One month, and four losses into the season; it’s time to reassess the team, and probably my predictions and expectations.
As I write this, the disappointment and frustration from last night’s walk-off 15-12 overtime loss to the Cardinals is still raw. Our Defense constantly stopped Carson Palmer, only to find themselves back on the field less than 2 minutes later as Brian Hoyer stalled time and again. Eventually the time on the field told on the Defense, a tired pass interference penalty and a slight lapse in coverage allowed Palmer to pick a pass to the great Larry Fitzgerald, and it was over.
But let’s drag myself out of the doldrums and focus on the season so far. Firstly, on a superficial level, let’s look at the record. We’re 0-4 for the first time since our deeply depressing 2004 season, but that doesn’t tell the full story. We certainly weren’t expected to win 3 of those games, and have lost to our divisional rivals the Seahawks, Cardinals and Rams by a combined margin of only 8 points. So does that perhaps suggest we’re not far off these teams…?
Robert Saleh, our new Defensive Co-ordinator deserves huge credit as our previously porous Defense held the Seahawks and Cards out of the endzone for a combined 2 hours. He’s changed us to a 4-3 base defensive formation (maybe for a change of mind-set as much as anything) and this seems to suit DeForest Buckner, Elvis Dumervil, Eli Harold and Solomon Thomas who have managed to disrupt and pressure the opposing QB; plus we’ve managed to stop some of the run that decimated us last year.
We’re a (relatively) respectable 22nd in passing yards allowed and 24th in points conceded per game. Amazingly, we’ve improved to 16th in rushing yards allowed from being 32nd and dead last in 2016. So progress has been made on one side of the ball. The problem comes from the fact that the Defense are 31st in amount of snaps they have to play – an average of 70 per game.
On the other side of the ball, there are also positives as our own Running game has been carrying the team in ways we hoped we wouldn’t need. Carlos Hyde has probably been our Offensive star, despite being battered in every game; he’s over 320 yards already. The rookie Matt Brieda has done well in bursts as our second back, and he’s done less than a third of Hyde’s work. Our Rushing Offense accounts for over a third of our total yards – 13th overall despite only ranking 23rd in number of attempts.
The rookie receiver Trent Taylor has also impressed doing his best Julian Edelman impression, and looks like he could be an asset for a long time, but is not used enough by Hoyer.
And finally we’re hanging on to the ball much better than last year – both fumbles and interceptions are down – and the main culprit for all of our giveaways is actually Hoyer on (only?) 4 INT and a fumble. That’s actually not too bad.
The Positively Depressing
So the major concern is the Offense. Expectations were high with Kyle Shanahan’s arrival from the high-scoring Falcons. Reality has bitten, however, in terms of your plan being only as good as the players on the field.
We are second to last in terms of time in possession. We just can’t seem to move the ball and consequently don’t look like a threat. Costly drops on critical downs by Receivers have been exacerbated by Brian Hoyer’s uncanny inability to find them down the field the rest of the time. I have lost count of the number of incompletions that miss by several yards. He runs an Offense that looks first for the checkdown to a short throw, and next to throw it away. So we’re very easy to press or buzz and shut down. It’s very similar to what was endemic under Blaine Gabbert – happy to look for short completions that never gave the receiver any chance of making a first down. Shanahan himself, in the post-Cards interview said “Hoyer needs to play better – and we need to play better around him”.
This was previously epitomised by the head-in-hands moment (his and ours) on the very first play of the game against the Rams, where he dropped back and rushed a short pass that was not on, directly into the hands of Nickell Robey-Coleman who returned to the 3 yard line. LA scored on the very next play and we were behind at home after 12 seconds, setting the tone. Although some credit to Hoyer for persisting and actually going within a missed PAT of overtime in a crazy game where both Defenses disappeared.
The figures aren’t kind. We’ve failed to score a touchdown in 3 of the 4 games. Our success rate in the red zone has dropped 30% from last year. So even on the rare occasions we get there, we end up leaving with 3 points not 7 – and that’s with the bright spot of Robbie Gould’s kicking scoring a huge proportion of our points.
