No need to make this complicated. The 49ers are 5-3, which in past years wouldn’t be cause for alarm — except 2023 began with a 5-0 start.
To get back on track in their quest for Super Bowl LVIII, the 49ers need only to look to the same players who ignited the fast start. Coach Kyle Shanahan and a number of players said after the third consecutive loss that the team had everything it needed to turn things around. Still, the 49ers went out the next day and made a trade for Washington defensive end Chase Young.
Additionally, Deebo Samuel (hairline shoulder fracture) and Trent Williams (ankle), both injured three weeks ago, could be back next Sunday for the game at Jacksonville.
“I’m ready to go,” Samuel said during his weekly appearance on the Kay Adams podcast.
There is hope that Williams will be back at practice Wednesday. He was back within three weeks last season after a high ankle sprain deemed more serious than his current injury.
Here’s a look at the biggest names who are responsible for giving quarterback Brock Purdy the kind of supporting cast that can lift the 49ers back into the realm of the NFL’s elite:
— Up & Adams (@UpAndAdamsShow) November 2, 2023
Deebo Samuel: Some of it has to do with Shanahan’s play-calling, but even when healthy, Samuel’s use and production has fallen off dramatically since McCaffrey arrived on Oct. 20, 2022.
Samuel has played in 16 of 22 games (including playoffs) with McCaffrey and in those games has 111 touches (rushes and receptions) for 980 yards and five touchdowns. McCaffrey, having played in all 22 games, has 432 touches for 2,454 yards and 26 touchdowns.
When McCaffrey arrived, the matchup nightmare was supposed to enhance both players given their versatile skill sets. Instead, it has pushed Samuel into the background.
If Samuel’s self-diagnosis is correct and he’s back at full strength, it would behoove Shanahan to get Deebo more involved and maybe in the process keep McCaffrey from being beaten to a pulp before the end of the season.
Keep in mind Samuel signed a three-year contract extension worth a maximum of $71.5 million and then spent last year a step slow after his contract holdout. A return to the 2021 Deebo would be huge.
Trent Williams: The 49ers have had nothing but good things to say about Jaylon Moore and the job he did subbing for Williams the past two games. But while Moore may be emerging as a potential NFL starter, he’s a long way from what Williams gives the 49ers at full strength.
And if left guard Aaron Banks misses more than a game or two with turf toe, Williams becomes all the more important with journeyman Jon Feliciano on the left side. There have been no complaints of Williams dropping off at age 35, but he needs to stay healthy because the ripple effect when he’s gone is felt across the entire offensive front.
Christian McCaffrey: The 49ers really can’t ask much more of McCaffrey and in fact should probably be asking a little less to get him to the postseason in one piece.
One way is to make more of an effort to get Elijah Mitchell or Jordan Mason in the game for some carries and use more formations which put McCaffrey in the slot or split wide.
The bye should do wonders for McCaffrey, whose yards per carry over the last four games has dipped to 2.7 even as he continues a touchdown streak that has reached 17 games.
McCaffrey is probably still beating himself up over the lost fumble against the Vikings at the Minnesota 12.
George Kittle: Kittle is on pace for a season that would get him 68 receptions for 941 yards after a nine-catch, 149-yard game against Cincinnati. He’s got three touchdowns — all of which came in the blowout win over Dallas.
It hasn’t been unusual for Kittle to go from heavily targeted one week to virtually ignored the next depending on how he’s deployed as a blocker and receiver.
Kittle hasn’t missed a game to injury this season, good news for a player who hasn’t played an entire schedule since 2018. His presence is crucial because the 49ers have yet to bring in anyone remotely resembling him at tight end.
Brandon Aiyuk: The 49ers picked up his fifth-year option for 2024, which means Aiyuk is in line for a big extension in the offseason and so far he’s earned it. Despite missing one game, he has 35 receptions for 620 yards and a 17.7 yards per catch average that ranks among the NFL leaders.
Having gotten better each season, Aiyuk is also a willing and enthusiastic blocker. With Samuel more of a catch-and-run receiver rather than a downfield route-runner, Aiyuk is the 49ers’ lone reliable medium-to-deep threat at wide receiver.
Aiyuk, however, has just two touchdowns and both came in the Week 1 win over Pittsburgh.
Nick Bosa: Whether it’s Pro Football Focus or just about any other analytics service, the numbers say Bosa is dominating opposing offensive linemen and getting pressures even if he’s not reaching the quarterback for sacks.
Bosa, who has three sacks after getting 18 1/2 last season, knows he can do better.
“Nick holds himself to such a high standard,” Bosa’s father John told KNBR. “Nick wants to be the absolute best defensive end in the NFL on every snap. That’s how he trains, how he works and that’s what he expects. Analytics-wise, statistics-wise, I think he’s playing very good football, but obviously the difference between three sacks or nine or 10 is important to him.”
Javon Hargrave: Started off playing extremely well but has dropped off of late. With three sacks, he’ll have to rally considerably to match the 11 he got last year in Philadelphia and parlayed into one of the offseason’s most lucrative free agent contracts (four years, maximum of $84 million).
Playing 64 percent of the snaps, which is about the same Hargrave played with Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The 49ers failed to generate up-the-gut pressure against either Kirk Cousins or Joe Burrow in the last two games, and against the Bengals Hargrave played 44 of 63 snaps and failed to register a tackle or an assist.
Fred Warner: Probably the NFL’s best middle linebacker, Warner has 71 tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles and two interceptions. But there’s no denying receivers have been breaking free in front of linebackers of late and Warner has uncharacteristically missed a few tackles.
“Tackling has been an issue when it hasn’t been in the past,” Warner said. “Players have got to execute as a higher level including myself. There’s got to be more hunt to the football at all three levels. There’s got to be more penalty-free football.”
The 49ers’ defensive conscience, Warner will take it upon himself to return the level of focus to what it was to start the season.
Talanoa Hufanga: A breakout player as a first-team All-Pro a year ago at strong safety, Hufanga had an interception against Pittsburgh in Week 1, another in a win over the New York Giants in Week 3 and none since.
Hufanga had a season-high 10 tackles against Cincinnati, in large part because there were receivers running free in the secondary to be tackled after catching passes from Burrow. A skilled blitzer, Hufanga has yet to record a sack. On the infamous zero blitz that gave up a touchdown to Jordan Addison of Minnesota just before halftime, Hufanga didn’t appear to commit completely to his role as a pass rusher.
Charvarius Ward: Last year’s big-ticket expenditure in free agency (three years, $40.5 million) to be a cover corner, Ward’s play has been uneven like most of the 49ers’ defense. It was never more evident than the Minnesota game, where he stole an interception from Addison and then later gave up the 60-yard touchdown in single coverage in the same situation.
Quarterbacks are 33 for 55 for 420 yards and two touchdowns going in his direction with Ward getting a pair of interceptions. The dropoff in coverage skill after Ward and Deommodore Lenoir is steep so it’s important he play well against receivers in the next month-plus that include Christian Kirk and Calvin Ridley (Jacksonville), Mike Evans (Tampa Bay), DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett (Seattle) and A.J. Brown (Philadelphia).