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The 49ers Are Legit—and They Have Room to Get Even Better

It took San Francisco a while to earn any respect. But the Niners are 5-0 with a punishing defense, an electric ground game, and an improving passing attack, and it’s clear they’re a Super Bowl contender in the making.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s never easy to separate the contenders from the pretenders early in the NFL season. For most of September, the 49ers—despite an obviously improved defense and undefeated record—were overlooked when it came to the consensus on the league’s elite teams. Hell, when the team went into its Week 4 bye at 3-0, there were some who still viewed San Francisco as the third-best team in its own division. Wins against the Buccaneers, the Bengals, and the Mason Rudolph–led Steelers apparently hadn’t been enough to get everyone to forget the team’s 4-12 record in 2018.

But after watching the 49ers dismantle the Browns and Rams in the past two weeks, it’s become clear that this is not the same team as last season: The 2019 Niners are for real. San Francisco’s early-season slate was easy, sure, but the team’s zero in the loss column isn’t what’s impressive—it’s the manner in which it’s gotten there. Good teams should dominate the bad ones, and this squad has done just that; the 49ers have left the charred wreckage of just about everyone they’ve played in their wake, and have gone absolutely scorched earth on their less-than-impressive opponents while thoroughly outplaying the good ones. The team’s plus-83 point differential ranks second only to the Patriots and represents their best mark through five games since 1961. The combination of a few crucial offseason additions and the continued development of a handful of key playmakers has helped San Francisco transform from a bottom-tier team into a real Super Bowl contender. No matter how you look at it, the numbers tell a very clear story: It’s well past time to take the 49ers seriously.

The 49ers are defined by a balanced and physical approach on both sides of the ball this year. Head coach and play-caller Kyle Shanahan was hired in 2017 to install his brilliant offensive scheme, but San Francisco’s hounding and aggressive defense has provided the foundation for the team’s early-season success.

That unit, which finished 23rd in Football Outsiders defensive DVOA in 2018, ranks second in the same metric this year; in fact, it’s notched the second-best mark through five games in the DVOA era (since 1986). The 49ers defense shows up at or near the top of the rankings in just about every meaningful defensive category: It’s second in points allowed (12.8 per game), second in yards allowed per play (4.3), and third in turnover rate (with 19 percent of opponent drives ending in a turnover). The Niners have forced a three-and-out on a league-best 48.3 percent of opponent drives―a full 5 percentage point advantage over the second-place Bills. They are third in opponent points per drive (0.98), fourth in opponent third-down conversion rate (29.5 percent), and tied for the top spot in red zone touchdown rate (25 percent).

The team’s run defense has been stout―the 49ers have allowed 87.2 yards per game (sixth) and rank 12th in DVOA―but their pass defense (no. 1 in DVOA) is where they’ve really stood out the most. San Francisco has given up a paltry 53.6-percent completion rate (second), 150.2 pass yards per game (best), and a 62.5 percent opponent passer rating (second). After picking off just two passes in all of 2018, the Niners have already racked up seven in five games (tied for fourth).

That defensive dominance starts up front, where the additions of veteran pass rusher Dee Ford and rookie first-rounder Nick Bosa have multiplied the effectiveness of the entire unit. San Francisco has generated a 33.9 percent pressure rate on the year—second only to the Bears—and 17 sacks (tied for ninth). Best of all, they’re making opposing quarterbacks’ lives miserable while blitzing just 15.3 percent of the time—the second-lowest rate in the league. The ability to create pressure so consistently with just four rushers pays dividends on the back end, allowing the Niners to drop seven back into coverage.

The 49ers’ defensive front has had plenty of talent over the years, such as first-rounders in DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, and Solomon Thomas, but it took the addition of Bosa for that group to reach the heights we’re seeing in 2019. The rookie has been a revelation off the edge in his first five games as a pro and has led all qualifying edge players in Pro Football Focus’s pass-rush productivity metric (14.3), racking up 30 pressures (ninth)—including 19 hurries, seven hits, and three sacks. Opposite Bosa, Ford—who was acquired in an aggressive offseason trade—ranks seventh in sack rate and sixth in pressure rate, per PFF. That duo has helped unlock the team’s effectiveness on the interior, too. Buckner has quietly dominated on the inside, where he’s tallied 16 pressures—including 10 hurries, three hits, and three sacks. Even the previously quiet Thomas has gotten in on the action this year with seven pressures on 55 pass-rush snaps.

The Niners’ back seven has been nearly as impressive as its front line. Linebackers Fred Warner (a third-rounder in the 2018 draft) and Kwon Alexander (a big-ticket free-agent addition) are flying all over the field and combining hard-hitting tenacity in the run game with coverage chops against the pass. In the secondary, Richard Sherman is just as dominant as ever, and notched two picks and an opponent passer rating of just 46.4 through five games, per PFF—seventh among qualifying cornerbacks. Opposite Sherman, the team lost ascending corner Ahkello Witherspoon to a foot sprain (he’ll reportedly be back soon), but rookie undrafted free agent Emmanuel Moseley has stepped in and acquitted himself well, giving up just six catches for 45 yards and no touchdowns on 91 coverage snaps while surrendering an opponent passer rating of 78.5. Meanwhile, fifth-year pro K’Waun Williams has emerged as one of the best slot corners. He’s picked off two passes and has given up a passer rating of just 51.5—11th best among qualifying corners. Williams did suffer a hamstring injury in the team’s blowout of the Rams, which means the team will be forced to shuffle up its coverage looks until he returns. The good news is that San Francisco has one of the most versatile safety groups.

