The more Jimmy Garoppolo plays, the more diverse defensive schemes he’s going to get from his opponents. And that’s one of his biggest challenges entering his first full season as the 49ers’ starting quarterback after he signed his massive new contract last February.
Sunday’s game against the Detroit Lions was a good test case. Coach Matt Patricia, formerly the New England Patriots defensive coordinator under coach Bill Belichick, implored his defenders to play tight man-to-man coverage, which was effective for most of the game. Garoppolo was sacked six times, largely because he was waiting on his receivers to break free from defenders while the defensive line collapsed the pocket.
But Garoppolo’s receivers weren’t breaking free — and it provided a lesson for 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan and his quarterback going forward: Other teams are going to look at what Patricia orchestrated and try to replicate it, rather than allow Garoppolo to throw to open windows in zone coverages, which he’s proven to be good at.
Shanahan was asked during his press conference Monday what Garoppolo can do when his receivers can’t shake tight man-to-man coverages.
“Just when he doesn’t have much, just getting rid of (the ball),” Shanahan said. “I thought there was a couple he had a chance to get rid of it. He waited on a guy in man coverage and if you wait on them and they don’t win, (the quarterback) gets tackled. Sometimes you got to get rid of it. You can’t just stay and look at them, or you got to get off them early when you see they’re not winning — anticipate that they’re not going to win because it’s not looking good early and progress to number two.”
Shanahan said his best pass catcher at beating man coverage Sunday was receiver Pierre Garçon, who led the team with four receptions for 54 yards. Garoppolo was still efficient throughout, completing 69 percent of his passes while averaging nearly eight yards per attempt. He finished with 206 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 118.4 passer rating, the highest of nine starts with San Francisco.
But the sacks proved costly, particularly in the first half when he took three in the red zone, forcing the 49ers to settle for field goals. And they converted just 3 of 11 third downs, which also allowed the Lions to rally. Shanahan took responsibility as the team’s offensive coordinator for struggling against Detroit’s game plan.
“That’s something we could have done a better job on,” Shanahan said. “That’s something that we work real hard on. That’s why we move guys around a lot, that’s why got a lot of stack releases. That’s why we got certain types of plays that we do. But we didn’t do a good enough job of it yesterday.”
There also appeared to be some carryover from Garoppolo’s Week 1 performance at Minnesota, when he threw three interceptions. Human nature suggests Garoppolo might have held on to the ball longer against the Lions with those picks in the back of his mind. That’s another challenge facing Garoppolo in his first season as a full-time starter: Having a short memory and being consistent with his approach each week.
“I think that’s something he’ll go through throughout this year,” said Shanahan. “We’ll go through it with him. We’ll learn as we go. You feel that. I can feel that to a degree when you end up having six sacks like that.”
Foster suspension ends — Shanahan said the team has until Wednesday to make a roster move to fit in linebacker Reuben Foster following his two-game suspension. Foster will rejoin the team on the practice field Wednesday and is expected to start Sunday against a Kansas City Chiefs offense averaging 40 points per game through the first two weeks.
It’s likely rookie third-round pick Fred Warner retains his starting spot after logging a team high 22 tackles combined in his first two NFL games, though Shanahan said he’ll make that determination later in the week. Veteran Malcolm Smith has missed both games with a hamstring injury and hasn’t played a regular-season snap since signing a lucrative contract in 2017.
Witherspoon’s starting job uncertain — Second-year player Ahkello Witherspoon entered the season as an unquestioned starter at cornerback opposite Richard Sherman. But the Christian Brothers High product had arguably his worst game as a starter against the Lions. He was the target of Matthew Stafford throughout the second half and was benched in favor of Jimmie Ward.
Shanahan said Witherspoon’s starting status for Sunday against the Chiefs will be determined as the week progresses. He mentioned Witherspoon was working through an ankle injury that might have slowed him against the Lions’ receivers.
“We felt other people at that time gave us the best chance,” Shanahan said. “And that was crunch time. They’re going against a real good offense there. Stafford’s got a great chance to get them back in the game (with) how good he is. And just watching the game right there, we felt getting Jimmie in helped us.”
Tartt questionable — Ward has received practice reps all over the secondary after working at cornerback throughout the offseason program and training camp. He could be relied on heavily Sunday with strong safety Jaquiski Tartt (shoulder stinger) beginning the week questionable to practice. Tartt suffered the injury against the Vikings in Week 1 and aggravated it late against the Lions, taking himself out of the game on the final possession.
“He’s day-to-day,” Shanahan said of Tartt. “We’ll see how that responds throughout the week. ... Just real happy with how he fought and played through that game though.”