The 49ers and Chargers meet again for the second time in four weeks and the circumstances could not be any more different. Compared to the fourth preseason game, this is a match of utmost importance. It is the regular season now and both teams are looking to improve to 2-2 in the standings, avoiding falling two games behind .500. Both teams are fighting an uphill battle, though, as both are missing many of their key players. Let’s dive into what to expect given these conditions.
49ers offense vs Chargers defense:
This might actually be the best possible time to face the Bolts. Generally, the Chargers start slowly into their seasons. Last year, they lost all four games in the first quarter of their season. 2016 they started 1-3. The last non-losing start came in 2015 when they won two of four games, but even those were against a Lions team that went 1-7 to start the season and against the eventual 3-13 Browns. This year it does not look well for them again, losing against the other Los Angeles based team and the Kansas City Chiefs. They had no chance stopping these high-octane offenses, even though they were set to have one of the best pass defenses in the game.
This is where the injuries come in. The Chargers were set to start the most ferocious pass rushing duo in the NFL in Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa. Bosa, however, is dealing with a bruised foot and probably won’t return until after the team’s bye week. He is a game changing player, as can be seen in the Chargers’ statistics when he is not out there playing for them. In the seven games he missed so far, the Chargers gave up 28 points per game and were able to win only two games.
On top of that, they desperately miss CB Jason Verrett. The former first round pick was placed on injured reserve early again for the fourth time in his five-year career, this time with a torn Achilles tendon. In his lone full season in 2015, he showed the world why he was a first round pick and subsequently got voted into the Pro Bowl. With Verrett missing, this does not mean that the Chargers are lacking at that position. They still have Trevor Williams, a 2016 UDFA out of Penn State. He had a breakout year last year and finished as the 10th ranked corner via Pro Football Focus. He will line up opposite to Casey Heyward, another Pro Bowl level cornerback who finished first in interceptions caught in 2016 (7). Expect both these players to play with confidence in their abilities.
All this comes before even talking about this year’s Chargers first-round pick, Derwin James. The Florida State alum is playing safety and, just three games into his NFL career, already drawing comparisons to former Washington Redskins standout Sean Taylor. PFF is recognizing his play as well, awarding him with a near elite grade in most aspects of the game. He is by far the highest rated defender on his team with an 87.7 grade.
It will be interesting to see how the Chargers will game plan. Their defensive coordinator is Gus Bradley and their defense a similar version to the 49ers own defense. Since Kyle Shanahan knows this defense inside and out, and generally is known for exposing defenses left and right when in zone coverage, the Chargers might try to mix it up and employ more man coverage into the scheme because that is what the 49ers receivers struggled to beat in the week 2 game against the Lions.
If that is the case, expect the 49ers run game to flourish. Kyle Shanahan’s hand selected offensive line is slowly coming together and are opening running lane after running lane over the past few weeks. It is no coincidence that Matt Breida is the NFL’s rushing leader and has more runs of 20+ yards (6) than any other team in the league. If healthy enough to play, he could make the Chargers defense pay for taking away the 49ers passing game which in return could open up the latter in the first place.
Whatever the case, the 49ers need to be able to either run or pass well to stand a chance, especially since they have to play the rest of the season with CJ Beathard. He might be serviceable, but he is no Jimmy Garoppolo by any means. He must trust his receivers to get open and be able to feel the opposing pass rush which still is formidable. Right now, he is like a box of chocolates, we have no idea what we are going to get from him.
Key matchup: George Kittle vs Derwin James
49ers defense vs Chargers offense
Remember last week’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs? It might get similarly ugly for the 49ers. The Chargers finally boast a good offensive line, a top ten running back in Melvin Gordon, one of the better receiving Corps with Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Travis Benjamin, Tyrell Williams and two future Hall of Famers in TE Antonio Gates and Philipp Rivers. This is an offensive corps that can make any defense pay in any situation.
Through three games, this unit ranks 5th in yards gained and 8th in points scored. The Chargers can score from anywhere on the field, as they have a great mix of receivers. Mike Williams and Keenan Allen both are so skilled that they should demand double coverage. Travis Benjamin and Tyrell Williams both have elite speed and can do to a defense what Marquise Goodwin does. Antonio Gates in his 16th season is as experienced as ever and has one of the best QB-TE connections in NFL history.
I expect the Chargers to easily have the upper hand in this battle. If the 49ers want to slow the Chargers down, they need to primarily get the pass rush going. This is a big task since the Chargers are experienced among the offensive line. However, both their RT and LG are young players in Sam Tevi and Dan Feeney, respectively. The 49ers hence need a good game from DeForest Buckner, as he usually lines up over the left guard. Also, whoever rushes against the right tackle needs to apply pressure as well. Philip Rivers is not the greatest of athletes and feels most comfortable in the pocket. Disturbing his and thus the Chargers offense’s rhythm is key to stopping them.
Also, the 49ers need to create takeaways. So far, they have not snatched an interception in all of 2018. They also have just two fumbles recovered. The total of two takeaways is 2nd to last in the entire NFL. The defense likely will get scored on, so the 49ers must score on their own. If the offense comes out hot and can put pressure on the Chargers to keep up, they just might be able to force some mistakes.
Why do I say the defense will likely get scored on? Well, for obvious reasons, the Chargers are that good offensively. However, the 49ers face some injury problems of their own, as the entire secondary is nicked up. Richard Sherman will miss some time with a calf strain. Ahkello Witherspoon has not been particularly great and is dealing with a hip and ankle injury. Same goes for Adrian Colbert but it is the knee that is bothering him. Also, Jaquiski Tartt is battling back from a shoulder injury. Even backup DB Jimmie Ward left last week’s game with an injury.
The 49ers need to find players healthy enough to play. Sherman has already been ruled out, Tartt got the “doubtful” designation. Colbert, Witherspoon and Ward should all play though. Tartt would then be replace by Antone Exum who played alright in last week’s tilt, at least given the circumstances. Even potential replacement Exum has been downgraded to questionable by the team.
Key matchup: 49ers DBs vs Chargers WRs
On paper, this game is an easy one to pick. On paper, the Chargers are a 10.5-point favorite. On paper, the 49ers won’t score more than 18 points. However, things do not always go as planned on paper. Heck, the Minnesota Vikings, NFC-favorite, got embarrassed by probably the least talented NFL team, the Buffalo Bills. Expect 49ers fans to show up. The Chargers have not had a real home field advantage since they play in the StubHub Center. It will be an even crowd and who knows what will happen. It is also still early in the season and the Chargers are known for laying an egg early on. Maybe the 49ers get something going offensively. Maybe the 49ers get some takeaways. Maybe some balls bounce the 49ers way. Maybe, just maybe, the 49ers are on the lucky side of things for once. I even picked the 49ers in my Pick ‘em league. If I, the eternal pessimist, can see a slight chance for the 49ers, so can you and so can they themselves.