By Cam Inman
SANTA CLARA – This won’t be Kyle Shanahan’s first time roaming the 49ers’ sideline in a marquee game against the Chargers.
Sunday night’s spotlight, however, doesn’t offer the ultimate stakes as a matchup on Jan. 29, 1995, the night of the 49ers’ last Super Bowl victory, when a teenage Shanahan snuck a sideline media pass through his dad, Mike, the 49ers’ offensive coordinator at that fabled time.
“It was great just being down there, being part of that stuff, being on the field after, being able to wander around the locker room and try to collect anybody’s gloves who left them around,” Kyle Shanahan recalled on the eve of the 2019 49ers’ Super Bowl return.
Now, midway through his sixth season as coach, Shanahan must lead the 49ers (4-4) on another playoff push that can’t afford many hiccups, especially after last week’s refreshing bye ahead of this home game against the Los Angeles Chargers (5-3).
“If you’d have told us (preseason) we would be 4-4 at the midway point, we’d be pretty pissed off about it, right? But we’ve learned a lot,” linebacker Fred Warner said. “We’ve taken the losses that we’ve had and learned from them. We’re getting guys back, getting healthy, continuing to get better with the group we came in.”
The 49ers’ playoff optimism is also rooted in their recent history: runs to two NFC Championships and in their past three seasons, by virtue of the easy way (an 8-0 start in 2019) and the hard way (a 3-5 start last year).
“We’re pretty well positioned,” Nick Bosa added. “… But we definitely need to take it one day at a time because there’s a lot of games left and a lot of things are going to happen throughout the year still.”
Here are five keys to victory, in the 49ers’ first home game since a 44-23 defeat to the Kansas City Chiefs three weeks ago:
5. SOUND COVERAGE
Yes, Jason Verrett’s season-ending Achilles tear Wednesday wrecked the 49ers’ mood, and it denied them of a highly respected veteran for a second-half push. The cornerback corps forges ahead with the expected trio of Charvarius Ward, Deommodore Lenior and Jimmie Ward.
Lenoir was Oregon teammates with Herbert – “That’s my bro!” – and is familiar with his “crazy arm strength” plus his athletic and competitive ways that could key a rally.
Lenoir referred to two memories from their Oregon days. The good: His sophomore year, he baited Herbert to throw a deep out and, although he broke it up, he might have intercepted it if not for the fact Herbert threw it so hard it bounced off Lenoir’s arm.
The bad memory came from playing postseason pick-up basketball in Oregon’s rec center: “I pulled up from deep — that’s when like Dame Lillard was shooting deep 3s — so I shot a deep 3 in Herbert’s face,” Lenoir recalled. “I was getting back to play defense and all I saw was Herbert coming down the lane, he was in the air and backscratching and he dunked on me.”
Help should come this game from Nick Bosa. Herbert, with limited targets, will get the ball out fast, however. He will throw underneath to running back Austin Ekeler and tight end Gerald Everett, especially because of injuries to top wide receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. But, if the Chargers are forced to play catch up as usual, they’ll air it out and hope for the best, which, in the NFL, can be a pass-interference call or two or three from cutting deficits real fast. Herbert looks improved from a Week 2 rib injury, and he’s getting the ball out faster and moving better, defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said.
4. PROTECT GAROPPOLO
Herbert’s counterpart, Jimmy Garoppolo, is coming off one of his career-best showings: 21-of-25 in an Oct. 30, 31-14 win at the Rams. He’s thrown 11 touchdowns in seven games (about par for him) but just four interceptions, with a 66.7 completion percentage.
Now Garoppolo has an armada of weapons around him. “When we got the whole regime out there, it’s pretty fun,” Garoppolo said of this week’s practices. “It’s just a matchup nightmare for defenses, it’s pick your poison type of thing. And so it’s my job to get those guys the ball in space, let them go run and be the special players that they are.”
