with the worst record in the NFL but ranking 13th in yards per game. That pales in comparison to the improvements they made in the run-game, last year.

In 2019, Shanahan’s third year behind the helm, the 49ers averaged 144.1 rushing yards per game, which trailed only the Baltimore Ravens. The 49ers managed to top the Ravens in rushing touchdowns, however, with 23.

The 49ers have taken a step back in yards per game this year but are on pace for 28 touchdowns on the ground, which would be the most since the Tyrod Taylor-led Bills recorded 29 in 2016. It’s been entertaining how the 49ers have found production in the run game. They’ve taken the term running back by committee to a new level.

In Seattle this weekend, they leaned heavily on undrafted free agent, JaMycal Hasty, who started the year on the practice squad. That game was a bit of a dud on the ground for the 49ers but it wasn’t because of JaMycal Hasty. He looks like another solid contributor to the 49ers running back room. The 49ers actually performed better through the air against Seattle.

That’s rare for the 49ers as the passing game hasn’t been their strong suit in 2020. Jimmy Garappolo hasn’t been healthy and even when he’s been on the field, he’s been inefficient. Nick Mullens hasn’t been any better.

After they recorded a 28-13 TD-INT ratio in 2019, the 49ers have dropped that ratio to 12-8 this year. With an emphasis on the running game, the 49ers just need to be efficient through the air, which they haven’t been.

If you’re looking to place blame, look no further than the plethora of injuries to the skilled positions. Of the thirty or so players from that group that have seen time for the 49ers, only five have seen snaps in every game this year. The same amount of players from that group are currently on injured reserve.

Defensive Gameplan

The San Francisco 49ers have suffered significant injuries on the defensive side of the ball, as well. Dee Ford came off the field with a back injury in week 1 and we haven’t seen him since. Nick Bosa came tumbling shortly after, with an ACL tear. Both Ford and Bosa are on injured reserve and only Ford has a chance at returning. Free Agent pick-up Ezekiel Ansah was able to fill in at edge rusher for almost an entire game before landing on IR, himself.

At linebacker, Kwon Alexander hasn’t played since week-five. He was a limited practice participant for the 49ers, last week, and listed as doubtful prior to Sunday’s game before being declared out. Strong safety Jaquiski Tartt was listed as out prior to the game but has the potential to suit-up on Thursday night. Jimmie Ward did come back from a two-week injury hiatus to play every snap against the Seahawks.

Injuries on the defense have obviously factored into the dip in production on that side of the football but they haven’t sparked much change in Defensive Coordinator, Robert Saleh’s, gameplan. It’s ‘next man up’ in Saleh’s 4-3 defense.

While Saleh may be part of the Pete Carroll coaching tree, this is not Carroll’s 4-3. We rarely see an upright SAM linebacker on the line of scrimmage and Saleh has widened his defensive ends to a 9-technique (ends line-up outside of the inline tight end). Saleh has also shown a willingness to blend some Cover-2-man with the Pete Carroll Cover-3-zone.

We usually see Saleh’s base 4-3 when there’s two receivers or less on the other side of the ball but Saleh pulls a linebacker, in favor of a nickel-back, whenever a third receiver enters the game. Dime formations are rare for the San Francisco 49ers but we see a three-man front in those situations. We have to dig to find a snap where Saleh uses less than two linebackers.

With Kwon Alexander inactive the past three weeks, Fred Warner has been given the reigns to the defense and he’s taken advantage of the opportunity. Warner has been a stud in coverage and active against the run. Dre Greenlaw has been promoted to full-time duty and has played quite well. So well, in fact, that the 49ers front-office threw me a curveball by sending Kwon Alexander to the New Orleans Saints as I was forming this paragraph. The defense should be just fine without him.

While Saleh hasn’t changed the gameplan much this year, one area that he has adapted is in his willingness to blitz. Last season Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Arik Armstead, and Deforest Buckner, combined for 33 sacks over the regular season. With all that pressure from the base defensive front, we rarely saw the 49ers blitz. However, Armstead is the only remaining starter from that group.

