Sure, the San Francisco 49ers are 3-0 for the first time since 1998. But are they any good?
There are reasons to think the 49ers are a legit playoff threat; there’s also plenty of reasons to think they’re pretenders. So what do we make of this team?
To start, let’s start with the most important stats. The 49ers are one of four 3-0 teams in the NFC. They’ve scored 96 points, a point shy of the Cowboys for best in the conference. The defense has given up 54 points, good for fourth-best in the conference.
For now, let’s dwell on the positives.
1. 49ers defense remains stout
The defense gave up just 81 rushing yards against the Steelers on Sunday. And when Pittsburgh got the ball back, trailing by four points with 1:09 left in the game, San Francisco’s defense was lights out: The 49ers knocked the Steelers back a yard and earned a turnover on downs.
And forget yardage, San Francisco’s defense is doing something it was inept at last year: getting turnovers. The 49ers had an interception and a fumble recovery Sunday against the Steelers. This from a team that managed just seven takeaways last season.
Excepting the otherworldly Patriots, San Francisco is also the best defense in the league, allowing 283. 3 yards per game. (The Patriots, if you want to count them, allow a paltry 199 yards a game.)
After the win over the Steelers, Kwon Alexander was fired up about his defense, which held Pittsburgh to just six points on five 49ers turnovers.
“Did you see us when we were out there on the field?” Kwon Alexander asked. “It doesn’t matter. ... Wherever we’re at on the field, we’re going to do our thing. It doesn’t matter if we’re on the 2-yard line or if the ball’s put on the (other) 2-yard line. It doesn’t matter. We’re going to go out there and just play hard and finish the game.”
2. Jimmy Garoppolo is finding his form
Sure, the 49ers quarterback had a pair of interceptions Sunday. He still managed an 82.4 rating and a very healthy 8.66 yards per attempt. And it’s not like the offense isn’t clicking. The 49ers are fourth in the NFL in average yards per game (421) and also fourth in rushing yards per game (175).
Garoppolo hasn’t been amazing but he also hasn’t been getting in the way of success. Most important, when the 49ers needed Garoppolo to be good, he was rock solid.
On the 49ers’ final drive, which started at the Pittsburgh 24 after a fumble recovery with 5:29 remaining in the game, Garoppolo completed 3 of 4 passes, with the only incompletion coming after a Steelers defensive holding penalty. The 49ers’ quarterback threw for 18 yards on the short drive and ran for two more as San Francisco overcame five turnovers to pick up a home win.
“There is two ways to look at this game,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “You can focus on the negatives and on all the turnovers, but at the same time, you can look at the positives, like, ‘Wow, we had all of those turnovers and we still won this game.’”
3. 49ers find a way to come out on top
They’re unbeaten. We can talk stats but they only one that actually matters is the 3-0 record. No, it hasn’t been particularly pretty. But you have to like everything about the 49ers’ final possession.
They drained the clock, which isn’t easy to do when you take over at your opponent’s 24-yard line. They never rushed, with Garoppolo finding the right mix of urgency and patience. The result was a four-minute, 14-second drive that ended with Garoppolo’s game-winning 5-yard pass to Dante Pettis.
“That’s what winning football teams do,” offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey said. “They make plays in big moments.”
Still, there are plenty of reasons for doubt. Let’s start with their opponents, the Buccaneers, Bengals and Steelers, who are not exactly a gauntlet. They’ve combined for a 1-8 record. But there’s more to talk about. To the negatives:
1. About that 49ers defense
It’s impossible to talk about the San Francisco defense without throwing in an asterisk. Pittsburgh was without Ben Roethlisberger and started Mason Rudolph at quarterback. That the second-year pro completed just 14 of 27 passes for two touchdowns and an interception doesn’t tell you much about the 49ers.
Rudolph was starting the first NFL game of his career. Knowing that, the 49ers were able to focus on the run, allowing just 81 yards on 22 attempts.
And then there’s the other two wins on the schedule, the Bengals and the Buccaneers. Neither of those offenses are going to be mistaken for the 1994 49ers.
Finally, Ahkello Witherspoon has been a stud at cornerback but he was injured Sunday and will be out until the end of October.
2. Jimmy G didn’t look great
He was competent and the two interceptions weren’t really his fault — both were tipped — but he didn’t look like a quarterback who’s going to turn in a Pro Bowl season.
Yes, we can attribute that to the ACL tear he suffered last September. Coach Kyle Shanahan said Garoppolo likes to get hit, and he will get more confidence as he gets used to the punishment again.
“With him coming off the ACL, it’s been longer,” Shanahan said. “You don’t hit guys in practice, so you’re going to get it in the games, and I think sometimes the more Jimmy gets hit, the better he does.”
3. That was a mess
Turnovers. Turnovers. Turnovers.
(They’re contagious, hence we have three of them here.)
Three fumbles and two interceptions jump out of the box score. The 49ers have young receivers and young running backs, and those guys sometimes have problems keeping a grip on the ball.
But the 49ers did win, after all. Maybe they’ve turned a negative into a positive.
“I feel like this team is resilient,” Juszczyk said. “There is confidence in ourselves. Even when things are going bad, we know that we can turn things around.”
Schedule for the 49ers
Bye week this week
Cleveland at San Francisco
Time and TV
5:15 p.m., Oct. 7, ESPN