The final thing to mention in the negatives is the volume (and length) of penalties being given away. Even without looking at the figures, I’d say we are giving away an unsustainably heavy amount of penalties. And that’s actually backed up by the stats. We’re dead last in giving away nearly 10 penalties a game costing us 77 yards per game. You’d say that’s a coach killer, but someone has been coaching these guys and must realise who the culprits are. I’d say it’s more often in the secondary but can’t blame them for being under so much pressure so perhaps that will sort itself out if we can get them off the field more!
So where to next?
I’m an optimist, and won’t get too carried away throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Bear in mind we all knew this was a rebuilding job after 2 appalling seasons; I remember reading that Bill Walsh‘s first year team went 0-7 in 1979 and look where we ended up after that (1981 Superbowl win). We drafted Joe Montana and the sky was the limit!
Much as I’d like to, it’s unfair to pin all the Offense’s struggles on Brian Hoyer. He certainly doesn’t have the quality of receiving weapons around him that the Shanahan would like. And the playcalling that we all thought would suit him has left him looking a little lost. Shanahan needs to remember he’s not Matt Ryan, and he has no Julio Jones/Sanu/Gabriel.
So on that note, a little further reflection on my own thought of four weeks ago when I looked at the state of the Roster, to see what else we can fetch out of the back of the Roster cupboard.
CJ Beathard, the Rookie, is the back-up to Brian Hoyer. If things carry on like this much longer, even with the leeway granted to this season’s team, he’ll get a chance at Hoyer’s expense. I reckon another 2 or 3 weeks like the last might tip the balance. We’d hope for more Deshaun Watson than Deshone Kizer, and I don’t think Shanahan wants to drop the weight of the Offense entirely on him, unlike the unfortunate but talented Kizer.
Kyle Juszczyk caught only his second reception of the year last night after a concussion check, and ran for a couple of pounding first downs which looked promising. If we can utilise him as a threat from the backfield rather than just a blocker and alongside Taylor underneath, that will mean linebackers and safeties needing to drop into coverage, which should open up the run and/or some space downfield.
Receivers-wise, Pierre Garcon hasn’t hit the heights yet, mainly because he’s heavily covered due to the lack of other threats, but he has shown flashes of quality. Marquise Goodwin has been a big disappointment, he’s personally responsible for some dreadful drops and some brainless play. Victor Bolden and Kendrick Bourne have hardly had a chance to break open a big play in the return game. I’d suggest we need to pick up an experienced veteran free agent – as an example both Vincent Jackson and Victor Cruz are free and offer chain moving expertise, and might be worth adding into the inexperienced WR mix. They can’t be worse than what we currently offer.
There are still some concerns over the secondary, Eric Reid being out injured is a big miss but he should return soon. The inexperienced Cornerbacks have not been as badly exposed as they could have been as we’ve managed to rush the passer, but we certainly don’t have a lockdown on either side of the pitch. Again, some free agent veteran assistance, maybe someone like Sam Shields or Perrish Cox might lend some weight of reputation to one side of the field if not actual big plays.
My optimistic expectation for the season was we’d beat some of the other teams in transition and we’ve only played one of those yet, so Rams (3-1), Bears (1-3), Jaguars (2-2) – plus maybe away at the Luck-less Colts who are up next. The Giants have had an awful start but you’d think their talent should be shining through by the time we play them in November. And the Titans will be worrying about the injured Marcus Mariota again, so perhaps they’ll have nothing to play for by the time we play them.
My shock prediction was that we could beat the Cardinals at Levi’s Stadium. On last night’s performance this wouldn’t be too much of shock. A losing record is still almost a certainty, but 4 or 5 wins is still very possible. We have seen progress, and just need to see the light at the end to make sure it’s not a Jadeveon Clowney or JJ Watt barrelling towards Beathard in week 14.
In Kyle we trust. Still.