49ers Beaten Hard
It’s taken a couple of days to overcome the mixture of anger and frustration the 49ers’ 40-10 thrashing by the Cowboys left us with. Ask most Niners fans of my generation, and the team they would love to beat more than any other is Dallas. So to lose the way we did is particularly humiliating. It was far easier to lose in Overtime twice in a row as we have recently, than be beaten out of sight like that. Not troubling the endzone until deep in trash time is a huge disappointment.
But in the cold light of day, it’s important to continue to search for the positives in the rebuilding project. The Faithful are still (mainly) behind the coach. I certainly am. There are a few voices of discontent across social media, but those are the misguided few who thought that a change of regime would mean instant change of fortune. He can’t wheel out the Falcons playbook from last year as he has none of the same quality of players on the field to use. The wholesale rebuilding project has suffered a setback after some encouraging recent work had started to paper over some cracks, but we understand it still remains very much a work in progress and will for a couple of years.
In an interesting if not unexpected development this week, we handed a first NFL start to CJ Beathard, our rookie QB, after a series of underwhelming performances by Brian Hoyer led to him being replaced during our previous defeat to the Redskins. I had previously suggested this would happen in exactly that timeframe, but anyone who’s watched the Niners this year could have guessed that after the Cardinals game.
Sadly we were still operating the severely limited Hoyer playbook so the flashes of individuality from Beathard were few and far between, albeit comparatively impressive when he got the chance. Two Touchdown passes against the Redskins, and 235 yards passing with no interceptions against Dallas was steady if not spectacular, behind a receiving corps who sometimes look like we’re taking spoons to a knife fight – before one of them breaks out one highlight reel catch per game (I mean you Marquise Goodwin). We surprisingly have the 4th best First Down average in the league, which does suggest something goes wrong after that.
Beathard was aware enough this week to run when no options presented themselves; taking off on 5 rushes for 30 yards and a mazy late touchdown run is respectable for someone who has never been renowned as a dual threat. However, and you’d expect this from a rookie, he still exhibited some naiveté around his decision making – taking slightly too long to decide nothing was on and twice paying a high price. Firstly being sacked for a loss that moved us out of field goal range early on, and secondly getting strip sacked in the red zone after doing the (very) hard work of moving us down the field. On both occasions the ball should have been thrown away. But A+ for effort.
These are lessons that he will learn. Kyle Shanahan’s seat is certainly cool enough to give Beathard a few games, maybe the rest of this season, to get used to the league and give a fair assessment before working out the next move in the QB stakes. Troy Aikman in commentary was encouraging in his observations on Beathard’s performance after being thrown in the deep-end, noting that his own debut was a disaster. Look where he ended up.
Our rookie raw diamond of a Linebacker Reuben Foster made his comeback from injury amid a bit of fanfare; however he twice came out of the game for assessment on different injuries. Aside from one huge tackle, familiar to anyone who watched his college tape, he was kept guessing as the Cowboys mixed up their offense and played a tactically smart game.
On the flipside, the Dallas loss further evidenced some gaping flaws in the nascent Niners. As I’ve previously mentioned it was obvious we desperately need cover in the secondary. Dallas took advantage mercilessly. The Cornerbacks were beaten constantly, and continued to give away a debilitating number of penalties. Rashard Robinson has become somewhat of a symbol of these errors amongst the Faithful – it’s his name that is frequently mentioned alongside “not up to it”. He’s been penalised 8 times in 4 games for 73 yards; 3 of these are for Pass Interference and another 3 for Illegal Use of Hands or Holding, meaning he’s got more penalties than the rest of the secondary combined. Situationally they’re those important ones that rip the optimism out of the crowd when it looks like we’re making a stop.
We started to look like we’d regressed to the bad old days of last season and a total inability to stop the run against the Cowboys. But, considering we’d managed quite well for 6 games I’ll chalk this down as an aberration.
One thing I have really noticed this season though, and not just in our games (although we’re terrible for it), to be a huge drop in the quality of tackling. I lose count of the amount of times in any NFL game that runners break one-on-one tackles. Listen out for the groans of the commentators in the next live broadcast you watch. I can’t understand it – tackling is now pretty much the only way to contact someone in the NFL without getting penalised – and yet teams seem to be getting worse at it. Perhaps it’s a rookie thing, coming out of a college game where there’s so much passing. Maybe something I’ll look into more.
Anyway, I’ll give Ezekiel Elliott all the credit he deserves for an aggressive rushing masterclass, and some fantastic blocking but we didn’t half help him on the way. And if you can excuse him getting away in the confines of the line of scrimmage (you know that’s where he goes), there’s no excuse for the 3 missed (and I deliberately don’t say broken) tackles in the screen pass he busted for his 72 yards of passing reception, streaking past the Defense who barely laid a hand on him.
So, as I asked last time, where to next?
Commentators have recently raised the point I made 3 weeks ago about Bill Walsh‘s first year team going 0-7 in 1979. The 49ers have never been 0-8. However a trip to the high-flying Eagles looms large – they have the best record in the league, but more importantly to us, they offer a template for how to get a young quarterback into the league and give him time to develop without punishing his mistakes. Carson Wentz is reaping the benefits this season, being talked about as a possible MVP candidate. His team aren’t superstars yet look capable of beating anyone on their day behind a tremendous pass-rush.
As I’ve suggested, tackling beyond the line of scrimmage and the secondary are still the two areas for concern. We allowed our most prolific tackler (Linebacker Navorro Bowman) to leave last week, and he promptly moved across the Bay to Oakland, leading the Raiders in tackles during their incredible win against the Chiefs.
We need reinforcements in the Safeties and Linebackers, and some experience in the Cornerbacks. I call again for a free agent signing to at least make teams think twice before taking on one side of the field, which would allow us to shore up the other with safety help over the top.
Fullback Kyle Juszczyk has been out injured for 2 weeks again, but is back in practice and should return against the Eagles. We’ll need him at his blocking best against their fearsome pass-rush. Which means he won’t be much threat receiving.
So looking at our next four games; they are Eagles (A) Cardinals (H) Giants (H) and Seahawks (A). I have a realistic hope of 2 home wins with Beathard allowed a little more licence if he is truly given the keys to the offense.
Yet again, the Cardinals looked anaemic in their dispiriting loss to the rampant Rams at Wembley. Certainly the loss of Carson Palmer will weaken them, and Drew Stanton is no game breaker. It might give our secondary a respite and Defense opportunity to get off the field.
And the Giants turned in another poor Offensive performance against Seattle which might mean they’re a little easier to stop. However they still have a strong Defense, but it suffered as the Niners does with constantly being on the field. That could go either way, depending on who Eli Manning has to catch passes, and where/if/when he decides to throw them.
A losing record is a certainty, 2 or 3 wins are still possible. We’ve had a setback but a new Hoyer-less day is dawning. At least we know it’s “only” Jadeveon Clowney without JJ Watt when we face the Texans in week 14.
With little to play for, soon we’ll start looking at the battle between ourselves and Browns for number one draft pick in 2018. And what would be available versus what we need most.
In Kyle we trust. Still. Honestly, we do.