San Francisco 49ers

49ers mailbag: How will the defense cope and is the offense ready to blow up?

The 49ers have their biggest game of the Kyle Shanahan era Monday night against the Seattle Seahawks. With practices pushed back a day to accommodate Monday’s game, our weekly mailbag was also pushed back a day.

To your questions about the NFL’s last unbeaten squad!

@EliEssex asks: Is it possible that we might see a tale of two half seasons? Defensive dominance, offensive dominance because of injuries/player availability and strength of schedule?

The defense is going to be good as long as its core members remain healthy.

But I do think the offense could have a different look over the second half of the season. Left tackle Joe Staley and fullback Kyle Juszczyk – who have combined to go to nine Pro Bowls – are expected to make their returns from injury against the Seahawks. There’s also a chance right tackle Mike McGlinchey comes back following surgery to repair a torn meniscus.

That could mean opening things up for Jimmy Garoppolo in the passing game after Kyle Shanahan and his staff altered their scheme to compensate for playing two backup tackles for a significant stretch of the season’s first half. Shanahan designed his schemes to ensure Garoppolo got rid of the ball quickly. With Staley protecting his blind side, and the addition of potent deep threat Emmanuel Sanders, the 49ers could try longer developing plays to be more explosive.

In the small sample size of nearly three games last season, Garoppolo’s average depth of target was 8.9 yards. This year, that’s down to 6.6.

What’s changed? It could be a philosophical shift from Shanahan because San Francisco’s defense is vastly improved. That is, the 49ers don’t need to aggressively push the ball down field because those plays come with higher risk of turnover – and it might be better to chew clock with shorter plays to help keep the defense fresh.

That might have to change with better quarterbacks and offenses coming up on the schedule. It starts Monday with Russell Wilson while another date with Kyler Murray looms a week later, then games against Aaron Rodgers, Lamar Jackson and Drew Brees.

The 49ers have kept opponents to fewer than 20 points in six of their eight games. That might be harder to accomplish in the second half, which means what we saw Thursday in Arizona might be a better indicator of what’s to come for Garoppolo than his first seven games.

Danny Angels asks: How do the 49ers fill the void left by Kwon Alexander tearing his pectoral?

It’s going to be rookie Dre Greenlaw, who might be next up on the team’s list of successful fifth-round draft finds.

Greenlaw was a four-year starter at Arkansas, he hasn’t missed a tackle this season as the starting “Sam” linebacker (which gets replaced by a defensive back when offenses use three receivers), and he’s been clocked over 20 miles per hour multiple times this season, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. He might already be better against the run than Alexander.

Though Alexander was one of the league’s best linebackers in coverage, which is where his production will be missed the most. Don’t be surprised to see opponents target Greenlaw through the air. That’s what he’s expecting, anyway.

What will be difficult to replace is the energy and attitude Alexander brings to the defense. The team hadn’t had an emotional enforcer like Alexander in years. Teammates fed of his energy. Fred Warner has said multiple times Alexander brought out a different side of his personality which has helped him develop into a more vocal leader.

Greenlaw is much more quiet and reserved, as most rookies are.

Chaz Kuhn asks: How long is Alexander under contract with the Niners? I’d hate to not see him with the team.

The front office loves Alexander, which is why it didn’t have a problem giving him a four-year, $54 million contract in the spring despite his ACL tear in October 2018. Those feelings haven’t changed despite his latest injury.

Could the 49ers move from Alexander on if Greenlaw proves to be a capable replacement at a far cheaper price? It’s not entirely out of the question.

San Francisco front-loaded Alexander’s contract, which means there would be little financial consequence if the team decided to release or trade him after the season. A release with a post June 1 designation would open $11.75 million in cap space and leave just $1 million in dead money, according to Overthecap.com.

That space could become valuable with new contracts needed for DeForest Buckner and George Kittle, and the looming free agencies of Arik Armstead, Emmanuel Sanders and Jimmie Ward.

That’s not to say I’m expecting the 49ers to seriously consider moving on from Alexander, but crazier things have happened. Greenlaw in 2019 is slated to make $665,429 while Alexander is due $12.75 million.

Carson C. Newton asks: How do you feel about the Niners winning the NFC and playing in the Super Bowl (reasonable health assumed)?

The last time the final undefeated team in the NFL won the Super Bowl was the Indianapolis Colts in 2006. Four others in the 15 seasons since have gone on to play in the Super Bowl and lose.

Those are surprisingly low numbers, but they also make sense. After all, success in the playoffs isn’t always about being the best team. It’s about peaking at the right time. The danger with any team that enjoys early-season success is maintaining that level throughout an extended playoff run.

If the 49ers get a first-round bye, getting to the Super Bowl would mean playing in 19 games. Most college teams play 12 games, many get a 13th bowl game and those who reach the national title game play 14.

That aside, San Francisco absolutely has the ingredients for a Super Bowl run. The defense is arguably the best in the NFL which should travel in the playoffs, whether it has to play outside (hello, Green Bay) or in a dome (New Orleans, anyone?).

The running game is arguably the best in the league, which complements the defense, and Jimmy Garoppolo has been one of the best quarterbacks in the league on third down. It’s hard to find glaring weaknesses right now, outside of inexperience. So a Super Bowl run wouldn’t be surprising..

Red and Gold Member asks: Do you believe Jalen Hurd will suit up this year and if so, will he make an impact? He looked like a real red zone and blocking threat in preseason but we have a lot of receivers.

Hurd was doing conditioning on the practice field this week, which is a good sign for his chances (Trent Taylor, meanwhile, hasn’t been seen in weeks and is believed to have suffered a setback in his recovery from a foot injury).

Hurd is eligible to return at any point following the November 24 game against the Packers and can start practicing after the Nov. 17 game against Arizona.

Back injuries can be tricky, particularly fractures, but the early signs indicate Hurd has a chance at returning. As to his effectiveness, it’s hard to predict how much playing time he would get. That would depend almost entirely on his health and knowledge of the offense.

And which receiver would he replace? Would it be Marquise Goodwin, who hasn’t been active the past two games? Or might the team move on from Kendrick Bourne, who’s been a key cog the last three years? It’s tough to say.

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