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49ers mailbag: Why did the defense give up so many rushing yards? Will SF be getting some injured starters back? Who else can return punts?

Marc Adams
Dec 20, 2023 at 10:11 AM

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It's the season of giving, and the season of joy. And the San Francisco 49ers are certainly giving their fans a lot to be joyful about. The 49ers are tied for the best record in the NFL, ironically with the team they play on Christmas night, the Baltimore Ravens. A lot of people will call this a possible Super Bowl preview, but for the 49ers, it's simple—win at least two of the next three games, and you can clinch the number one seed, which comes with a first-round bye, and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Plus, you only have to play two games instead of three.

We opened up the 49ers Webzone mailbag to see what was on your mind. You came through, and so we've answered the questions, wrapped them up, and placed them under the tree for your Christmas perusal. Let's get to it.

Do you think Armstead and Hargrave's absence was the primary reason that the Cards rushed so well? - Andy G.

Yes, I think missing Arik Armstead and Javon Hargrave was a big part of the 49ers' struggle against Arizona's rushing attack. It also didn't help that Kalia Davis left the game in the second quarter. I also think the horrible tackling played a part. The 49ers missed 16 tackles, and have missed double-digit tackles three weeks in a row.

But the Cardinals are good at running the ball. So there's that, too. And I'm sure there was a bit of a letdown from the 49ers defense, considering the three games they had just played. They certainly weren't flying around with the kind of ferocity we're used to seeing from them.

The run defense, and the tackling, will have to be better this week, or the Ravens will have a field day.

Will the 49ers be getting back most of their primary starters for the next game and were there any significant injuries this past game? How's CMC's knee? - JT

It sounds like there's a chance Armstead and Hargrave could play on Monday. There's also a chance Clelin Ferrell does not. He now has an ankle injury of his own. Davis has a high ankle sprain, so he will be out for a while.

Two other injury concerns are Jauan Jennings (concussion protocol) and Deommodore Lenoir (rib contusion). Jennings will have to clear the multi-step protocol to play. Lenoir is considered day-to-day.

As for Christian McCaffrey (knee) and Brock Purdy (left shoulder singer), they both are fine.

With the 9ers giving up 436 total yards to the Arizona offense (30 more than they achieved), 234 of those coming via their run game, while whiffing on a whopping season-high 16 tackles, what will Steve Wilks and the entire defensive coaching staff need to implement differently or strategize differently to successfully win the NFC? Lamar just rushed for 92 yards, so how will Wilks contain him? - Jordan

After getting gashed by the Cardinals' run game yesterday, what is the status of Hargrave and Armstead returning? Second, will Wilks be able to solve the past failures this D has had with mobile QBs? It might be a really long day vs. Lamar. - KCarps

The total yardage the 49ers gave up is a little skewed by the garbage time yards and points the Cardinals picked up late in the game. I think the 49ers defense was good against the pass, except for when Kyler Murray threw to Trey McBride. He was awesome. But the run defense was horrible.

I think the biggest adjustment will need to be made by the players. Stop missing tackles. I don't mean to make it sound so simple, but this team tackles very well. They just have to do a better job of wrapping up and rallying to the ball. If they do that, they'll be fine.

I bet Steve Wilks will have a plan for keeping Lamar Jackson from rushing for as many yards as he often does. I think it will be a different plan than what they threw at Jalen Hurts, though. For one thing, the 49ers have said that Hurts tends to watch the rush, put his head down, and take off, rather than continue to look to throw. Jackson has learned to keep his eyes downfield.

Jackson is simply a different QB than Hurts, despite them both being mobile quarterbacks. To me, Jackson is a QB who runs a lot. Hurts is a running back who happens to play QB. The 49ers will approach Jackson differently than they approached Hurts.

What is the NFL record for most division wins in a row? - Eric S.

Tom Brady's New England Patriots won 11 straight AFC East titles from 2009 to 2019. The Kansas City Chiefs have won the AFC West for seven consecutive seasons, and will likely win it for an eighth straight season in 2023.

*Editor's Note* - The Indianapolis Colts hold the current record for consecutive victories over division opponents at 16 games, set with their victory over the Houston Texans on 10/8/2015. The Colts lost their next division game against the Jacksonville Jaguars on 12/13/15.

We need to rush 5 sometimes..what do y'all think - Phillip J.

The 49ers do rush five at times. They've used a five-man defensive line several times this season. But you can't run it every play, and Wilks has been mixing it up.

