Postgame Buzz: The 49ers hang on to beat the Detroit Lions
It’s Tuesday, which means it’s time to open back up our weekly mailbag ahead of the 49ers’ trip to play the undefeated Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.
George asks: How can we expect to cover Tyreek Hill? Do you expect Nickel and Dime coverage all day, next Sunday?
The 49ers typically choose their defensive groupings based on offensive personnel. That being said, yes, I’d expect San Francisco to have at least five defensive backs on the field for most of Sunday’s game.
They typically play with one safety deep, though it wouldn’t surprise me if they switched things up to have two safeties over the top to provide help against Hill and Sammy Watkins, who had 100 receiving yards against the Steelers on Sunday.
Hill will be an awfully tough cover. But the 49ers spent all of training camp going against Marquise Goodwin, who is one of the few receivers who might be as fast as the Chiefs’ wideout. But Goodwin was also very effective throughout August working against both Ahkello Witherspoon and Richard Sherman, who are known more for their length and physicality — not speed and quickness.
The health of the secondary will be a major storyline this week. Witherspoon struggled on Sunday, in part due to an ankle injury suffered in the opener. And strong safety Jaquiski Tartt left the game late with a shoulder stinger. Kyle Shanahan said on Monday he won’t know about their availability until later in the week.
Tiny asks: How would you grade Mike McGlinchey so far as our lineman?
He’s been solid, particularly for his first two NFL games. He took some expected lumps in the opener against Minnesota’s ferocious front seven but held up well against the Lions. Yes, Jimmy Garoppolo was sacked six times, but those were largely the fault of Garoppolo not getting rid of the ball and his receivers failing to break free from Detroit’s handsy coverage.
Where McGlinchey has been an upgrade is in the running game. Matt Breida had a few strong runs behind the right side of the offensive line on Sunday, including his 66-yard touchdown. Anchoring that right side: McGlinchey.
Kristen asks: What happened with the reports of a great camp from Witherspoon? Are we to see Moore or Reed soon?
It’s impossible to know how much Witherspoon’s ankle injury impacted his struggles against Detroit, though it was a mental mistake that led to the first-quarter touchdown he surrendered while biting on play action.
But he wasn’t alone in getting picked on by Matthew Stafford. The Lions quarterback also targeted Jimmie Ward once Witherspoon left the game, and slot cornerback K’Waun Williams surrendered the 67-yard play to Golden Tate on a fourth-quarter third-down conversion.
Witherspoon has remained confident knowing he’s going to be the target of offenses, particularly with Sherman getting off to a strong start. Sherman said Sunday the big plays surrendered were a product of a breakdown in fundamentals, which indicates to me Witherspoon’s ankle injury was problematic, and, when healthy, I’d expect Witherspoon to play better.
But we don’t know how healthy he will be — and if the coaching staff would rather sit him to get healthy and go with Ward, who seems entrenched as the No. 3 outside cornerback, though he has practiced at safety and in the slot recently.
On Moore: My sense is the coaching staff still believes he’s a little raw working at his new position after playing safety in college. Ward and Greg Mabin seem higher on the depth chart, though that could change as the season progresses. D.J. Reed is an intriguing player who might be given a shot at safety or in the slot sometime soon. He had a very strong training camp.
Niners Girl 99 asks: Should we be concerned about Jimmy yet or is this just defenses adjusting and Jimmy will adjust?
I wrote about this on Monday. I think Garoppolo is going through the natural peaks and valleys of being a full-time starting quarterback for the first time. As difficult as it was for him to learn Shanahan’s playbook on the fly last season, it was similarly difficult for defenses to prepare, giving Garoppolo an advantage. That’s gone after a full offseason.
Yes, the interceptions Week 1 and the sacks Week 2 were problematic. But Garoppolo is still hovering around eight yards per attempt, which is still elite territory. He’s done it without Jerick McKinnon and Marquise Goodwin, who were expected to be featured players in the passing attack. Three of his most targeted players — George Kittle, Trent Taylor and Dante Pettis — are in their first or second seasons.
Two games is an awfully small sample size, including the opener in Minnesota against arguably the league’s best defense. The pick six against the Vikings and the negated interception against the Lions happened because his receivers ran the wrong routes (Pettis was supposed to rub Breida’s defender by setting a pick, but Pettis ran straight up the sideline instead).
I’m expecting things to get smoother as the season goes on.
Jake asks: How much more Breida can we expect?
Matt Breida on Sunday played 25 snaps (39 percent of the total) while Alfred Morris was given 31 (48 percent). Morris was given more carries — 14 to 11 — but Breida had 138 yards while Morris had just 48.
Breida was clearly the more effective option, though some of that has to do with circumstance. Morris received the carries when the 49ers were trying to salt away the game late when the Lions were stacking the box with extra defenders. Breida was given carries earlier, though he was only given one following his 66-yard score.
Shanahan was asked about increasing Breida’s role going forward after leading the NFL with 184 yards through two games.
“We’ll see how the games go, always,” Shanahan said. “Usually the better you’re playing, the more runs you get. The better you do on third down, the more you control the ball. I’d love to get 50 carries in a game here, but we have to get after someone to do that.”
I’d imagine Breida will start to receive more playing time. But that’s a tough proposition for the small, 200-pound back. Remember, he suffered a dislocated shoulder in the preseason and has a history of shoulder issues. He might be best in a part-time role in order to stay healthy over a full season.
Yeshe asks: Biggest positional needs going forward?
Edge pass rusher, receiver, running back and safety.
The need for an upgrade along the edge is nothing new. It was needed last season and the 49ers seemingly downgraded by not bringing back Elvis Dumervil or retaining Jeremiah Attaochu during final cuts.
At wideout, Pierre Garçon is still effective, but he just turned 32 and is probably a No. 2 or 3 option at this point in his career. Injuries issues that plagued Goodwin during his time in Buffalo are popping up again.
The 49ers would be in bad shape at running back had Alfred Morris not remained available throughout the summer. They could use another player in the mix after the Joe Williams experiment failed. Atlanta’s Tevin Coleman is a free agent in the spring worth keeping an eye on — or perhaps the team invests an early round draft pick at the position.
Remember, McKinnon likely won’t be able to begin practicing until after the 2019 season starts. The 49ers will need a strong alternative to allow McKinnon to ease back into things following the ACL tear.
We could learn a lot about San Francisco’s depth at safety this week. Jaquiski Tartt is questionable with a shoulder injury and veteran journeyman Antone Exum Jr. could start. Or it could be Jimmie Ward, although it’s hard to imagine him fitting at strong safety at just 193 pounds. The team could use another safety that could play both near the line of scrimmage and deep.
Kenny asks: Is Solomon Thomas already a bust?
I implore fans to remove the word “bust” from their vocabularies. It’s a broad oversimplification.
But I’m wiling to say Thomas was probably overvalued as the No. 3 pick in last year’s draft. Pass rushers taken in that neighborhood often turn into the best in the league (Von Miller, Khalil Mack, Joey Bosa, et al), and there’s little proof that Thomas is on that trajectory. He has three sacks in 16 career games and has played fewer than half the snaps during the first two weeks of 2018.
But things can change quickly. The 49ers are still trying to figure out the best way to get after opposing quarterbacks. Ultimately, I envision DeForest Buckner getting used along the edges more often in throwing downs, similar to the way the Jaguars deployed Calais Campell last season. That would allow Thomas to rush more from the inside.
Want the optimistic viewpoint? The player Thomas was most often compared to during the predraft process, Michael Bennett, had just six sacks combined during his first three seasons. He wound up just fine.