There are plenty of reasons that the San Francisco 49ers are 3-0. For starters, they have a bunch of good players, and those players are performing to the level they are capable of. There has undoubtedly been some luck involved, but that’s every team. It’s a matter of capitalizing on those opportunities. There are a handful of reasons that we aren’t mentioned for the 49ers’ early-season success.
There are also areas where the 49ers have to improve, so we don’t have to hear about the teams that they play, or if they are a “pretender.” You can point to a few different areas that are concerning, but I’ll keep that to two as well. I’ll start with the positive and end with the opportunities to improve.
With turnovers come field position. Last season, the 49ers averaged starting field position was the 25-yard line, which was far and away the worst in the NFL. Seven turnovers and Richie James being one of the better punt returners in the league have helped the Niners in a big way. The 49ers have the fourth-best starting field position through three games. Their average position is now the 31-yard line.
James isn’t flashy, but he catches the ball. It sounds simple, but every Sunday you see punt returners let the ball bounce, or go over their head, and it costs the offense ten or more yards of field position. James averaged 8.1 yards per punt return may not seem like much, but it is. He’s done a good job early on this season of taking care of the football.
Jimmy’s and the Joes
It’s obvious, but we still should address the fact that the roster is worlds better than this time last year. Jimmy Garoppolo was lost for the year. Weston Richburg and Richard Sherman aren’t dealing with nagging injuries, and that’s paid off.
The famous quote goes, “it’s not the X’s & the O’s, but the Jimmy’s and the Joes.” I don’t think that’s true for offense, as you can scheme players open, and hide deficiencies. That’s 100% true on defense. You can only scheme so much. In the case of the 49ers, Robert Saleh looks much better this year because he has capable pass rushers. Arik Armstead is having a productive season because he’s not asked to be your top rusher. Ronald Blair is a great role player. Nick Bosa has been one of the most prolific pass rushers in the NFL. Dee Ford has been limited, but when he’s on the field, he’s had a few game-changing plays.
The upgrade at linebacker has been significant, thanks in large part to Kwon Alexander’s speed. Fred Warner has another year under his belt, and you can tell he’s more comfortable. The speed is noticeable at the second level. Having players that are athletic enough to match up and make plays in space has been the biggest difference so far this season.
Settling for three
The 49ers can’t get out of their way when they get down in scoring position. Penalties, fumbles, and miscues have cost the offense a handful of touchdowns. They’ve gotten away with it because they’ve been the better team through three games, but they can’t continue to settle for field goals in the red zone. Their 42% touchdown percentage is 27th in the NFL through three weeks. That’s only up one percent from 2018.
The blueprint is there. Throw the ball to George Kittle, dial-up a play-action pass, or just maul the defense and let Jeff Wilson punch it in. The problem is 2nd & goal from the four-yard line has turned into 2nd & goal from the 14-yard line. That’s not going to fly against divisional opponents, or the better teams the 49ers will face.
Heading into Week 4 of the 2019 NFL season, there are two undefeated teams in the NFC West remaining. One of those two teams headed into the year as a consensus championship contender; the other is the San Francisco 49ers.
The super bowl runner up Los Angeles Rams are off to a solid three-game start to the beginning of the season, including an impressive 27-9 victory over the New Orleans Saints in Week 2. Coming off of that super bowl appearance, which included a 13-3 record, the Los Angeles Rams made some interesting acquisitions this offseason, including former Green Bay Packer Clay Matthews and Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle.
So, it should be to no surprise that the Rams are amongst the two NFC West heavyweights heading into the fourth week of the regular season.
Without context, I’m sure most fans would guess the other team to not suffer a loss would be the Seattle Seahawks. A highly competitive team, the Seahawks have been a constant threat in the NFC West since Pete Carroll took over the reins in 2010.
However, the Seahawks are currently sitting at 2-1 with a 33-27 loss to the New Orleans Saints this past week.
On the other hand, the Arizona Cardinals have struggled thus far, and haven’t lived up to the expectations some had this summer.
That leaves us, naturally, with the San Francisco 49ers as the other undefeated team. We, of course, all saw that one coming, right? After going 4-12 in 2018, the 49ers were on a mission this offseason to turn things around. That mission included the signing of former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Kwon Alexander, the acquisition of former Kansas City Chief Dee Ford, the drafting of Ohio State’s Nick Bosa, and the return of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
To their efforts, here they are sitting as one of only eight remaining undefeated teams so far this season. Their next victory in 2019 will equal the output they had for the entire 2018 season.
The question we have to ask ourselves is whether or not this success is sustainable. First, we have to put their opponents so far into context.
Their three games so far are not exactly against the cream of the crop in the NFL. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cincinnati Bengals and the Pittsburgh Steelers have a combined record of 1-8 so far this season. At the same time, most undefeated teams at this point in the year see a weak opposing strength of schedule.
