It was fair to expect the 49ers to get off to a 1-3 start to the season — even if Jimmy Garoppolo didn’t mangle his knee two weeks ago and end his 2018 campaign less than three games in.
That’s because San Francisco’s schedule opened with three of its toughest road games during the first four weeks against the Minnesota Vikings, Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers, who made the playoffs or were in postseason contention throughout last season (in L.A.’s case). All four of the 49ers’ opponents to date rank in the top-12 of total offense.
Things should get easier from here. Or more favorable, at least.
Starting Sunday, four of San Francisco’s next six games will be at Levi’s Stadium, including winnable contests against the Arizona Cardinals, Raiders and New York Giants, who have a combined record of 2-10. The 49ers play 0-4 Arizona twice over the next four weeks, sandwiching tough games against the Green Bay Packers (2-1-1) on “Monday Night Football” at Lambeau Field and a home game against the undefeated L.A. Rams.
Even with C.J. Beathard at quarterback, who threw for a career-high 298 yards against the Chargers, the 49ers could find their stride, go 4-2 over that stretch and hit Thanksgiving at a more respectable 5-5.
Why? It starts with continuity on defense, where the 49ers have been rotating players like a merry-go-round throughout the first four games. The offense has been acceptable, averaging 25.0 points (it scored 27 in Beathard’s first start) and ranks 12th in efficiency, averaging 5.9 yards per play.
Starting safeties Jaquiski Tartt and Adrian Colbert haven’t played together since Week 2. Reuben Foster has been back in the lineup for only two games following his suspension. And the team was forced to play Brock Coyle and Elijah Lee in Foster’s place.
Sunday’s game against Arizona will be the first time Tartt, Colbert and Foster will be on the field together this season, which is notable for the league’s 27th-ranked scoring defense playing just its second home game.
“When you have guys in and out, whether it’s starters or backups or stuff, that’s always going to affect teams,” coach Kyle Shanahan said.
The only player in the middle of the defense to start all four games has been rookie linebacker Fred Warner, who has acquitted himself well despite the constant shuffling around him.
“It’s four guys who move with the quarterback’s eyes,” Shanahan said when asked about the importance of continuity. “When a quarterback looks somewhere, you guys have got to move together to move back. ... So, when you play those type of schemes, the longer guys play together, the better they do. That was one of the best things Seattle had going for them. You can see that with Jacksonville.”
San Francisco’s defense improved significantly late last season once it had continuity with Foster in the middle. The defense allowed 19.8 points during the five-game winning streak to close the year — and was expected to improve in 2018 with the addition of Richard Sherman, who might play Sunday, along with maturation throughout the rest of the roster.
Sherman was part of those Seahawks teams the 49ers are trying to mimic both in scheme and production. They had one of the best defenses in recent history, in part because of the continuity, with free safety Earl Thomas, strong safety Kam Chanceller, and linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright patrolling the middle of the field.
“The scheme is phenomenal and you see plenty of teams execute it, some of the best defenses in the league are running this scheme and it will always be the case,” Sherman said. “I don’t think this scheme is going anywhere but it’s about each individual player understanding the weaknesses and strengths of the defense, and I think that comes with time, that comes with experience and growing together and continuity. There isn’t a ton of continuity on this defense right now.
“With the ‘backers and the D line and the secondary has been kind of banged up and interchangeable so I think over time we will get better with that. I think, obviously, the tackling has been a huge issue and the coaches have addressed it. But that’s a man-on-man issue. Guys have got to look within themselves and take that extra step and squeeze and get guys to the ground. That’s more of a pride issue than technique. “
But even with one of the worst teams in the NFL coming Sunday, the 49ers haven’t proven they deserve the benefit of the doubt without Garoppolo or their top running back Jerick McKinnon, who suffered his season-ending ACL tear a week before the start of the season.
Beating a downtrodden club like the Cardinals, with rookie quarterback Josh Rosen making his first career road start, would give San Francisco some optimism heading into the easier portion of the schedule. Particularly if Beathard takes another step in the right direction.
If the 49ers fall, then the focus will shift to the NFL draft a lot sooner than anyone envisioned.