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Stability Check: Nearing Week 12, the 49ers offense starts to shake out

Don Atkinson
Nov 19, 2019 at 7:27 PM3


The 49ers' stellar defense has had its moments of letdown, especially of late, but it's principally been as reliable as any football fan, or football coach, could possibly hope for. Less reliable has been the 49ers' offense, but there's something to the idea that things are about to change.

Offensively, what has been a frenetic and often inconsistent offensive unit is starting to solidify. There is still much to improve on offense, as 49ers' Head Coach Kyle Shanahan would readily admit. But as we get closer to the post-season, there is every reason to be encouraged by the direction in which the team is going offensively.

Fresh off a grueling and gut-wrenching loss to the Seattle Seahawks the week before, the 49ers took a full quarter-and-a-half to shake off a deep hangover and rally against the feisty Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, coming back from a 16-point deficit to win by 10. And while the attention on the 49ers has waned a bit since they fell as the last unbeaten team of 2019, they are still in the limelight. And speculation as to whether the 49ers have the right offense to last through the post-season is as strong as ever.

Everything is, of course, debatable. But circumstances and game film would indicate that things for the 49ers' offense, especially given the last two games against the Cardinals, are starting to gel.

At Quarterback:
49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has been questioned, doubted and at times ridiculed since the pre-season, but the reality is that he is 17-3 as a starting NFL quarterback. And despite the heavy (and certainly justified) attention given the 49ers' defense, Garoppolo has been at the helm for every one of the 49ers' nine wins this season.

Garoppolo is not Russell Wilson. But in the long-term, that's probably a blessing. The Seahawks' Wilson spends most of every game running for his life from large people trying to hurt him. That becomes necessary when you are saddled with an offensive line that doesn't block well, and a pass pocket that breaks down and forces the quarterback to constantly improvise. Russell Wilson is an extraordinary talent who keeps his team in every game. But remove Wilson from the equation, and the Seahawks are likely a 4-6 team.

Garoppolo is smart and has a good arm. He is clearly able to adapt and adjust under pressure, and he leads that offense. Contrary to the mindless yapping of critics, Garoppolo is not merely a "game manager."

He's certainly not flawless. At least one or two throws a game are pure head-scratchers, and sometimes he gets those throws intercepted. But that's the downside of a having a quarterback who is an assertive passer and tests a defense. Garoppolo is not meek. He throws into tight spaces, at times against the odds. But he hits many of those and that sort of boldness is what is going to keep the 49ers winning games.

At Fullback:
Kyle Juszczyk. Not much else needs to be added. When he was out with a knee injury, the 49ers had to get creative in order to replace his skillset and effect on the running game. His aptitude as a pass catcher was also missed. They made it through that difficult period using tight ends Ross Dwelley and Levine Toilolo in his place, but Juszczyk's return against Seattle was a huge boost for the team, despite the overtime loss. If he stays healthy, Juszczyk is going to help keep the 49ers offense humming.

At Tight End:
One of the strongest segments of the 49ers' offense is its group of tight ends. George Kittle is the best in the league when healthy, and backup Dwelley has proven to be nearly as versatile as Kyle Juszczyk in Shanahan's offensive scheme. Add in the towering Toilolo and the capable veteran Garrett Celek, now healthy, and this is the very definition of roster depth.

At Running Back:
The rushing trio of Tevin Coleman, Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert is arguably one of the best in the NFL. Production has flagged for them in the last few games, but that's been more the product of a faltering offensive line (more on that next), and of opposing teams stacking the box in order to jam up the 49ers' powerful running game. Without these three, made even more effective by well-devised plays from Shanahan, it's doubtful the 49ers would be sitting now at 9-1. Add in touchdown specialist Jeff Wilson, Jr. and it's obvious this segment of the 49ers' offense is as solid as concrete.

The real issue down the road will be how the 49ers will work long-injured running back Jerick McKinnon into the mix next year, if and when he's healthy. If you're going to have roster problems, too many great backs is a beautiful one to have.

The Offensive Line:
The hope a few weeks ago was that the return of starting tackles Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey would bring the 49ers' offensive line back to its status as one of the NFC's best. That balloon was immediately deflated by Jadeveon Clowney and the rest of the Seattle Seahawks' defensive line, who made Staley and McGlinchey look like they were suffering from the onset of acute vertigo.

The dismal performance of the entire line in that Seahawks game kept Garoppolo seeing more shadows of doom than Jets quarterback Sam Darnold. The difference was, Garoppolo's ghosts were real.

The 49ers' O-line improved against Arizona last week (with tackle Justin Skule back in for the re-injured Staley), but the line needs to ramp it up again and start giving Garoppolo the protection he needs to succeed.

When fans see Garoppolo getting neurotic in the pocket and rushing his throws, they need to place the blame where it belongs --- on the offensive line.

At Wide Receiver:
Before the Seattle game, this had every indication of being a rat's nest of ongoing problems for the 49ers, but it's starting to quickly work itself out.

There's little argument that veteran Emmanuel Sanders is now the 49ers' go-to wideout. Even with painfully sore ribs, Sanders draws the greatest degree of attention on the field, both from defensive backs and from Garoppolo himself.

But the last two weeks have seen rookie receiver Deebo Samuel emerge as a legitimate offensive weapon as well, and his aggressive style of play is starting to have an impact. He has also gotten a bit better with hanging onto the ball. Worth noting is that dropped passes were something that plagued a wideout named Jerry Rice in his rookie season.

Promoting receiver Richie James, Jr. to a featured role was something that truly should have happened a while ago. He had a game-changing catch against the Cardinals last Sunday, and the potential is always there for him to blow a game open with his speed and agility. Special teamer D.J. Reed is more than capable of handling kick returns, freeing James up for offensive snaps. Keeping James on the field as much as possible should be a priority for Shanahan.

Receiver Kendrick Bourne, like Samuel, has suffered from periodic ball-dropping, but he has also been a clutch receiver at times when the 49ers have needed him.

Receivers Dante Pettis and Marquise Goodwin are more problematic.

Pettis has always had enormous potential, but based on the first ten games, there is little justification for Shanahan to nurture him any longer. Goodwin has been distracted by off-field family matters and has largely turned into the Ghost-of-Football-Past. If either one can regain some focus approaching the playoffs, that's great, but for now, it may be time to shelve them both. The 49ers should be fielding Sanders, Samuel and James with Bourne rotating in, and call it good. The time for receiver experimentation is over.

The 49ers, like all teams, are in flux as the season moves along. Injuries and other factors cause teams to constantly adjust personnel and offensive schemes. So far, the 49ers have handled their roster issues well, and have been fortunate to have the depth to suffer through injuries while still winning. As the 49ers face tougher opponents in the coming weeks, that challenge gets even more difficult.

If the 49ers can find the offensive stability they have been seeking since Week 1, especially amongst their line and receiving corps, they just may be up to that challenge.
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.


3 Comments

  • Rick Reulecke
    Nicely written - I always enjoy reading your articles. thank you!
    Nov 21, 2019 at 4:42 AM
    1
  • Ed
    Great take. Agree with the assessment at WR, barring injury keep Pettis/Goodwin off the field. More Dwelley and 2 TE sets.
    Nov 19, 2019 at 10:21 PM
    1
  • don
    Excellent article. Got to shake things up with the run game. Try some trap plays with Jeff Wilson. And if it's 7/8 in the box, pass.. Take advantage of soft coverage..
    Nov 19, 2019 at 8:33 PM
    3

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