Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Five Ways the 49ers Must Improve to Get Back on Top

Aug 9, 2021 at 10:00 AM--

Human nature drags us to the negative. That's how the media generally works and why it gravitates toward negative headlines. Many football headlines fall into this category simply because someone always wants to snag our attention.

We don't want to do that here. Let's look at the season from a positive yet realistic perspective. What would it take to get the 49ers back on top? What must improve to get the 49ers there? And how can this organization avoid repeating last season's frustration? Here are five areas of improvement they must address to get them to the top:

1. They need to win in the trenches.

This is a logical place to start, as, after all, this is what got them to the Super Bowl two seasons ago. Their offensive and defensive lines paved avenues through opposing teams, roads that led them all the way to the big game and just short of a championship ring at the end of an incredible 2019 run.

That season the 49ers' offensive line protected its quarterback as well as any group in the NFL. The numbers speak for themselves. Garoppolo threw for career highs in yards, touchdowns and quarterback rating. Jimmy G. was allowed to do just about anything he wanted in 2019 as the New Orleans game that season illustrated.

The running game blew up opposing defenses on its way to a second-place showing in team rushing yards that season. Although the running backs get some of the credit, that road-paving machine called the offensive line made it a whole lot easier, flattening defenders with regularity.

The defensive line dominated in an even more impressive fashion. Newcomer Nick Bosa bullied every offensive line he encountered on his way to a 53-tackle, nine-sack season. Arik Armstead also impressed as he mined the backfield with a 10-sack year. With a solid season from DeForest Buckner and Dee Ford, the 49ers found themselves ranked second overall in defense.
Last season, that all changed.

Although the offensive line ranked highly in 2020, moments of inconsistency seemed to lead to a number of quarterback injuries. Line play was good but not exceptional. The loss of Staley may have contributed to that, albeit, Trent Williams did a fine job at left tackle and seems like an athletic upgrade at the position. All-in-all, the line just didn't dominate as it did in 2019.

The hot mess called the defensive line certainly set the tone as it lost Bosa and Ford for most of the season, along with DeFo moving to Indy in a trade, replacing him with an untested rookie. The results could have been predicted by any pre-school child: the 49ers ranked 22nd in sacks while giving up 80 more total points than the previous season. They were still fifth in total defense, but success in the NFL isn't measured in yards. It's measured in record. A six-win, ten-loss season shouts failure.


The 49ers must find consistency on the offensive line and get the pass rush moving again. If they want success, they must once again flex their muscle and bully other teams. Steam-rolling the opponent on offense and defense will get them back on top and back to the Super Bowl.

A good deal of this will come down to scheme. However, health should be a priority this season for those in the trenches. That, along with new blood on both lines, should give the 49ers a needed boost this year.

2. They need to get their running game...well...running.

Numbers reflected this glaring issue with the team. While in 2019 they ranked second in the league in rushing, 2020 quickly turned into a dumpster fire. The team fell to a paltry 15th place ranking, and it showed on the scoreboard as the 49ers fell from their second-place perch the year before to just a 21st place finish in points scored in 2020.

The Niners traded Matt Breida away, Jerrick McKinnon didn't live up to the hype and Jeff Wilson Jr. and Raheem Mostert, the first- and second-ranked rushers on the team , respectively, combined for a whopping 20 games in 2020. All of this led to inconsistency in the offense and on the scoreboard.


The 49ers must find ways to keep their backs healthy and productive. If they want to climb to the top of a tough NFC West Division, they must find schemes that fit their personnel and rotate fresh legs into the lineup. With Trey Sermon and Elijah Mitchell added to the stable, it looks as though they might just have added a Clydesdale and a quarter-horse to do some damage to opposing defenses. This should help relieve some of the load too often dumped on Mostert.

3. They need to find more consistency in their quarterbacks.

It goes without saying that the 49ers' nuclear meltdown last year had a lot to do with their quarterback play. Garoppolo flirted with injuries all season, playing in only six games in 2020. When he did take snaps under center, his output was underwhelming, to say the least. That certainly had a lot to do with the high ankle sprain he endured early on, but it also broached a subject many have wondered about the last three years. Can Jimmy Garoppolo stay healthy?