During the past two games, the free safety spot was manned by Jimmie Ward, a former San Francisco first-rounder who signed a one-year deal in the offseason. The oft-injured Ward, who returned from a broken finger in Week 5 to take over as the team’s center fielder, has already made his mark. He has the schematic versatility to man the deep middle, the slot, or play up in the box, and that’s big for defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who expanded the team’s coverage repertoire this year to include more exotic looks. With the help of another versatile safety, Jaquiski Tartt, the Niners are moving pieces around the chess board more this year than we’ve seen in the past—and it’s paid dividends in key stops and takeaways.

Speaking of Saleh, the team’s defensive play-caller certainly deserves a big chunk of the credit as well. The team has accumulated an incredible amount of talent, but Saleh’s savvy scheming and in-game adjustments have proved crucial. A perfect example is the team’s 20-7 win against the Rams on Sunday. Los Angeles came out swinging and marched down the field on a seven-play, 56-yard drive for a quick 7-0 lead. On that drive, which consisted of seven consecutive runs, the Rams averaged 8 yards per carry and moved the ball at will. But Saleh was able to identify the defense’s issues and quickly fix them; the 49ers would go on to hold the Rams to just 2.3 yards per play from that point on, and limit Jared Goff to an astounding 78 passing yards while keeping L.A. off the scoreboard the rest of the game. Oh, and Saleh’s also the type of dude who makes anyone watching him coach want to run through a brick wall for him.

Of course, the Niners’ offense has also contributed plenty to the team’s 5-0 start. That group, which ranks third in points per game (29.4), fourth in yards per game (408.0), 10th in yards per play (5.9), and a respectable 12th in offensive DVOA, is built on Shanahan’s foundational rushing attack. San Francisco leans on a zone-blocking scheme that’s augmented by plenty of wrinkles, including crack-toss plays, counters, and sweeps. The offense throws constant changeups at opponents with a talented committee backfield. The explosive Matt Breida (65 rushes, 376 yards, and one touchdown) can hit a jailbreak run every time he steps onto the field; Tevin Coleman (40 rushes for 165 yards and two scores with four catches for 49 yards in the air) is versatile both as a runner and as a pass catcher; and Raheem Mostert (45 rushes for 249 yards and four catches for 68 yards) has physicality and speed. Throw in Jeff Wilson (four touchdowns) as the occasional goal-line hammer, and the Niners have a smorgasbord of options.

The Niners average a league-high 39 rushing attempts per game and rank second only to the Ravens in rushing yards per game (179.8). They have scored eight times on the ground (seventh among all teams in just five games), and averaged 4.6 yards per attempt (12th). And San Francisco has done all that despite battling injuries to several key players up front. Longtime left tackle Joe Staley is out for two months with a broken leg; right tackle Mike McGlinchey missed Sunday’s game after getting his knee scoped; and backup Shon Coleman is out for the year with a dislocated ankle suffered in camp. Versatile fullback Kyle Juszczyk missed Sunday with an MCL injury that should keep him out for four to six weeks. But San Francisco’s ground attack has not relented, and Shanahan’s clever scheming has done plenty to make up for the team’s injury losses. It helps to have all-world tight end George Kittle opening up run lanes in the trenches, too. Despite the injury situation, the 49ers rank eighth in yards before contact per rush, and gain an average of 2.7 yards per carry before defensive contact. They’re opening up holes for their four-headed monster of a rushing attack.

Kittle is a linchpin for the team’s developing passing attack, too. He’s a dominant blocker in the ground game and can give quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo a few extra beats as a pass protector on the edge―but he can also get downfield to catch a pass and rumble and tumble after the catch to pick up big chunks of yards. After leading the NFL in yards after the catch in 2018 (873), he’s fifth in that metric (205 yards) after five games this year, per PFF. Kittle is the team’s de facto no. 1 receiver with a team-high 31 receptions for 338 yards and one touchdown.

The most intriguing part—or, perhaps the scariest, if you’re one of the team’s rivals―is that the Niners’ passing attack is still coalescing. Garoppolo, back under center after missing all but three games last year due to a torn ACL, is still getting his feet under him in the Shanahan passing game. The sixth-year pro has looked sharp at times and completed 70 percent of his passes at 8.0 yards per attempt with 95.2 passer rating, seven touchdowns, and five picks in five starts. But he’s far too sloppy with the ball at other times, fumbling four times (losing two) while showing questionable decision-making by trying to force the ball into coverage. That was most obvious when he threw a goal-line gimme to then-Rams cornerback Marcus Peters on Sunday.

The 49ers need better from Garoppolo, and Garoppolo needs more from his pass-catching crew. After Kittle, the Niners’ receiving corps is still in its nascent stage: Dante Pettis (nine catches, 83 yards, and one touchdown), who came on strong late last year as a rookie, has battled early injuries and struggled to regain his place in the team’s passing attack. Rookie Deebo Samuel (15 catches, 168 yards, and one touchdown) has flashed at times, but has a ways to go as a dependable downfield option. And Marquise Goodwin, Kendrick Bourne, and Richie James have combined for 21 catches for 319 yards and two scores.

But despite the shortcomings of that group, the Niners’ passing attack still possesses very intriguing potential. Shanahan has long been the master of scheming up open receivers downfield via shrewd route concepts and heavy doses of play-action (Garoppolo’s 32.5 percent play-action rate this year ranks fourth). If Garoppolo can clean up his ball security, calm his at-times frenetic decision-making, and get marginal advancements from his young pass-catching corps, the Niners’ air attack has the chance to improve dramatically. Pair that with a dynamic rushing game and an elite, stifling defense, and San Francisco has all the makings of a juggernaut. It may have taken the Niners a few extra weeks to earn the respect of pundits and fans, but I know I won’t make the mistake of sleeping on this squad any longer.