An even better stat to reflect Garoppolo’s efficiency: an NFL-best 17 consecutive games with a passer rating over 80.0, excluding playoffs (which would nullify that stat).
Better yet, Garoppolo has not committed a turnover in the 49ers’ four wins. Key to continuing that is recognizing not only safety Derwin James (more on him later) but also defensive end Khalil Mack, whom Garoppolo described as “heavy on that edge. Strong hands, sets the edge well.”
3. EYE-BALLING DERWIN
James is more than the Chargers’ safety. He’s better than Jalen Ramsey as a versatile threat, as he’s been compared to by several 49ers. He’s the potential spoke in the 49ers’ wheel of offensive fortune.
James will freelance and/or line up at almost every spot including defensive end but excluding outside cornerback. Projection: the 49ers force him to blanket tight end George Kittle, thus freeing up other targets for Garoppolo. Kittle and James had great battles in August 2021 joint practices.
“It will be like going against myself, honestly, and I’m kind of excited about that,” Kittle said. “It will be really fun. And he’s a hell of a competitor too. He’s going to bring it every single play. He plays in a division with really good tight ends so he goes against great tight ends every single week.Travis Kelce, Kittle’s counterpart on the Kansas City Chiefs, had five catches for 51 yards and no touchdowns in a Week 2 win over James and the Chargers.
2. McDEEBO PACKAGE
Shanahan, as is his right as coach and play caller, doesn’t want to minimize his offense’s potential as just a two-man show with newcomer Christian McCaffrey and Deebo Samuel. He’s talked this past week of how the 49ers are simply more dangerous when deploying five potential receivers – the honorable mention being Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk and whoever else’s number is called.
McCaffrey had a 22-snap cameo in his 49ers’ debut against the Chiefs, about 48 hours after arriving via trade from Carolina. Samuel played in that debacle, but a hamstring strain kept him from the 49ers’ last game, an Oct. 30 rout of the Los Angeles Rams in which McCaffrey accounted for three touchdowns – via pass, catch and run.
“I wasn’t too much surprised,” Samuel said. “You turn the tape on and he does a lot of crazy things. He’s out there doing his job.”
Said McCaffrey of his colleague: “Honestly, Deebo, you can line him up anywhere and he’s elite anywhere you put him, so it definitely puts a lot of stress on the defense. I’m lucky and happy to be able to suit up on the same team.”
1. DISTANCE RUNNERS
The Chargers have yielded over 200 rushing yards in three of their past four games. They’re allowing an NFL-high 5.71 yards per run.
Yet Kittle brought up a great point: the Chargers allowed 201 yards on 35 carries at Atlanta in their last game, but the Falcons had minimal or negative gains on a couple of fourth-quarter runs, and the Chargers prevailed 20-17.
“While that is, I hope (running) is our bread and butter, that we run the ball 30 to 40 times,” Kittle said.
This has the makings of the 2019 playoff openers, in which the 49ers ran 89 times and passed just 27 in their wins over Minnesota and Green Bay.
Not only do the 49ers possess McCaffrey and Samuel, but they’re expected to welcome back 2021 leading rusher Elijah Mitchell, who’s been out with a knee sprain since the season opener. Noticeably absent from the rotation will be Jeff Wilson Jr., who got traded to Miami last week.
“(Mitchell) and Christian are too very different running backs that run the ball very hard and I’m excited to see them both tote it a little bit,” Kittle added. “But I definitely think we’re going to come out and run the ball down their throats, and I hope we do.”
The Chargers’ past four opponents have come out like gangbusters in the first quarter, outscoring them 14-3 at the Browns (30-28 win), 10-0 vs. Broncos (19-16 win), 17-0 vs. Seahawks (37-23 loss), and, 10-0 at the Falcons (20-17 win). That is a 51-3 combined first-quarter differential in those four games, and 54-16 on the season. The 49ers are edging their foes 37-31 in the first quarter but 102-6 in the first half.
Source: Paradise Post