Injuries all but washed two out of his last three seasons away, not a flattering fact for San Francisco's chief signal-caller. Something had to change, or 2021 would be a whole lot of the same.

Leaving nothing to chance, the 49ers went proactive on their fanbase and selected Trey Lance, a dual-threat quarterback, in the number three slot. However, at a mere 21 years, it remains to be seen how soon Lance will snatch that job from Garoppolo.

With a solid camp this year, it doesn't look like Garoppolo will surrender his prime position any time soon, but stranger things have happened. One injury may send him to another team and launch a 21-year-old rookie to stardom.


As cheap as it may sound, the simple solution here is to get more consistent play from the quarterback position. It doesn't matter who takes the snaps. What it boils down to is who plays with more consistency. Garoppolo has struggled with that his whole career. Lance is young and inexperienced.

With Garoppolo's injury history, the likelihood of him finishing the season seems sketchy at best. That would throw the 49ers' fate firmly onto Lance's powerful arm. He doesn't need to be flashy. The plan should be simple if Lance takes over: move the ball down the field and let his team play for him.

If 2019 revealed anything, it was that consistency on offense wins games. Success then starts with consistency at the quarterback position. With adjustments this year their football fortunes have already turned. If Garoppolo or Lance conjures up any consistency, it may turn to a magical year for the 49ers.

4. They need better play-calling from Shanahan.

During the 2019 season, the 49ers seemed unstoppable. In the playoffs, they could do no wrong. With three quarters of stiff football executed, it looked as though they would log another Super Bowl victory.

Then conservative coach Shanahan struck.

He's had a history of shutting down the offense when he has a lead, with such a display in Atlanta in the Super Bowl as offensive coordinator. It seems like when big games are on the line, Shanahan closes up like a clam.

He needs to stop that.


Coaches who win know how important it is to continue to dominate. That doesn't mean run up the score. It simply means play to win through four quarters of football rather than pulling up short with conservative play-calling. If Shanahan and the rest of the coaching staff can learn to take a few calculated chances when it counts, the 49ers will find success.

5. Their conditioning team must step up.

It isn't by accident this one is last. Injuries killed the 49ers last season more than anything else. Much of that blame falls on Shanahan and the rest of the coaching staff because of the way they handled their personnel, but it can't be understated that something went terribly wrong with conditioning last year.

This year things got off to a rocky start with severe injuries to Jeff Wilson Jr. and Justin Skule. With Bosa recovering from an ACL tear and other key players returning from the 2020 train wreck, the 49ers can't endure many more physical hiccups like this.


The conditioning team has to step up and figure out what happened last year. If 2020 repeats itself, it may mean more than just those on the conditioning team losing their jobs.

To date, it seems as though Shanahan has taken this facet of the game more seriously. He has handled players more carefully, offering them more rest days and lighter practices all around. This should give 49ers fans more than a glimmer of hope that the coaching staff understands what went wrong last year and wants to correct the situation.


A seemingly successful draft has catapulted the 49ers into the playoff discussion for this season. From a small sample size of practices, it seems safe to say the organization has adjusted to the problems that derailed the 49ers hype train early last season. With an improved offensive line, two starting-caliber quarterbacks under contract, a new stable of running backs and a lot of talented old faces, the 49ers have put themselves in the perfect position to rock the NFC West this season.

If they can sweep 2020 from their memory, build on the success of the 2019 season and plug in new talent, this organization may just hoist another Super Bowl trophy in victory. We truly have a bright future to look forward to.
  • Written by:
    Bill has written for a wide variety of online publications, ranging in topics from academics and education to life management and public speaking. He has also written for regional publications. However, one burning passion drives him more than most others: his obsessive loyalty to the 49ers franchise. Practically born into it, he bleeds red and gold. He also enjoys public speaking and talking about himself in the third person.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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