The 49ers’ season finale is upon us following the team’s 14-9 loss to the Chicago Bears. Let’s get to the final regular-season edition of our mailbag:
Spiker Is Awesome asks: Is it just me or is the young defense coming along really well the last 2-3 games?
It has certainly played much better. The defense has allowed 17 points per game since the blowout loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Dec. 2. That’s a three-game sample size, to be sure, but it tells a story.
“We’ve had a lot more continuity the last month and guys have stayed healthier,” coach Kyle Shanahan said after Sunday’s loss. “We’ve been a little bit more consistent with the guys who have been out there. We’ve been playing with the same two inside linebackers, the same safeties, for the most part, the corners.”
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The 49ers started eight combinations at safety before Marcell Harris and Antone Exum Jr. started the past three games since Jaquiski Tartt aggravated his shoulder injury (which has since landed him on injured reserve). Elijah Lee has stepped in and played well in Reuben Foster’s place, and DeForest Buckner has 7 1/2 sacks over his past seven games.
San Francisco enters Week 17 ranked 10th in opponents yardage (344.6 per game). Conversely, the 49ers are still 24th in scoring, allowing 25.8 points. That’s a function of a few key deficiencies we’ve talked about all season.
Opponents are scoring touchdowns on 61.2 percent of their red-zone trips (25th in the NFL). The 49ers’ 37 sacks tie for 19th. Their seven turnovers are dead last. And they’re playing opposite an offense that’s given the ball away 28 times, third-most in the NFL.
Those signs point to a defense that could make significant strides in 2019 if the talent improves and the offense stops turning over the ball. However, this season has proved the 49ers can’t rely on success translating through an offseason following their five-game winning streak to end 2018.
George Matthew asks: The top 4 biggest holes to fill in the offseason through draft and free agency are edge rusher, linebacker, cornerback and receiver. Is that an accurate statement?
I would agree, although I might replace cornerback with ‘secondary’ to include both safety spots.
Yes, Tartt is talented and a good player when healthy. But he’s missed 15 games the past two seasons, and the defense improved each year while he was injured.
And yes, Tartt’s rookie replacement, Harris, deserves a chance to win a starting role, but last offseason showed the front office and coaching staff it was a bad idea to give young players assured starting jobs after playing well in a limited sample. The lack of competition last offseason might be why Ahkello Witherspoon and Adrian Colbert showed signs of regression in their second campaigns.
Seahawks free-agent safety Earl Thomas is going to be mentioned plenty for obvious reasons: his fit in the scheme, his relationship with Richard Sherman and San Francisco’s glut of cap space. That would be a wise addition, as long as he can fully recover from his broken leg.
I’m of the opinion Colbert might be best as a third safety and core special-teams player. He was one of the league’s best gunners in punt coverage before becoming the starter at free safety. And even though the 49ers appeared set at safety last offseason, drafting Derwin James looks like it would have been a smart move, given the way the season shook out. James leads the Los Angeles Chargers in total tackles and shares the team lead with three interceptions.
Better than Red Ranger asks: How did Mike McGlinchey fare against Khalil Mack?
All things considered, McGlinchey played well. Mack didn’t have a sack, though he did have a game-high three quarterback hits and affected the game in ways outside of his matchup with the rookie right tackle.
It was clear Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio wanted to do all he could to limit San Francisco’s strength in the passing game – getting the ball to tight end George Kittle, who still managed seven catches for 74 yards.
But Kittle wasn’t as effective as he wanted to be, largely because Mack and fellow outside pass rusher Leonard Floyd spent much of the game chipping Kittle at the line of scrimmage, throwing off the timing of his routes.
Which goes to show just how good Mack is. He can impact the game doing other things while lining up all over the field.
Joemaha asks: Should the 49ers pick up safety D.J. Swearinger?
I would be shocked if San Francisco had any interest. The front office and coaching staff are all about creating the best locker-room culture possible. So it’s hard to see Swearinger being added after being released by Washington this week for publicly criticizing the coaching staff.
The 2013 second-round draft pick is talented, but there’s a reason he’s played on four teams in six years. Houston, Arizona (twice), Tampa Bay and Washington decided his talent wasn’t worth the headache.
I imagine the 49ers would agree.
Andrew Meredith asks: What would you say the biggest lesson is the 49ers have learned this year?
This is a good, important question. The lesson: Momentum doesn’t carry over season to season.
As good as the 49ers felt during their 5-0 run with Jimmy Garoppolo to end 2017, it meant nothing when 2018 rolled around. And winning a few games late in the season with Nick Mullens at quarterback doesn’t guarantee any success next season, either.
There’s a sense Shanahan’s team didn’t approach this season with enough urgency after looking like an up-and-coming playoff contender 12 months ago. There wasn’t much competition throughout the offseason program and training camp. The only starting job that was ever in serious question was right guard.
Given everything that’s happened, it’s hard to fathom that more positions on defense, namely in the secondary, weren’t more hotly contested.
I believe the offseason theme will be increasing the depth and competition throughout the roster. Shanahan would be wise to create uncertainty for players and their starting jobs.
And getting a full season from the $137.5 million franchise quarterback wouldn’t be a bad idea, either.