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Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

4 essential fixes to break the 49ers’ losing streak

Marc Adams
Nov 6, 2023 at 9:59 AM--

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Every season, when the bye week hits, coaches and players say the break came at just the right time. This season, that was certainly true for the San Francisco 49ers. After roaring to a 5-0 record, the 49ers lost three games in a row, and currently sit at 5-3, two games behind the NFC-leading Philadelphia Eagles. And until the Seattle Seahawks lost on Sunday, the 49ers had fallen out of first place. But the Seahawks' loss currently has the 49ers back on top of the NFC West.

So how do you break a three-game skid, especially when you're looking to do so on the road, in an early game on the East Coast, facing a team like the Jacksonville Jaguars, who are a really good team in their own right? It's going to be a difficult game to win. But here are four essential fixes to break the 49ers' losing streak:

1. Tighten the run defense

Being able to stop the run is the heartbeat of a defense. When you're able to make your opponent one-dimensional and your pash rush can pin their ears back, it changes the game. The 49ers have been really effective in stopping the run in recent years. And they started 2023 off the same way.

But in the game against the Cleveland Browns, the 49ers' defense uncharacteristically struggled to stop the run. Some guy named Jerome Ford averaged 4.9 yards per carry, while Kareem Hunt had 3.9 yards per carry and scored a touchdown. In total, the Browns rushed for 160 yards and 4.7 yards per carry.

In Minnesota, the Vikings didn't exactly run all over the 49ers. They only gained 74 total yards. But Alexander Mattison had 4.9 yards per carry. Strangely, the Vikings only rushed him eight times, which is kind of what they have done a lot this season—abandon the run. Of course, it worked out for them because Kirk Cousins hit every open receiver you could possibly hit that night.

Against the Cincinnati Bengals, the 49ers couldn't stop the run or the pass. Joe Mixon had 87 yards rushing on only 16 carries (5.4 yards per carry), and Joe Burrow added 43 of his own, picking up an average of 7.2 yards every time he took off. The Bengals finished with 134 yards on the ground.

When you compare the three losses with the five wins, you can see that the run defense has not been as good recently. In the game against the New York Giants, for example, the 49ers defense surrendered only 29 yards rushing. The Pittsburgh Steelers only rushed for 41 yards. The Dallas Cowboys only gained 57 yards on the ground.

No run defense is flawless, though. All defenses will have an occasional bad game. But the 49ers' run defense must bounce back and return to form in order for the 49ers to have a great second half of the season.

2. Get home with the pass rush

According to PFF (Pro Football Focus), the 49ers lead the NFL with 156 combined QB pressures. Pro Football Reference has the 49ers defense with only 88. I'll let you decide who you're going to believe, but either way, QB pressures haven't really been the issue for the 49ers in 2023. They just haven't been getting home and sacking the quarterback like we're used to seeing. So far, the 49ers have sacked opposing QBs only 18 times.

And when your pass rush isn't getting home, it forces the secondary to stay with the receivers longer, and so far, that's been a recipe for disaster.

But there is some good news. The 49ers traded for edge rusher Chase Young on Halloween, and Young will bring his 38 pressures and five sacks to San Francisco. With Young on the outside to provide much-needed help for Nick Bosa on the other side, the acquisition could prove to be just what the 49ers' defense needs.

It's not that Bosa, Arik Armstead, and Javon Hargrave have been bad, they've just performed below what is expected of them. Not to mention what is being spent on them. According to Pro Football Reference, Bosa has 24 pressures and three sacks. Armstead has 11 pressures and 2.5 sacks, while Hargrave has only seven pressures and three sacks. Hargrave's numbers aren't even as good as Drake Jackson's stats. Of course, Jackson plays on the outside, isn't double-teamed, and gathered most of his numbers in week one. So that's one reason why.

Randy Gregory has five pressures and one sack, but he's a rotational piece. With the addition of Young, Gregory has the chance to continue adding to the pass rush, when he's inserted, as he should be fresh. Clelin Ferrell has eight pressures, but only half of a sack, but he's not really being counted on to get to the quarterback.

The 49ers pass rush must get home. Pressures are important. They're underrated, in fact. But the 49ers pass rushers need to finish and get home with more sacks. Their secondary will appreciate that.

3. Revive the offensive run game

In the 49ers' five wins, they rushed for 124 yards or better in each game. But in the three losses, they struggled to move the ball on the ground. Granted, Deebo Samuel missed almost all of the three games, and Trent Williams missed the last two, but played the Cleveland game with a badly sprained ankle. Christian McCaffrey missed most of the Browns game, as well.

In the Bengals' game, the 49ers rushed for 113 yards, but 57 of those were from Brock Purdy. McCaffrey gained only 54 yards rushing. He had a respectable 4.5 yards per carry but had only 12 rushes. Against the Vikings, McCaffrey only gained only 3.0 yards per carry.

The 49ers offense has been built around the run game. Normally, they are pretty balanced, but the run game is the bread-and-butter of the offense, and Shanahan seems to prefer to lean more in the direction of being more run-heavy if he isn't as balanced. In all five wins, the 49ers ran the ball more than they threw the ball.

That started to change in the Browns game. Even though they were still fairly balanced, the 49ers threw the ball (27 attempts) more than they ran the ball (25 rushes) for the first time in 2023. Against Minnesota and Cincinnati, the 49ers attempted eight more passes each game than they had rushing attempts. It's not a huge disparity, but when you have a team that is built more for running the ball, it could be the difference between a win and a loss. Especially when your young quarterback turned the ball over five times in the 4th quarter of those two games.

Again, the 49ers were missing Samuel and Williams. That very well could have been why they passed more than they ran. And the lack of success in the run game certainly would have been another reason. Still, we need to see the 49ers' run game return in order for the team to start a new win streak. Not just more runs. But more success in running the ball.

4. Eliminate back-breaking mistakes

During the three-game losing streak, the 49ers have made more uncharacteristic mistakes than they had in the previous five games combined. Purdy has thrown five interceptions this season. All five have been in the last three games, with four of them coming in the 4th quarter of the last two losses.

Purdy isn't the only one making mistakes, though. McCaffrey fumbled in Minnesota when the 49ers were inside the Vikings' 15-yard line. Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle have dropped multiple passes each in recent weeks. They committed 12 penalties for 105 yards in Cleveland, and have missed way too many tackles on defense.

In a league with as much parity as there is in the NFL, you can't play down to your competition, make critical mistakes, and still expect to win. As bad as they have played during the losing streak, the 49ers have had a chance to win each game, with two of the games coming down to the final possession. Eliminate those mistakes, and the team could be 8-0 right now.

But no team is perfect, and you're going to drop a game here and there. But if the 49ers can tighten up the run defense, get the pass rush to sack opposing QBs more often, revive the run game, and eliminate bad mistakes, they should be able to break the losing streak and start a new winning streak.
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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