Confidence check, Week 11: Now that’s the defensive line that we remember
By Site Staff|Published On: November 16th, 2023 at 9:35 AM|
But we’re a bit concerned with the other side of the ball in the trenches
With the 49ers winning against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, we are officially past the season’s halfway point. Unrelated note: I miss the days when you could break the season into two evenly divided eight-game halves, but now it’s a much uglier number nine to get to the halfway point.
If I had written this after eight games, it would have a different tone, but things feel less gray after the 31-7 win at EverBank Stadium (Levi’s Southeast?). I even think there’s an argument to be made that the 49ers are on a two-game winning streak as re-claiming the NFC West while on bye week should count as a win.
How confident am I in each position group? I’m less optimistic after our last confidence check after the 49ers beat the Dallas Cowboys by 32 points, but I still feel good about the 2023 49ers. And I adjusted like Steve Wilks coming down to the field from the booth. Instead of ranking on low to high confidence, I power ranked each position group in order of most confidence to least:
1. Defensive line
After recording zero sacks in a game for the first time since Week 17 of last season against Minnesota, the 49ers defensive line has bounced back, recording 36 pressures and eight sacks over the previous two games – the most sacks for the 49ers in a two-game stretch since Weeks 6 and 7 last year – with two of the pressures forcing Trevor Lawrence interceptions on Sunday.
Oh, and the 49ers added Chase Young to rush the quarterback across Nick Bosa at the trade deadline, a move that has already paid dividends with the duo splitting a sack against Jacksonville with Bosa forcing a turnover.
The 49ers base defensive line of Bosa, Young, Javon Hargrave, and Arik Armstead has to rank among the best – if not THE best – defensive lines in the league. And that doesn’t include Randy Gregory, Javon Kinlaw, Kevin Givens, and Clelin Ferrell. The acquisition of Young not only gave the 49ers its best pass-rush duo of the Shanahan era, but it also gave it the deepest.
The defensive line has been the group that’s headlined the 49ers for a few years now, and with its current star power, it’s easily the group to be most confident in for the last eight weeks of the season.
Three 49ers linebackers have played at least 200 snaps this season: Fred Warner (551), Dre Greenlaw (454), and Oren Burks (200). Here’s how the three rank in some hand-picked stats I found from Pro Football Focus:
Fred Warner – 86.6
Oren Burks – 78.5
Dre Greenlaw – 67.4
Oren Burks – 90.4 (also leads team)
Fred Warner – 76.1
Dre Greenlaw 67.1
Missed tackle percentage
Oren Burks – 6.7 (third-lowest on the defense, minimum 100 snaps)
Fred Warner – 15.2
Dre Greenlaw – 15.3
I don’t need to explain just how good Warner and Greenlaw are. They are hands down the best linebacking duo in the league. Let’s appreciate Oren Burks.
There were plenty of questions about how the 49ers would replace Azeez Al-Shaair – who currently leads the Titans in tackles – to the point where John Lynch used back-to-back draft picks to address the position. Burks played 178 more snaps on special teams than he did on defense in 2022, but beat out the likes of Dee Winters and Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles for the third spot on the depth chart, and it doesn’t look like he’s surrendering it any time soon.
Two of the best players at the position and a very solid third make this a position to be confident in. The positional value of defensive line vs. linebacker gives the pass rush a slight edge.
3. Wide receiver/tight end
The best position group on the offense is easily the deepest – and that doesn’t even include Christian McCaffrey, who’s tied for the team lead in receptions.
It’s almost a spoil of riches with Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel, and George Kittle running routes for an offense that already has McCaffrey, but that’s what Shanahan has in this group. Aiyuk and Kittle have combined for just under half of Brock Purdy’s 15 touchdown passes. At the same time, Samuel continues to be one of the most feared offensive weapons in the league, averaging nearly eight yards after the catch per reception.
It doesn’t take a particular quarterback to make this offense work with the weapons supplied. Imagine a Shanahan offense with a quarterback you can have confidence in! An offense like that could average, like, 30 points per game!
If the 49ers offense were a car, the weapons would be the components to make it go fast, Kyle Shanahan would be the keys, and Brock Purdy would be the driver. The car can have all the best parts, but if the driver is subpar, the car will suffer.
Even with consecutive games with multiple fourth-quarter interceptions, Purdy has proven to be the right driver.
The second-year quarterback bounced back after the bye week with a near-300-yard game against Jacksonville, where he didn’t commit a turnover against a defense that entered among the top of the league in forcing them. He’s led the offense to twice as many games with 30 or more points (6) than 20 or less (3). And he’s been doing it by pushing the ball downfield, leading the league in average yards per attempt at 9.3, a mark that, if maintained, would set a 49ers franchise record, according to Pro Football Reference.