Two of those three, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Cincinnati Bengals, are each breaking in first-year coaches to boot. The Pittsburgh Steelers, on the other hand, are a complete mess. Aside from losing star players Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown in back to back years (kind of), this was their first game-breaking in quarterback Mason Rudolph after a season-ending elbow injury to Ben Roethlisberger.
So, needless to say, the sample size up until this point may not be the most appropriate indicator for future success. On top of the early cupcakes, the rest of the 49ers schedule is not very conducive to continued success.
They are already on their bye week this season, the earliest one across the entire NFL landscape. That means the San Francisco 49ers will have thirteen straight weeks of football potentially heading into a hopeful playoff run. Even worse, the latter part of the schedule is not ideal for a nice late-season push.
That stretch is daunting, to say the least. In that six-game stretch, one wonders how many, if any, games the 49ers will be favored in.
The Making of the Next Great Defense
Again, perhaps not the greatest sample size to make assumptions from, but their defense has been as advertised up until this point.
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As I discussed in a previous article, their pass defense so far may be the most improved unit across the NFL landscape. They already have three more interceptions than last season with thirteen games left to go.
Their rush defense has also been stellar so far, allowing a mediocre 3.4 yards per carry and having yet to allow a score on the ground. So far the investments of players like Kwon Alexander and Nick Bosa have paid large dividends. The defensive line, in particular, is about as good as you are going to find across the NFL.
Fourth-year pro DeForest Buckner continues to solidify himself amongst the best defensive lineman in the NFL, regardless of age. Along the interior with Buckner, Arik Armstead is playing some of the best football of his career. Solomon Thomas has also seemingly lifted his game. They are combining to form one of the most physically impressive groups across the league.
The edge position could end up being even more impressive by the end of the season. Former Kansas City Chief edge rusher Dee Ford has been exactly what the 49ers expected when they traded for him this offseason. He remains one of the most productive edge rushers you will find.
The second part of the edge duo, and the number two overall pick of the 2019 NFL Draft, Nick Bosa, has been a dynamic penetrating presence so far this season. Don’t let his lone sack on the season fool you. He has provided the type of pressure the team was hoping for from him as he was coming out of Ohio State.
With the improved presence of the linebackers with Kwon Alexander and second-year pro Fred Warner, that front seven is making a big argument to be considered potentially the best front seven in the league.
If the improved secondary can continue to make huge strides, this defense will be able to play with anyone. The main concern for the continued team success, aside from tough schedule down the stretch, is on the offensive side of the football.
Mixed Bag on the Offensive Side
Admittedly, I have never been much of a Jimmy Garoppolo supporter. There are occasional flashes of nice traits, but he has left a lot to be desired during this easier three-game stretch. “Jimmy GQ” has been responsible for six turnovers through three games.
During a sixteen game sample size, that would be on pace for thirty-two turnovers. Now obviously, there is almost zero chance that that type of problem will continue to that high of a degree, but there are definitely some reasons for concern.
With a young wide receiver core still finding their way, ball control, solid defense, and turnover margin remain the formula for success.
Quietly, the San Francisco 49ers have established an excellent run game, rushing for 175 yards per game with a solid 4.6 yards per rush average. The combination of Matt Breida, Jeff Wilson, and Raheem Mostert has exceeded expectations so far. When the newly acquired Tevin Coleman gets back to full health, that run game could profile as one of the most underrated units in the league.
The reason for success could be contributed to the high level of play they have seen from the offensive line so far. It is a really nice group that has done a great job in both run and pass duties so far. One concern is the long term health of stalwart left tackle Joe Staley. Staley has been the model for consistency for the 49ers for some time now. The thirteen-year pro went down in their week two matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals with a fractured left fibula.
The early prognosis is a six-week absence for Staley, leaving a gaping hole on the blindside. With Staley’s age however, the long term scope is something that will have to be monitored closely. Without Staley, the play of the offensive line would take a huge hit.
So while the San Francisco 49ers are a nice story early on in this season, I’m selling high on this team right now for a potential playoff run. The fans should be very excited for the future with all the young talent that litters the roster. For the rest of the 2019 season though, expect a slide to hit relatively soon.
Gifting third downs
My lone critique for the Niners defense has been their inability to get off the field on third downs. This should be the strength of schedule arguments we hear about. There have been first downs gifted by penalties, or too many “gimme” throws of opposing offenses. Overall, the pass defense has been very good. For whatever reason, the efficiency takes a step back on the most critical down.
The 49ers are allowing offenses to convert on third down 42% of the time. It’s early, but, again, look who the opposing quarterbacks have been. That ranks them 19th in the NFL. The Patriots and Cowboys have faced similar offenses that have struggled, and both of those teams are allowing offenses to convert under 20% of the time. That’s how it should be when you are the superior team.
Execution on both sides of the ball in the most vital situations is something the 49ers have to improve on. The defense isn’t going to be able to bail themselves out with turnovers consistently. That’s not sustainable.