You smell that? It’s the scent of a competent football team that won back-to-back road games to begin a season for the first time since 1989 – after not winning a single game away from the Bay Area in 2018.
Let’s re-open our weekly mailbag for this week’s pressing questions surrounding the upstart 49ers.
C.P.T. asks: Should the 49ers try to trade for Jalen Ramsey? If so should their approach be conservative or aggressive knowing that they don’t have a second-round pick?
San Francisco’s starting defense allowed just two touchdowns in two games (the backups were in during John Ross’ long score in the final minute of Sunday’s blowout). The defense is playing just fine.
No, the Buccaneers and Bengals are not juggernauts. But if you’re into advanced metrics (and who isn’t?), the 49ers have the NFL’s second-ranked defense according to Footballl Outsiders’ DVOA, which accounts for strength of opponent. They’re second to the Patriots, who allowed three points the first two weeks combined.
Do I expect the defense to continue playing that well? Going against Mason Rudolph in the home opener instead of Ben Roethlisberger makes it easier, then the 49ers host the Browns following the upcoming bye. The 0-2 Steelers are scuffling now that their franchise quarterback is done for the season.
On the idea of adding Ramsey: Ahkello Witherspoon is playing the best football of his career and Richard Sherman has been nails through the first two weeks. Yes, Sherman will need replacing at some point, but the timing doesn’t seem to fit. Plus, as you point out, the 49ers are already thin on draft capital without their second-round pick in 2020.
Then there’s Ramsey’s pending contract extension. The 49ers have roughly $27 million in projected cap space entering 2020. DeForest Buckner and George Kittle are due for new contracts and could eat up the vast majority of that space. Then there’s Arik Armstead, who has two sacks in two games, and Ronald Blair, who had two tackles for loss and a sack in Sunday’s win.
The 49ers simply can’t pay everyone, so bringing in Ramsey would mean pushing back extensions for Kittle and Buckner, which would make them more expensive in the long run, and perhaps create some unneeded tension. Would Buckner hold out next offseason without a new contract entering his fifth-year option season? Wouldn’t it make sense to pay Kittle as soon as possible given he’s everything the 49ers are looking for in a star building block on and off the field?
Ramsey is good and he could certainly fit. But I don’t think the need is there to give up the draft capital it would take, pay him the contract he would require, and potentially upset the good vibes in the locker room.
Para_Trooper87 asks: What do you think is the answer to our left situation?
I think Halapoulivaati Vaitai of the Eagles makes far more sense than trading for Trent Williams, who is still holding out from Washington after not participating in the offseason program or training camp.
Vaitai, 26, is in the final year his rookie contract. Williams, 31, is one of the highest-paid tackles in the NFL and might want a new deal. The reasons against paying Ramsey apply here when it comes to Williams.
Vaitai is making just over $2 million this season with the Eagles. And he could be available for far less than Williams. Keep in mind, Philadelphia drafted tackle Andre Dillard in the first round in the spring, and he was the one to replace Jason Peters on Sunday in Atlanta when the veteran left the game with an injury.
With three tackles already above Vaitai on the depth chart, the Eagles should be preparing for his departure in free agency next spring, even if Peters ends up retiring. Vaitai is good enough to get paid a starter’s salary elsewhere, so there’s no incentive to return to the Eagles, who would be crazy to give him the franchise tag.
If that’s the case, Philly would be wise to trade him during the season because he likely wouldn’t bring back much in the form of a compensatory draft pick.
Remember, Vaitai replaced Lane Johnson and Peters in spurts throughout his four seasons in Philadelphia, including the final nine regular season games in 2017 and the playoffs, helping the Eagles beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl. He’s used to filling in during pressure moments. Justin Skule is not.
If I were the 49ers, I’d offer the Eagles a fourth- or fifth-round pick for Vaitai and see if they bite. They might have to offer more if the Patriots come calling after they lost their starting left tackle, Isaiah Wynn, to injured reserve with a foot injury. And even after Staley comes back, Vaitai could play either guard spot, allowing San Francisco to improve its depth.
With Vaitai in a contract year, he’ll likely be a model citizen when Staley comes back.
Sean Morgan asks: I know they were planning Jimmie Ward at free safety, but with Tarvarius Moore playing well and K’Waun Williams struggling in the slot, would they move him back to slot instead?
Coaches always talk about finding ways to get their best 11 players on the field. That’s been true of defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, so I think you’re onto something.
Ward played both spots in the third preseason game in Kansas City, working at free safety in base packages and moving to the slot in sub packages. It wouldn’t at all be surprising if that remained the case when Ward returned healthy.
But Moore is still far from perfect, even with his immense athletic upside. He had a bad missed tackle on the third-and-17 play against Tampa Bay, and was burned by taking a bad angle on a long catch and run in Cincinnati. He has some developing to do.
Jake Kucheck asks: It seems as though all the extra attention teams are giving George Kittle is freeing up most everyone else (especially Marquise Goodwin and Deebo Samuel). Yet, Dante Pettis still wasn’t involved despite playing a ton more snaps. Is he toast or could he get some looks against a porous Steelers secondary?
Kyle Shanahan said after Sunday’s win he still believes Pettis and Samuel are neck and neck in the pecking order, though that’s hard to believe given the gulf in their production during the first two games. Pettis out-snapped Samuel, 35-29 in Cincinnati, even though Samuel led the team in receptions (five) and receiving yards (87). Pettis wasn’t targeted.
Shanahan’s challenge to Pettis should be hitting home, based on the way the first two games went. And Goodwin’s speed, as long as he’s healthy, makes him an important player for the passing game. But Goodwin’s only played all 16 games once in his previous six seasons. Pettis’ role would grow if (when?) Goodwin misses time.
For Sunday, no, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if Pettis is more productive against Pittsburgh. The Steelers are 29th in defensive DVOA during the first two weeks while allowing 890 yards. If they focus on slowing Kittle, Goodwin or Samuel, Pettis could end up in favorable spots
Everett Rice asks: Thoughts regarding this week’s matchup against the Steelers. This appears to a perfect trap game of us. Previous years we would lose such a game.
I agree. The 49ers are going to hear about how good they are all week, while the Steelers are going to be told their season is over with Roethlisberger on the shelf. Human nature shows through in games like this.
But that’s what makes this game interesting for San Francisco.
The 49ers should be taken seriously as a playoff contender if they come out and handle business against a struggling team in their home opener. They’ll need to play with the same rigor and edge they did in the first two weeks because they haven’t accomplished anything yet. And they badly need Levi’s Stadium to become a place that’s tough for opponents to play. They won’t want to chew on a loss over the upcoming bye that dampens their performances in Tampa Bay and Cincinnati.
The Steelers are an institution. They haven’t had a losing season since 2003. They’re well-coached and experienced. They won’t lay down Sunday.