The worry meter is reading lower following a blowout win in Pittsburgh than it was entering the season.
Ah, but there are still worries. There always are.
We address them in this week’s mailbag, the first of the regular season. Thanks for all the great questions, which have been lightly edited for content.
Do you think Kyle Shanahan should be more cognizant of his QB’s safety? I get that you can’t play hamstrung the whole game, but it was 27-7 near the end of the third quarter. Why would you leave Colton McKivitz 1-on-1 versus T.J. Watt when the game was already in control? — Allan B.
Shanahan spoke about that sequence, which came with 5:42 to play in the third quarter. He said the play is designed for the quarterback to get rid of the ball quickly but that the Steelers were in a different coverage than what the 49ers expected.
“That kind of surprised us at that time of the game, which made Brock (Purdy) have to hold onto it too long and (I) wasn’t expecting to be able to hold onto it that long,” Shanahan said. “And that’s usually what happens. And I wish I didn’t call that in that situation so we could’ve got rid of it quicker. But even when it does happen, Brock’s still got to protect the ball.”
The answer seems to be: 1.) Don’t call that play in that scenario, and 2). If you do call it, maybe tell Purdy to throw the ball away if he sees a defense that’s different than the one he’s expecting.
#49ers minutia minute:
* Brock Purdy’s “sneaky” feat/feet
* Run game was decidedly left-handed
* Armstead, Jackson led the d-line
* Fred Warner’s fast start
* Hufanga does fantastic Polamalu impression
* Nickel questions
* Snap counts
— Matt Barrows (@mattbarrows) September 11, 2023
I agree that there were some interesting late-game choices. Christian McCaffrey, for instance, still was getting carries midway through the fourth quarter despite a 20-point lead at the time. Tim Kawakami and I kept turning to each other and noting, “Hmmm. McCaffrey’s still in there.”
Why stick with the starters? It dates back to the 2021 opener in Detroit when the 49ers rocketed to a 38-7 lead in the third quarter, took all their marquee players out, then had to frantically send them back into the game — after they’d cooled down — when the Lions scored 23 straight points. Shanahan has never pulled his starting crew early since then.
Just a hypothetical. What do you think Trey Lance would have been worth to the Jets if the 49ers hadn’t traded him to Dallas? – Jason M.
I was thinking the same thing Monday night. On one hand, Lance would have some familiarity with that offense and wouldn’t be starting from scratch. On the other, the Jets probably would prefer a veteran to complement youngster Zach Wilson, not another youngster.
Verdict: A fourth-rounder?
With Jason Peters off the board (signed by Seattle), are there any tackles on the open market worth considering now that cap space isn’t an issue? — Sean B.
Taylor Lewan? Eric Fisher? Maybe the 49ers can coax Joe Staley out of retirement. He was at a recent 49ers practice and looked like he could handle 65 snaps.
My point is that there aren’t a lot of easy choices when it comes to offensive tackles. If there were, the 49ers would have made them back in the spring.
What’s the feeling internally about the right tackle spot? Are coaches concerned McKivitz will need to be replaced or do they feel he’ll get better as the season progresses? — Matt A.
They’re not going to give him the hook after struggling against Watt, that’s for sure. If pass protection continues to be a problem, they’d eventually replace him with Jaylon Moore or Matt Pryor.
Moore is more athletic and might allow the 49ers to hit more outside runs. Pryor was the better pass protector in the summer. But at 332 pounds, he’s probably not making any Staley-like blocks 25 yards down the field.
With only three receptions, it seems McCaffrey was used much more as a traditional running back than as a pass catcher. Temporary game plan or long-term trend? — Tom R.
Oh, I think it will vary from week to week. But something to note from Sunday is that the 49ers were in control from the get-go. McCaffrey’s biggest days as a pass catcher over his career have come in shootouts or in blowout losses. That is to say, the effectiveness of San Francisco’s defense and running game — the team’s two pillars — ought to have a big bearing on whether he achieves a 1,000-yard/1,000-yard season for the second time in his career.
Any insight on what sent Trent Williams to the sideline? I believe he only sat out one play, but I haven’t heard why. — Joe B.
I heard he got struck in the ribs and had the air knocked out of him.
Would it be better to keep Deommodore Lenoir inside with Ambry Thomas outside or Isaiah Oliver inside with Lenoir outside? — Zach M.
I was surprised when the 49ers started the game with Lenoir at nickel cornerback. Over the last few weeks of the preseason, defensive coordinator Steve Wilks suggested that Oliver would be good against bigger-bodied slot receivers and that Lenoir might be the better matchup against smaller, shiftier opponents.
Well, the Steelers’ slot receiver was Allen Robinson, who goes 6-3, 220 pounds and who ran his 40-yard dash in a tight end-like 4.6 seconds. And that was way back in 2014.
Which is to say, if ever there was a matchup that lent itself to bigger nickel back like Oliver, Sunday’s was it. And yet the 49ers initially went with Lenoir.
In my opinion, the 49ers should stick with their offseason Plan A for now – Oliver at nickel. That A.) allows 23-year-old Lenoir to remain on the outside where, let’s face it, he’s still developing and B.) keeps Thomas in a reserve role.
If that doesn’t work, then the 49ers always can turn to Plan B.
When Wilks was brought in to replace DeMeco Ryans, there was an expectation that the 49ers might blitz much more than they have in the past. That didn’t really occur on Sunday. What do you expect from this unit going forward? Status quo, or lots of variation? — Jesse R.
