Here are five things to watch when the 49ers travel to play the Chargers in Los Angeles Week 4 in their first game since losing quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to a season-ending knee injury.
1. Beathard’s back as the starter, but is he better?
C.J. Beathard hardly looked promising during his five-game stint as the 49ers starter in 2017. His 55 percent completion rate and 69.2 passer rating both ranked 31st among 32 qualified quarterbacks.
But it was an unenviable position to insert a rookie quarterback into. San Francisco was in the earliest stages of its rebuilding project with a roster in flux. The piecemeal offensive line struggled, evident by the 17 sacks Beathard took in those five starts, and the running game was still adjusting to Kyle Shanahan’s outside zone running scheme.
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Now Beathard takes over in his second season with the offense’s foundation more solidified. The offensive line is improved, with new center Weston Richburg, left guard Laken Tomlinson in his second season and Mike Person on the right side.
Beathard’s weapons are also improved, like tight end George Kittle, a healthy Pierre Garçon and the addition of rookie Dante Pettis over Aldrick Robinson, who caught just 43 percent of his targets last season.
The running game ranks second in the NFL thanks largely to Matt Breida, who is at least tied for the league’s lead in rushing yards for the second straight week. He’s an obvious fit for Shanahan’s rushing attack while Hyde was allowed to leave in free agency for the Browns.
Add all that to the experience Beathard received in his first season, and the 49ers believe he should be significantly improved in Year 2.
“When you go through it for yourself, then the next year you actually know why you’re working on it,” Shanahan said. “I think when you know the why’s and you have the experience of it, I think it’s a lot easier to improve.”
2. Nowhere to go but up for the defense
The first half in Kansas City could not have gone worse for the 49ers defensively. The Chiefs scored touchdowns on all five of their possessions while San Francisco missed tackle after tackle and continued to shoot itself in the foot with penalties.
The 49ers have 43 missed tackles on the season, according to Pro Football Focus, which was the most in the NFL heading into Week 3.
“You know, 35 points in a half is unacceptable,” coordinator Robert Saleh said. “It’s going to sound trivial and it’s going to sound very elementary, but it comes down to obviously, tackling, which needs to get better. It’s not very good, obviously.”
Saleh’s defense should have a renewed focus this week knowing it must hold up its end of the bargain, particularly without Garoppolo orchestrating the offense. The 49ers have allowed the sixth most passing yards of teams that have played three games and join the Cowboys as the only NFL teams yet to have an interception this season.
San Francisco’s seven sacks are also the fifth fewest. DeForest Buckner (3.5) is the only 49er with more than one. The spotlight will continue to be on second-year pro Solomon Thomas, who is still looking for his first sack on the season. Thomas played more than 50 percent of the snaps against the Chiefs and should see his workload continue to rise while Arik Armstead has done little to distinguish himself.
3. Can Breida continue his effective start?
Breida is expected to play after hyperextending his knee against the Chiefs, which would be big news for the offense. Without him, the 49ers’ running backs would be veteran Alfred Morris and Raheem Mostert, who has just one carry on the season.
Breida is averaging 8.6 yards per carry, which is far from sustainable, but notable nonetheless. He’s used primarily on outside zone runs that stretch defenses horizontally. Those runs are San Francisco’s best weapon at the moment. They’re averaging 13.8 yards per carry on runs over right tackle and 8.2 over left tackle.
The sample size is small, but it illustrates how the 49ers tackles, tight ends and fullback Kyle Juszczyk are doing well blocking for the former undrafted free agent. Right tackle Mike McGlinchey, in particular, has been sound while helping to create those outside running lanes. He’s provided a stark upgrade from Trent Brown in that respect.
Behind Brown, who was traded to the Patriots hours after the 49ers drafted McGlinchey with the No. 9 pick, the 49ers averaged just 3.11 yards per carry last season (and 7.19 behind Joe Staley, who is off to another good start blocking for the run).
Eventually Breida’s numbers are going to normalize, particularly if he’s given a larger workload to take the burden off Beathard’s shoulders. But how he’s used during the rest of the season will be worth tracking while the 49ers wait on starting running back Jerick McKinnon to return from his ACL tear in 2019.
4. Sherman sidelined, secondary banged up
The 49ers will be without cornerback Richard Sherman for the first time since the start of the regular season. Sherman suffered a left calf strain near the end of the first half in Kansas City. His absence comes on the heels of appearing in 117 straight games to begin his career with the Seahawks before going down with an Achilles tear last November.
Sherman said the latest injury wasn’t related to that Achilles tear on his right leg, or having bone spurs removed from his left heel in the spring. Rather, it was all the time off recovering from those injuries that led to Sherman’s calf tightening up.
The 49ers are also going to be without strong safety Jaquiski Tartt, who hasn’t played since the final possession Week 2 against the Lions. He suffered a shoulder injury that initially popped up in the opener against Minnesota.
That means the 49ers will be missing half their starting secondary. Jimmie Ward is expected to start for Sherman while Antone Exum Jr. is slated to replace Tartt.
Ahkello Witherspoon (ankle, hip) and Adrian Colbert (hip) are also banged up, though they are expected to play. Colbert left the loss against Kansas City in the first half and has struggled early in his second season following his promising rookie campaign.
5. Will it be a pro-49ers crowd on the road?
The Chargers are biding their time until they move into their glitzy new stadium at Hollywood Park in 2020 to share with the Rams. In the meantime, they play their home games at the StubHub Center, which was built for Major League Soccer and seats just 27,000 for NFL games. That’s easily the smallest venue in the NFL (Levi’s Stadium, by contrast, seats 68,500).
But the StubHub center also provides the Chargers one of the worst home-field advantages in sports. The undefeated Rams have largely dominated the market thanks to their history in Los Angeles while the Chargers have felt out of place since moving up Interstate 5 from San Diego.
That means there could be a large contingent of 49ers fans at the game on Sunday, which could have an impact on the game. San Francisco fans have traveled well since the Rams moved back to the L.A. Coliseum in 2016. And with little local interest in the Chargers, that could continue on Sunday.
In fact, when the Chargers played the Raiders in 2016, the home team had to use a silent count because of the Raiders fans in attendance.