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49ers must answer these crucial questions against Jaguars

Marc Adams
Nov 11, 2023 at 8:00 AM--

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The San Francisco 49ers travel to Jacksonville to play a very good Jaguars team on Sunday. This will be no easy task, as the Jaguars have won five straight, are coming off a bye, and have a talented defense to go along with a good offense. The 49ers, who are also coming off of a bye, are 5-3, and have lost three straight games.

Can the 49ers bounce back and win this game in Jacksonville? Yes, they can. Will they win it? That all depends on how they respond to being on a losing streak and having to sit with it for the past two weeks.

Whether the 49ers win or not, and start a new winning streak, will be determined by how they answer these four crucial questions.

1. Can the defense stop the run?

The 49ers defense has been the soul of the team since 2019. The pass rush has garnered most of the attention, but it's been the run defense that has made this unit so good. If a defense is going to be considered one of the league's best, it starts with defending the run. When opposing offenses are able to move the ball on the ground, it keeps the defense off balance.

This is especially true of a team like the 49ers, which has placed a lot of attention (and money) on getting after the quarterback. The 49ers were built to stop the run on early downs, put the offense in third and long, and then bring the pressure. But when they can't stop the run, the 49ers don't find themselves in as many third-and-long situations.

In recent weeks, the 49ers have not played the run as well as they did earlier in the season, especially against Cleveland and Cincinnati. And while there have been some issues with play-calling and missed assignments, the biggest culprit to the lack of run defense has been bad tackling. The 49ers have missed an unusually high number of tackles lately, even from some players who are very sound tacklers like Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw, and Talanoa Hufanga.

Greenlaw has been dealing with some injuries, and though Warner has not been at his best, he still has played better than most at his position. Hufanga is the more curious of the three, however, as Steve Wilks appears to be using him differently than DeMeco Ryans did. Former 49ers' safety Donte Whitner was a guest on KNBR on Tuesday and was asked what he's been seeing from Hufanga.

Whitner said, "...when you see Tashaun Gipson down covering tight ends, wide receivers, that's normally what Hufanga does. And that's probably one of the reasons why the defense isn't flourishing as well as it was, especially in the running game. And remember, Hufanga was getting after the quarterback, as well. They were blitzing him last year. So yeah, that is a correct observation that Hufanga is playing more free safety this year, and they're using Tashaun Gipson as the strong safety. Maybe that'll be an adjustment that they'll go back to post-bye week." So perhaps the way Wilks is using some players, like Hufanga, is one of the reasons why the defense hasn't been as good lately.

Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, and Javon Hargrave are all good against the run. But it's their pass rush that makes them so dangerous. When the 49ers' defense can't stop the run, and the defensive front isn't able to get into third-and-long pass-rush situations, the secondary will be exposed and the defense will surrender more points than usual. This is how the run defense plays a part in the pass rush.

In order for the 49ers to win in Jacksonville, and turn things around, they need to tackle better and stop the Jaguars' running game, especially QB Trevor Lawrence, who will tuck the ball and run just about as often as any quarterback in the league.

2. Will the pass rush get to the quarterback?

The 49ers haven't been bad at getting pressure on the quarterback. The problem has been that they aren't getting home and sacking QBs like we're accustomed to seeing. And when the pass rush isn't getting home quickly enough, it exposes a secondary that, quite frankly, isn't as good as it was last season.

Whitner mentioned Hufanga and Gipson, and how they're being asked to do different things than last season. Charvarius Ward hasn't been quite as good in 2023 as he was in 2022, either. Deommodore Lenoir is still a young player learning to play. And, of course, the 49ers aren't as good at nickel corner this season with Isaiah Oliver, as they were last season with Jimmie Ward, who left via free agency in March. Emmanuel Moseley, who may have been the team's best corner in 2022, before suffering a season-ending knee injury, left in free agency, as well.

So the secondary has taken a step back, but the pass rush can help with that. Newly acquired edge rushers Chase Young and Randy Gregory should help. No offense can double-team every pass rusher, and with Young and Gregory joining a talented group in Bosa, Armstead, and Hargrave, it will be extremely difficult for offensive coordinators to game plan against this pass rush.

It's likely that the strategy will continue to be the way it's been recently, getting rid of the ball quickly, in an effort to negate the pass rush. But somehow, the 49ers have to find a way to overcome that and get to the quarterback. And the 49ers' pass rushers need to win when they find themselves one-on-one.

3. Can the offense bring back the running game?

Yes, Christian McCaffrey leads the NFL in rushing, but over the past three weeks, the 49ers running game has not been its usual dynamic self. As well as Brock Purdy has played since he took over as the 49ers QB, this is still a run-first team because that's how they've been constructed.

The return of Deebo Samuel, and potentially Trent Williams, as well, will make the 49ers' run game more prolific. Williams is listed as questionable for Sunday's game. In fact, Kyle Shanahan said Williams is "real questionable." But both players occasionally miss time, so the 49ers need to figure out a way to run the ball, even when they don't have the duo, especially Williams.

When we say the 49ers need to bring back the running game, that doesn't simply mean they need to run the ball more. It means they need to run the ball more effectively. Early in the season, when the 49ers were winning games, they ran the ball more than they passed the ball. But they were running well.

In the three losses, they threw more than they ran. Again, it's not just about the number of runs. When they ran the ball in the three losses, they didn't fare as well. The outlier may have been the Cincinnati game, where McCaffrey actually gained 4.5 yards per carry, which is pretty good. But, strangely enough, he had only 12 rushes.

So the 49ers need to find that great running game and let the offense build itself around it.

4. Will they stop making mistakes?

The name of the game during the three-game slide has been "mistakes." From turnovers and dropped passes on offense to missed tackles and penalties on defense, the 49ers have beaten themselves over the last three games.

How have those mistakes cost the 49ers these games? A missed field goal cost them a game in Cleveland. The 12 penalties for 105 yards in that game didn't help, and neither did a dropped pass by Brandon Aiyuk that may have scored a touchdown.

There was a McCaffrey fumble inside the Minnesota 15-yard line. There were games with double-digit missed tackles. There were five turnovers in the 4th quarter of the past two games by Purdy. And who could forget the zero blitz call by Wilks just before halftime of the Minnesota game that led to the missed interception by Ward, that allowed a game-changing touchdown by the Vikings?

Mistakes are going to happen. But when they do, you hope to limit them so you can overcome them. The 49ers weren't able to do so. And they lost three straight, as a result.

The 49ers have what it takes to go into Jacksonville and beat the Jaguars, but they have to get back to playing their brand of football. They have to stop the run and get after the quarterback when they're on defense. And they need to get the run game going on offense. And then as a team, play better, play hungrier, and stop making so many mistakes.

These are the crucial questions the 49ers must answer on Sunday in Jacksonville.
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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