San Francisco 49ers

On 49ers: S.F. still figuring out what works; here’s what doesn’t

San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Bruce Ellington has excellent speed and versatility. The 49ers need to take advantage of it more than they have in the past.
San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Bruce Ellington has excellent speed and versatility. The 49ers need to take advantage of it more than they have in the past. AP

Reason No. 67,337 why the NFL preseason is a colossal waste of time and effort is Mike McCarthy’s answer to the question: “Are you surprised the 49ers haven’t been competitive the last two games?”

“I wouldn’t say that,” the Packers coach said.

Say what, Mike?

“I think anytime you get into the first quarter of the season, these are some of the toughest games to play in,” McCarthy explained. “Everybody thinks you have a direction you want to go in as a football team. Let’s face it – you don’t get to practice as much as you’re used to in training camp.”

Yes, but teams do have four – four – three-hour preseason games, which the 49ers sort of used to winnow down a few position groups but, like most teams, didn’t use to evaluate their schemes and personnel groups to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

Teams are so intent on keeping things a surprise for their opening games that they don’t work on or test anything meaningful in the preseason. Well, the 49ers won the opener but –surprise! – lost their next two. Badly.

Now they are in the position of having to figure out what to keep, what to add and what to jettison. Essentially, the first four weeks of the regular season have become the new preseason.

Essentially, the first four weeks of the regular season have become the new preseason.

Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers hit on the same theme later in the day when asked about Sunday’s opponent.

“We’re three weeks in, so a lot of teams are still figuring out the stuff they want to run and the stuff that’s working,” he said. “They’re whittling down their plans and continuing to add new stuff to the mix that they may have worked on in training camp. Teams are continuing to try to find their identity.”

On that note, here are some things the 49ers should whittle away by the time Rodgers arrives:

▪ Why doesn’t Ahmad Brooks, the team’s top pass rusher, have a sack yet? One reason is he and fellow outside linebacker Aaron Lynch are being sent into coverage more than in previous seasons. Brooks even was assigned to cover Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald – he ranks 18th on the NFL’s all-time receiving list – last Sunday. The not-surprising result: Fitzgerald had an easy 14-yard catch and run and picked up a first down.

0 Sacks by Ahmad Brooks, the 49ers’ top pass rusher, this season

According to Pro Football Focus, the 49ers’ starting outside linebackers have been in coverage on about 40 percent of pass plays this year. Last season, the figure was 15-20 percent.

More than that, they are being asked to play man-to-man coverage, whereas in previous seasons they merely dropped into a zone. Brooks and Lynch both are in the 265-pound range. They are built for short, powerful bursts of energy upfield, not for trailing wideouts downfield.

In the past two games, there’s been a sense that the 49ers’ defense has been outsmarting itself. Perhaps the best plan against Rodgers is to simplify: Have Brooks and Lynch rush the passer and have the safeties in coverage to guard against the big plays that have gutted the 49ers the past two weeks.

▪ The Packers’ top pass catcher is Randall Cobb, a speedy, 5-foot-10 wideout they line up at various positions throughout a game, including in the backfield. Cobb is a threat on every play; he keeps defenses on their toes.

The 49ers have their own version of Cobb in Bruce Ellington, who has been lightly utilized over the past year. That’s largely because he’s had trouble staying healthy, but he seems to be past his recent ankle injury, and the 49ers should carve out a sizable role for him.

Ellington was healthy in Week 1 but played only three snaps on offense. Another No. 3 wideout candidate, Quinton Patton, played 13 snaps. Patton’s most noteworthy plays over the past month involve him going backward – a catch-and-run in the preseason in which he lost 12 yards, a running-into-the-kicker penalty in Week 1 and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty last Sunday.

▪ If Ellington is more involved on offense, perhaps someone could take over his role as kick returner. That someone – Jarryd Hayne – has the best explosive-plays-to-touches ratio on the team but seems to be restricted to punt returner.

Hayne had exactly one opportunity to field a punt in Arizona, and his 37-yard return set up the 49ers’ lone score. Raise your hand if you think the Packers are going to be doing a lot of punting Sunday. The 49ers must get the ball in Hayne’s hands more, and one way to do that is to have him handle kick returns, too.

Matt Barrows: @mattbarrows, read more about the team at sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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