Before C.J. Beathard made his first start, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan was asked how defenses typically take on a rookie quarterback.
There were two approaches, he said. A.) A defensive coordinator will play it safe, guard against big gains and force a rookie to slowly work the ball down the field all the while hoping he makes a mistake along the way. B.) Blitz the daylights out of him.
After three starts for Beathard, it’s clear what path opponents have chosen.
“We’ve gotten blitzed probably more – definitely more – than I’ve ever had in my career,” Shanahan said in the run up to Sunday’s game against the New York Giants. “Most of it is run blitzes to try to stop your run and dare you to do some things.”
Those run blitzes – extra rushers on typical running downs – have discouraged the team from handing the ball to Carlos Hyde. The 49ers have a lopsided 366 to 199 run-to-pass ratio this season while Hyde hasn’t rushed more than 14 times in a game since Beathard took over as quarterback.
“I think that’s where we haven’t been able to dictate what the defense is doing and that’s the goal,” Shanahan said. “I don’t want to just bang my head against a wall and do stuff over and over. I want to find the weakness of the defense and attack that and make them change to open up other stuff. We haven’t done that consistently enough.”
The 49ers had some success throwing to Hyde in last week’s 20-10 loss to the Arizona Cardinals. He had career highs in catches (nine) and receiving yards (84). Through nine games, Hyde is tied with receiver Pierre Garcon for the team lead in receptions with 40.
The problem is now that Garcon is out for the season with a broken bone in his neck, the 49ers have fewer options to take advantage of a blitzing defense. Though they’re passing a lot, their 6-yards-per-attempt is the fourth lowest in the league.
Beathard threw two deep balls to starting wideout Marquise Goodwin against the Cardinals. One of them connected for a 55-yard gain, a season-long for both players. The other was just as deep but fell just beyond Goodwin’s grasp.
In both cases, the Cardinals had two defenders in coverage. Even though they are sending linebackers and perhaps a strong safety on blitzes, defenses are still keeping a free safety deep on Goodwin, San Francisco’s fastest receiver.
“I think the only one-on-one (opportunity) I’ve had this year may have been against Carolina, which was the first game,” Goodwin said. “Other than that, I think defenses have watched film and have someone respecting my speed over the top. So they match the safety over the top for the most part – along with the corner.”
The Giants have the NFL’s 29th-ranked pass defense this year and they’ve managed just 13 sacks. Only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have fewer (eight).
But the 49ers enter the game with problems of their own. Not only are they missing Garcon, their top slot receiver, Trent Taylor, is out with a broken rib and one of their best options for replacing Taylor, pass-catching tight end Cole Hikutini, was lost for the season with a knee sprain.
All of which will force Shanahan to get creative. Newcomer Louis Murphy likely will be worked into the offense while fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who mostly has been quiet this season, also could see more targets than usual.
“You have to make people pay (for blitzing), and that’s the only way to scare people out of stuff and I think we’ve struggled to make people pay,” Shanahan said. “The whole way I look at offense is, whatever you are doing to us, I’m going to try to find a way to scare you out of that. And until you do, people are going to continue to do that.”