Now, if Phillip is saying this because of the poor run defense against Arizona, I can understand the question. But again, the 49ers were down some linemen on Sunday, so I think Wilks did the best he could with what he had. Ultimately, the players need to make plays.

How come Ronnie Bell doesn't get more time? Kenneth L.

Kenneth, you do realize you're not asking at the best time, right? Ronnie Bell put the ball on the ground on Sunday, but fortunately, the officials determined he was down before the ball came out, so it wasn't ruled a fumble. Still, it makes me nervous with Bell back there for punt return duty.

Almost every week, someone will ask me why Bell (and often Danny Gray) doesn't get more playing time. And I always go back to the fact that Kyle Shanahan demands his wide receivers block in the run game. I just think that's not Bell's or Gray's strength. So until they get better at blocking, they may not see the field as much.

Last week, Shanahan talked about how blocking shows character in wide receivers. Here's that story, told by a talented, up-and-coming young writer.

If Ray-Ray can't go, who else besides Bell could return punts? - Andy G.

Kyle Juszczyk is dying for the opportunity. I'm sure he was excited when Arizona's kicker squibbed one right at him last Sunday. Juszczyk scooped it up and had a nice return.

And don't forget Brandon Aiyuk, who was an elite punt returner in college. Deebo Samuel can do it, as well. I'm just not sure Shanahan will be overly comfortable putting any of those three back there, out of fear of getting them hurt. So we're probably stuck with Bell until Ray-Ray McCloud returns. And he's not eligible to come back until the last game of the season.

Hi, Marc. If you were an outsider, even a Dallas or Philly or Ravens or Chiefs fan, and you must give an honest and objective answer of who is winning the Super Bowl this season, would your answer be "The 49ers will win it"? And why? - Jose

Yes, I still believe the 49ers will win the Super Bowl this season. They're the best team in the NFL, and if they get the number one seed, and are healthy enough, the only team that can beat the 49ers is the 49ers. I think this is their year. They've fallen short three times now (2019, 2021, 2022), and I believe they are hungry to finish what they've started.

I heard that Shanahan isn't ready to discuss Ndamukong Suh yet, but at this point, injuries are adding up. Hopefully, Armstead and Hargrave make it back this week. But with Kalia Davis possibly missing multiple weeks, Ferrell missing time, and both Givens and Kinlaw playing uninspiring, is Drake Jackson's practice window going to open any time soon? - Jordan

Shanahan was asked on Monday about whether or not the 49ers have reached out to Ndamukong Suh as they did last season. "Not yet," he said. "I'm not ruling out anything. We have guys on our practice squad as you guys see that we used last week. But we also aren't exactly sure when Hargrave and Armstead are coming back. We do know they have chances this week. So there's a lot of variables that are playing together that we'll be discussing here the rest of the day, tomorrow. Even if we don't make a move in any area, that'll probably be continuing throughout the year."

Maybe we'll see Drake Jackson if Ferrell has to miss time. The 49ers also activated Robert Beal, Jr., who got in the game on defense last Sunday once a lot of the starters went out. We'll have to see, but right now, the coaches don't seem to be very high on Jackson. He's only played in eight games this season. The 49ers placed him on injured reserve on November 11th, so he's eligible to come off of IR now. He's either not healthy enough, or they don't feel he would add anything to the defense.

Is it too much to ask for the 49ers to come and play in Brazil? I know that all the logistics are very bad, but the 49ers fan base here in Brazil is huge! - Leandro B.

That's not a 49ers' decision, but rather an NFL one. I love hearing that the 49ers' fanbase is huge in Brazil, though. Stay faithful, Brazil.

How did you become a 49ers fan? I bet it is an interesting story. - Sasha R.

I'm not sure it's that interesting, but here it goes:

I was a little kid living in Houston, Texas, and was a big fan of the Houston Oilers. My favorite player was Earl Campbell. But the Oilers traded him away, fired Bum Phillips, and started losing too much.

Meanwhile, my family moved away from Houston and I decided I needed a new team. So in January of 1982, I decided that whoever won that Super Bowl would be my new team. Thankfully, the 49ers won so I got to enjoy four Super Bowl wins as a fan. Imagine if the 49ers had lost and I had to grow up as a fan of the Cincinnati Bengals. That's a horrifying thought.

What's Santa bringing the 49ers this year? - Ed H.

A sixth Lombardi trophy? Maybe. Hopefully.

That's all we have for this edition of the 49ers Webzone Mailbag. We'll open it back up next Tuesday after Christmas is past and the 49ers have (hopefully) beaten the Ravens.
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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