Neutralizing Pro Bowl pass rusher Myles Garrett has to be atop Kyle Shanahan’s list of priorities if the 49ers are going to beat the Cleveland Browns on Monday night.
Making that challenge more difficult is San Francisco having to start a rookie sixth-round pick Justin Skule at left tackle, not six-time Pro Bowler Joe Staley, to try to combat the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft.
“It’s in your mind on every play,” Shanahan said. “You’ve got to help out anybody in this situation, but especially a rookie in his second game. It’ll be more of a challenge. Everyone will be watching, but he’s a guy who as I’ve said doesn’t change at all. He won’t be out there doing it on his own.”
Garrett has six sacks in four games this season, giving him 26.5 in 31 games in his three-year career. Opposite him is Olivier Vernon, who’s averaging nearly eight sacks over his past six seasons on the $85 million contract he signed with the New York Giants in 2016.
49ers lead league in rushing attempts
The key to keeping Garrett and Vernon from pinning their ears back and getting after Jimmy Garoppolo could come down to Shanahan’s game plan.
San Francisco’s third year coach has the 49ers near the top of the league in play-action usage, which leads to moving the pocket and creating designed roll outs to help Garoppolo avoid the traditional pass rush. Garoppolo has been sacked just twice this season. And key to the effectiveness of play action has been the running game.
The 49ers during their first three games are running the ball an NFL-high 38 times a game. Their 4.6-yard average ranks 12th, but the reliance on the ground game has led to the league’s second-most prolific rushing offense. San Francisco has gotten 175.0 yards per week on the ground, putting the team on pace to run for 900 yards more than last season.
The use of play action has helped Garoppolo make explosive throws downfield. The 49ers enter Monday’s game fourth in the NFL in explosive plays (runs that go longer than 10 yards and passes that go longer than 20). And Garoppolo is second among quarterbacks averaging 8.8 yards per pass attempt, matching his total when the 49ers went 5-0 with him under center following the trade with the Patriots in 2017.
“It’s awesome,” Garoppolo said. “When your offense is clicking, that’s when both the run and pass can play off of each other. When you have that, it makes it tough on the defense and makes it tough to call the right defenses and everything. So I think we’re in a good spot right now, we’ve just got to keep it going.”
Injuries hobble 49ers backs
The 49ers have gotten production on the ground despite being without their top two running backs for most of the season. Jerick McKinnon, who signed a four-year, $30 million contract in 2018, is missing his second straight season following another surgery on his knee.
Tevin Coleman, signed in March, has been out since halftime of the season opener with a left high-ankle sprain. He returned to practice Thursday and was a limited participant. He seems likely to play Monday night.
Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert have formed a productive duo with Coleman and McKinnon out. They’re the only running back combination in the NFL with at least 200 yards each, even as the 49ers have played three games because of their recent bye week while 30 other teams have played four.
Shanahan credits the blockers up front, and along the edges where outside runs have been an emphasis, for the success on the ground. Complicating things are a slew of pre-snap motions and complex alignments, including fake jet sweeps that can go awry like in the fourth quarter of the victory over the Steelers.
“All the stuff we do isn’t the easiest, we move around a lot and it’s hard to always get guys targeted and it puts a lot of stress on our players,” Shanahan said. “But we’ve got the right type of players. They don’t mind the stress, because they work at it all week. Today’s a lot more stressful for them because you put in a bunch of stuff and it gets a little bit easier each day, but by the time Sunday comes, you need guys who are physical and get after it, but you’ve got to also have guys who work at it. Our O-Line, our tight ends, our fullback, our running backs, they work at it as hard as anyone.”
But the ground game won’t be the only way to protect Skule from getting beaten by Garrett or Vernon. The 49ers could use tight ends and running backs to double team outside pass rushers, though the trade off is having one fewer pass catcher on a given play, or the timing slowed down with a player having to block before getting into a route.
“We felt like Skule did pretty good (against the Steelers),” fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “And he was going against some good edge defenders against Pittsburgh. We really didn’t change too much. There are times where we have to be aware and we definitely respect Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon. Those are two really talented guys. There will be times that we will help him, but it’s not going to change our whole scheme.”