Saleh has been forced to bring extra rushers in the form of Jamar Taylor and K’Waun Williams from the slot, and Greenlaw and Warner up the middle. This has created more one-on-ones on the edge for Armstead and Kerry Hyder. The defense isn’t getting home quite as often as they did in 2019 – just 14 sacks on the year, 22nd in the league – but the passing defense is allowing just over 200 yards per game, 4th in the league.

 

Three Key Factors for the San Francisco 49ers

Jason Verrett

The passing defense has held up largely because Jason Verrett has been successful in replacing Richard Sherman. Saying Verrett has been a pleasant surprise is not doing the man justice. He played in just six games from 2016-2019 and we thought it was going to be more of the same in 2020 after he was inactive for the first two weeks.

Verrett has been able to stay healthy, since, and he’s been a revelation on the outside for the 49ers. Whether he’s dropping into deep-third coverage or pressing receivers at the line-of-scrimmage, Verrett has been outstanding. He’s the fourth-ranked cornerback in the NFL, via Pro Football Focus. At just 5’ 10” there was some doubt about whether or not his skills would translate to the 49ers, and we thought for sure he’d be limited to the slot role.

However, the installation of more man-concepts in San Francisco has helped Verrett. He’s been able to lockdown an entire side of the field for the 49ers this year. Jason Verrett has the potential to win the Comeback Player of the year award if he continues this level of productivity, which I expect that he will.

 

Rushing Defense

As good as the passing defense has been, the San Francisco 49ers run-defense has been equally effective. They’ve allowed 4 yards per carry, 9th best in the league, and .625 rushing touchdowns per game, good enough for 3rd. How have the 49ers been able to stop the run so well, even without a fifth defender on the line of scrimmage? It’s a question us Packer fans are dying to know the answer to.

As I noted earlier, Saleh has dialed up blitzes more consistently this year and he’s been using run-blitzes. A lot of teams flood a single gap or use delays to get to the quarterback but those types of blitzes leave the defense vulnerable against the run. Run blitzes ensure that every gap is accounted for and smother the quarterback by collapsing the pocket in unison.

This can leave the defense vulnerable to big plays through the air but the 49ers partner these run-blitzes with solid deep coverage. This has been a winning formula for the 49ers defense, as they’ve played some of the best offenses in the league but are still top-ten in yards and points allowed per game.

 

Limited Participation on Defense

In an ideal situation, NFL teams get defensive snaps out of every defender they activate to keep bodies fresh. While it rarely plays out like that, it’s still normal for 18-22 players to see action on the defensive side of the ball, every game.

The 49ers have been dealing with a long list of injuries so it’s understandable if the coaching staff is having issues trusting some of their depth players. Whether that’s the issue or not, only sixteen defenders saw the field for the San Francisco 49ers, this past weekend – that’s very low.

Injury concerns on a short week combined with a lack of depth could spell disaster for the 49ers’ defense. This unit will be totally shot at the end of Thursday night’s game.

 

I know talking about injuries is depressing but the San Francisco 49ers have been hit as hard as anyone this year, and the hits just keep coming. It was announced on Monday that they’ll be without Jimmy Garappolo and George Kittle indefinitely.

For the third week in a row, I’ll recommend that the opposing team start tanking but I don’t think that’s in the 49ers MO. This roster and coaching staff are much better at winning than they are at losing and they’ll do whatever they can to make a postseason push.

In my quarterly wrap-up, I had the 49ers finishing 8th in the NFC, just missing the playoffs. However, given their devastating injury list and difficult remaining schedule, I’d be surprised if they even finish 8-8.

This game looks much more winnable for the Green Bay Packers than it did two days ago but the 49ers will not just roll over. Both teams remember what happened the last time the Packers were in San Francisco. The 49ers running game was dominant and it projects to be similarly lethal on Thursday. The defense is still top-notch, as well.

The Green Bay Packers will need to play with some heart if they expect to walk out of Levi’s Stadium with a victory. Stop by Game On Wisconsin before the game to get a sneak peek at the matchups and projections.

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