He did blitz more — 57 percent of dropbacks — in the first quarter, according to Pro Football Focus. He then backed off. The rest of the contest looked like recent 49ers games — an occasional blitz but mostly relying on the four defensive linemen to hit home.
One of the team’s biggest defensive plays came with their primary blitzers — Fred Warner and Talanoa Hufanga — in coverage. Warner tipped a deep pass over the middle into the air and Hufanga caught it.
That’s always been my sense: That Wilks will realize, like Ryans and Robert Saleh did before him, the value of having Warner in the middle of the field and won’t blitz him a lot. Still, it’s something the team worked on a lot this offseason and something Wilks might use in spurts to keep an offense off-balance. That approach certainly worked against a young quarterback in Pittsburgh. The 49ers will be facing a 35-year-old quarterback Sunday in Los Angeles.
How much of Drake Jackson’s production was due to scheme/double teams elsewhere versus off-season improvement? What can we expect going forward? — Jim M.
I thought these double-team statistics from ESPN were interesting. While Nick Bosa, Javon Hargrave and Arik Armstead all saw double-team rates of 43.5 percent or higher on Sunday, Jackson’s was at 12.5 percent.
The Steelers weren’t as worried about him and Clelin Ferrell as they were the other top linemen, and Jackson took advantage. I thought he did a particularly good job of striking and getting the quarterback on the ground when he had the opportunity. And coaches obviously have more trust in him this season. He played 44 percent of the defensive snaps in Pittsburgh and was usually the edge rusher opposite Bosa on obvious passing plays.
Were you surprised to see both rookie linebackers inactive? — Michael D.
No, it was all about special teams. Backup linebackers Oren Burks, Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles and Curtis Robinson — elevated from the practice squad for the game — are proven commodities. Each of those guys played 18 snaps of special teams. Now, did they make a big difference … ?
Brock Purdy looks exactly like his 2022 self in silencing “haters,” trouncing Steelers. https://t.co/foinpAAnrC
— Matt Barrows (@mattbarrows) September 11, 2023
How much of a concern is the kickoff coverage? I know they’re hoping Jake Moody will take over soon and kick more touchbacks, but when there’s actually a return, they look pretty shaky, and it’s seemed to be an issue for a while now. Extra weird because they cover punts pretty well. — Ben J.
Yeah, it looked a lot like it did last season — anything that’s not a clear touchback turns into a real opportunity for the opposition. In the summer, I asked special teams coordinator Brian Schneider if kickoff coverage became a problem last year as the season wore on. My hypothesis was that as the kickoffs became shorter — due to wear and tear on kicker Robbie Gould — the kickoff coverage suffered.
His answer surprised me.
“No, I thought we improved,” he said. “The end of the season, I thought we were really good on kickoff, so different things, but at the end, I thought we played our best.”
In the playoffs, however, the Seahawks averaged 25 yards on their six kick returns, including a long of 37 yards. The Cowboys, meanwhile, averaged 30 yards per return, including a 54-yard return.
I thought Sunday’s game looked like that Cowboys game: Anything that didn’t go deep into the end zone led to a robust return that felt like it could have been broken for a touchdown. The Steelers averaged 30.3 yards on their three returns.
How do the 49ers adjust? They definitely think Moody will be an improvement once he’s fully healthy. They like his ability to place the ball into specific spots on kickoffs as well as his hang time. Good hang time in particular ought to take some of the punch out of the returns we’ve been seeing.
Do you see any benefit in having the Thursday night game so early in the year? — Michele C.
It would be if the Sept. 21 game against the Giants was the 49ers’ only Thursday night game of the season. They’re also playing the Seahawks on Thanksgiving night.
Generally, I think the players would rather have them early versus late. It’s harder for them to get their bodies ready to play on Thursday later in the year when they’ve already accumulated 10 or so games worth of nicks, bruises, strains and pulls.
The exception, of course, might be Bosa. He was anticipating being sorer than usual coming out of Week 1 because he hadn’t done any rough stuff this summer. Will that be gone by the time the 49ers host the Giants? Probably not. It will be interesting to see how the team handles his snap count Sunday against the Rams. The over/under (according to me) is 35, which was his count in Pittsburgh.
49ers minutia minute: Christian McCaffrey bolted left while right side struggled
Do the Niners practice at the same time the game will be played to adjust their body clocks? — Brent G.
Sometimes. They had a night practice/walk-through at Levi’s Stadium in advance of their Thursday night game in Seattle last year, for instance. However, this year they seem to be keeping the same routine no matter when the game starts. For example, they’re practicing at the same times this week — practices begin around 1 p.m. — they did last week despite the fact that last week was a 10 a.m. PST start and the upcoming game kicks off at 1:05 p.m.
Niners No. 1 team in the power rankings, Dallas No. 2? Who says no? — Dan M.
Things more interesting to me than weekly power rankings:
• Documentary on snails
• Walking tour of Cleveland
• Eric Branch’s fantasy lineup
If only there was a better way to figure out which team is better. Think, Barrows! Think!
Do players eat at halftime? If so, what? — John O.
Bananas and PBJs. Christian McCaffrey eats both. He’ll have half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and either a whole or half a banana depending on whether the offense will have the ball to open the third quarter. (So he went half-banana just prior to his 65-yard run in Pittsburgh).
“Finish! Finish! Finish!” A rare trip inside the locker room for 49ers halftime
(Top photo: Mark Alberti / Getty Images)
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