This past Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers managed to do something I did not think was possible. They won a game in convincing fashion AND hung on to the current number one draft position. They currently are tied in wins and losses with the Oakland Raiders and Arizona Cardinals, but possess the favorable strength of schedule to the Raiders. They are, however, tied in SOS with the Cardinals but since they lost twice already to them, the tiebreaker favors the 49ers.
Before the season started, two of those three teams were expected to end up there. The one that was not were the 49ers. Even after Jimmy Garoppolo went down with an ACL tear, many people still thought with Shanahan running the offense and an improving defense the 49ers could do solid and manage to win around 6 games. However, talent deficiencies started to show more and more each week and after the week 11 bye, the 49ers came out sluggish in back to back beatdowns by the Buccaneers and Seahawks the past two weeks.
Against the Denver Broncos, though, the team finally showed again why people were high on the going into the season. Let’s take a look at what happened.
Often times when the 49ers play football lately, it does not take much to phase them. One bad play here or there and the snowball effect starts. Slowly but surely every part of the team gets worse. Not this Sunday though. The 49ers offense came out blazing, showing explosiveness early which was highlighted by a George Kittle catch for 31 yards. In general, George Kittle was the most explosive player for the 49ers on offense. He caught 7 passes for 210 yards all in the first half. He was simply unstoppable by the coverages the Broncos employed. Just enjoy those gains again!
Kittle is not the only young 49ers weapon on offense that is developing nicely. Dante Pettis finally is hitting his stride after returning from a knee injury that sidelined him for several weeks. Behind Kittle, he has been the most consistent target in the passing game. In the first clip, he manages to beat his coverage defender one on one on an out route. In the second clip, he finds a nice hole in the coverage, waits patiently on the ball and gains a lot of YAC on a crucial 3rd down to keep the game winning drive alive.
Honorable mention on offense goes to Trent Taylor. He is improving weekly at the moment, though not everything is perfect. Garoppolo’s favorite target of the past season, he is developing some kind of rapport with Nick Mullens. Mullens delivers an absolute dime on the game winning 3rd down to win the game, despite Taylor dropping a pass earlier in the game that ended up being an interception.
The defense has been outstanding in this game relative to the past few weeks. The 49ers continued to keep opposing rushers to below 100 yards, this time UDFA rookie sensation Philipp Lindsey who averaged way over 100 yards over the past three weeks coming into the game. This is a testament to players recognizing run plays early and beating their individual opponents.
This is not to say that the 49ers pass defense is not coming along, on the contrary. Especially the younger, unproven players seem to realize they are playing for jobs here and start showing their potential. Especially Ahkello Witherspoon blanketed receivers most of the game and allowed only 2 catches for 14 yards and a passer rating of 42.2. Enjoy these several plays below of pass brakups, incomplete passes and stops for little or no gain.
Especially LB Elijah Lee was a pleasant surprise. He was in good position all game long and recorded some beautiful PBUs. Good defense overall continued even deep into the game which was honestly hard to predict. Often times the 49ers start hot but fail to maintain the high level of play (at Chargers, at Green Bay). However, even a faltering 49ers offense could not demoralize this young defense. They came in clutch twice in the 4th quarter and stopped the Denver offense on 4th down. Both times the Broncos got the ball to Lindsey, but he could not manage to outrun Cassius Marsh or shake free from Marcell Harris.
Last but not least, the 49ers came close to creating takeaways thrice but did not have fumble luck on their side as one fumble on a kickoff return and one by Case Keenum were quickly recovered by the Broncos. Additionally, Elijah Lee almost managed to create an interception, but the dropped pass fell to the ground too quickly.
Overall this was one immensely encouraging and definitely necessary performance. The 49ers continue to show flashes of promise going into last year. Let’s not kid anyone, this season is all about getting ready for 2019. And if their own players continue to develop, the outlook might not be as grim as it looked just last week. Mullens seems to solidify the backup QB job for his own, as he functioned well even under pressure and managed to draw about 5 offsides penalties. Even Arik Armstead, who most times plays on the edge, starts showing versatility on the defensive line, namely as nose tackle in nickel formation.
The 49ers now have three games left (vs SEA, vs CHI, at LAR). There is a real possibility of losing out. If they can be competitive in doing that, I will be happy as the chance for the number one draft pick is still alive.