It’s still early in his career, but Purdy gives me the most confidence in a 49ers quarterback under Shanahan on a week-to-week basis, and that’s good enough for medium-to-high confidence in him.
5. Running back
Deebo Samuel is listed as a wide receiver, so he’s omitted when I say the lack of depth at running back is a concern.
Backs not named Christian McCaffrey have combined for 217 yards on 62 carries (3.5 yards per attempt) for two touchdowns. Not the worst, but when 54 percent of the yards are coming from Jordan Mason – comfortably the third running back – on just a third of the carries, there might be an issue with the backup, and there sure is.
Elijah Mitchell has only one game this season where he’s averaged more than three yards per attempt this year (Week 2). In the three games after – Weeks 6-8 after missing two games with a knee injury – Mitchell had six carries for minus two yards before finishing with 23 yards on eight attempts against Jacksonville.
Despite rushing for 44 more yards on nine fewer attempts, Mason has had fewer games with at least one carry (4) than Mitchell has (7), even though Mason has been active for all nine games. A large part of that is due to Mason’s issues with pass blocking – his 16.7 pass block PFF grade is the lowest on the team and 43 points lower than Mitchell’s – but at some point, there needs to be some production from McCaffrey’s spell back.
Samuel cleans things up, but ideally, he sees fewer carries as the team’s second-best receiver. Until either Mitchell starts producing more or Mason figures out his pass-blocking, it’s too hard to have high confidence in the group, even with McCaffrey as the top back.
6. Special teams
Mitch Wishnowsky has the highest percentage of punts inside the 20 in the league, Ray-Ray McCloud is averaging nearly 10 yards per punt return, the coverage teams haven’t made any obscene mistakes, and the NFL has rendered kickoffs obsolete.
Everything seems sturdy with the specialists, minus the kicker position. Jake Moody hasn’t been bad, but shaky might be a better descriptor. He’s only missed three kicks this season, but two of the three misses came against Cleveland – including the potential game-winner – in a game that San Francisco lost by two. Even his two makes on Sunday were near-misses (but still counts the same).
The 49ers have been solid at all spots on the special teams except for the one that can put points on the board. Until Moody finds his footing in the NFL, my confidence in the group is somewhere in the middle.
Adjustments needed to be made after the 49ers secondary allowed 378 yards to Kirk Cousins and 283 and three touchdowns to Joe Burrow in consecutive games amid the three-game losing streak. The adjustment was taking Isaiah Oliver off the field. At least, that was the case in the one game out of the bye week.
In the season’s first eight games, Oliver averaged 45 snaps on defense, exclusively in the slot. Against Jacksonville last week, he was only in on three plays. By pulling Oliver, Deommodore Lenoir’s workload increased, playing 11 snaps out wide when Jacksonville ran out with two receivers and 40 snaps out of the slot when the Jaguars lined up with three out wide.
With Lenoir rotation, that meant more snaps for Ambry Thomas, who played a season-high 44 snaps on defense, and he played well. But can the 49ers rely on a group of Lenoir, Thomas, and Charvarius Ward down the stretch? Both Lenoir and Ward have been solid – although the penalties are an issue for Ward – but Thomas has been inconsistent at best in his young career.
Talanoa Hufanga and Tashaun Gipson have again proved to be a solid backbone to the defense – combining for four of the team’s 13 interceptions – but the cornerback group almost feels incomplete, an issue that had the potential to rear its head when the team announced a group of five on the initial-53.
8. Offensive line
Statistically, the offensive line hasn’t been too bad at pass or run blocking. The 49ers offense has allowed only 16 sacks this season (fourth-fewest in the league), which is only 5.9 percent of dropbacks (12th-lowest percentage), while the 49ers rushing attack ranks fifth in yards per game.
It’s just too difficult to look past the issues on the right side of the line. Of the 80 pressures the starting five of the offensive line have allowed, 42 have come from Spencer Burford and Colton McKivitz, according to PFF. Only seven of the 16 sacks allowed have been the responsibility of the offensive line – five credited to McKivitz and two to Burford.
Burford might have a lifeline when Aaron Banks returns from injury, with Shanahan mentioning a possible platoon at right guard between Burford and Jon Feliciano. Still, the offense might be stuck with McKivitz. And what’s most frustrating about it is that you could see these issues coming before the season. Instead of using draft capital or addressing the loss of Mike McGlinchey over the off-season, the 49ers decided McKivitz and his 29 professional snaps at right tackle before 2023 were sufficient.
There’s an obvious weak link on the line, and as the season deepens, opposing teams will begin to take advantage, and they have already. The left side of the line gives plenty of confidence, but the difference in production between the two sides doesn’t instill much confidence.