Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Which 49ers Team Will Show Up on Sunday?

Jan 14, 2022 at 5:21 PM--

When the 49ers clash with the Cowboys on Sunday, it should be a barroom brawl any frontiersman could tip his hat to. The 49ers have the talent and the passion to produce a win on Sunday.

Still, many questions remain:

  • Will Trent Williams really be able to play?
  • Will Jimmy Garoppolo plow through the game with an injured thumb again this week?
  • Will the 49ers shed their tendency toward injury for just long enough to broach a deep run into the playoffs, starting with a win over the Cowboys?

Although these are all great questions, here's an even better one:

  • Which 49ers team will show up to duke it out against a hot Cowboys team?

There's a right answer to this question and, of course, a very wrong one. Let's take a moment and explore this question in a little more detail:

1. Which running game will show up?

It's a well-established fact that the 49ers' offense thrives on the run. In fact, they play a smash-mouth style of offense no other team can duplicate. When they're hot, they're hot, and no one can stop them.

The problem rears its ugly head when the 49ers can't establish the run game. Call it a bad game plan (more on this in a moment). Call it ineffective execution. Call it bad O-line play. Call it whatever you want. When they're cold, they are frigid.

Case in point: the last time the 49ers played a depleted Cardinals team, to change the sports metaphor, it should have been a slam dunk for the Niners.

Not so much. They lost and looked terrible doing it.

Why? The answer is simple – they abandoned their identity. In fact, the Cardinals looked more like the 49ers in that game than the 49ers did! In that loss, Garoppolo threw for 326 yards along with two touchdowns. On the flip side, the running game didn't even garner 40 yards in that contest. Compare that to the season finale against the Rams, where, even after falling behind by 17 points, the 49ers used the run to set up the pass, leading to very different results.

Although a lot of the Cardinal loss lies at the feet of the coaching staff and their game plan, it shows how important it is for the 49ers to establish an effective rushing offense early. If that dominant rushing attack shows up, the 49ers take this game.

2. Which pass rush will show up?

The pass rush this season has been a tale of two halves. Other than Nick Bosa, it seemed the 49ers struggled to motivate anyone else in the pass rush game.

No game better exemplifies this fact than when the 49ers faced the Green Bay Packers early in the season. The Packers steamrolled Garoppolo for four sacks. With that kind of pressure, he threw a pick and lost a fumble.

How did Aaron Rodgers do?

He threw two touchdowns and no interceptions on his way to a game-winning drive that saw the Packers pull out the gutsy win with a field goal as time expired. That crushing loss for the 49ers broke their spirit and sent them spiraling into four straight losses that almost sank their season.

There were many reasons why the Packers exploited the 49ers, but one glaring fact outshines all of them – the Niners got to Rodgers only one time. Sure, Rodgers is a future first-ballot Hall of Fame player, but that just illuminates the fact that any pass rush that gives a good quarterback that much time will ultimately fail. Unfortunately, the 49ers found that out the hard way.

The point is that if the pass-rushing 49ers, led by Nick Bosa, Arden Key, and company, can drag Dak Prescott to the turf, the 49ers have a much better chance of winning this game than if they don't.

3. Which secondary will show up?

Here is the 49ers' weakest link. Lack of depth, injuries and inconsistent play have led to a less than stellar season from the secondary as a whole. Individually, Jimmy Ward has looked solid with two picks and consistent play. Other than that, there haven't been many highlights to show as the 49ers placed near the bottom in interceptions, ranking 26th in the league.

Yet, the secondary has improved over the course of the season, leading to several key wins during the season's latter half. Emmanuel Moseley's return has shored up that suspect group. An improving Ambry Thomas has only added to the legitimacy of an improving secondary, his best example of this maturity being his Matthew Stafford interception to end the regular season. Thomas didn't just steal a wayward pass. He snatched a playoff spot for the 49ers right out of midair. Had Stafford completed that pass or had another chance, we might be having a very different conversation.

The point is that the 49ers will have a greater chance of winning if the second-half-season secondary shows up to play.

4. Which quarterback will show up?

No. This isn't a discussion about which quarterback will play on Sunday. If he's even close and hasn't had his throwing arm amputated, Garoppolo will start over Trey Lance. This discussion is more complex than that.

Throughout this season there have been two Garoppolos who have shown up to games – a bad one and a good one. They are two completely different quarterbacks, and it seems as though no one knows which will show up. Sometimes both will show up in the same game!

Look at the 49ers' game against the Rams. In the first half of that game, bad Garoppolo led the 49ers to two punts and an interception before Shanahan replaced him with good Garoppolo just before the half, leading to the only points the 49ers would score in the first two quarters.

The second half was mostly good Garoppolo, who led the Niners to three touchdowns to tie the game, including a beautiful wide-open throw to a completely uncovered Jauan Jennings. Bad Garoppolo showed up for a few plays in the second half, including a bad throw into heavy coverage that led to an interception.

Good Garoppolo pulled out the win despite the best efforts of bad Garoppolo.

Good Garoppolo seems to appear in big games and does a great job of rising to the occasion. If he starts on Sunday and plays four quarters of solid football, the Cowboys defense won't stop him. It just depends on which quarterback will show up.

5. Which Shanahan will show up?

Granted, this narrative becomes tiresome. Shanahan shines when he wants to. At the top of his game, he's more than a brilliant football mind.

Then, there's his loss to the Titans.

That was a baffling game, to say the least. It was winnable. Many factors played into their ultimate failure, but this loss seemed to have one common factor: the 49ers didn't adjust.

The ground game slowed to an almost unprecedented halt to the tune of 83 yards on 21 attempts. The 49ers have proven they can't win with paltry production like that. Although they didn't lose any in that game, the offense fumbled the ball three times. The psychological effect on the team surely slowed their offense as a whole. To add to that, Garoppolo threw two interceptions.

At the heart of all this was a game plan that didn't seem to evolve through these failures. Why? The fact is when Shanahan has something to prove, he rigidly holds to things that don't work. For whatever reason, at times, he won't make adjustments or admit failure.

If this Shanahan shows up, the 49ers will struggle.

However, through the last two games of the season, Shanahan seemed to learn how to adjust a little better. Of course, the Rams game showed us probably the best example of how Shanahan has learned to adjust mid-game. However, let's focus on the "other" quarterback for a moment.

With Trey Lance, Shanahan was forced to play a little different game plan than he had most of the season as they faced a pedestrian Houston Texans team. As a "starter game" for Lance, it was a good opportunity for Shanahan to compose a masterpiece to give his budding superstar quarterback a little confidence boost. Lance danced to the tune Shanahan penned, producing two touchdowns with one interception on 249 yards and a win.

Compare that to how Shanahan treated Lance in his first start of the season against the Cardinals. The 49ers' heir-apparent threw for a paltry 196 yards, one interception, and no touchdowns. In that game, Shanahan looked lost, and Lance looked like a glorified running back who just happened to throw the ball occasionally. Shanahan had something in mind in that game and held rigidly to it as the 49ers lost a winnable game.

Today is a different story, and Shanahan seems to have learned a lot about adjusting.

The point is if the creative, flexible Shanahan shows up to Sunday's game, there's no offense in the league that can take down the 49ers.

Summing it up

Right now, the 49ers stand as one of the most dangerous teams in the playoffs. If they play to their ability, they will win. If they don't play a clean, dominant game, they may be watching the rest of the playoffs from their living rooms. It just depends on which 49ers team shows up.
  • Written by:
    With fifteen years of writing experience, Bill has been around the block a time or two. Other than that he's 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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