With all the fun we’ve been having with this Chicago Bears season, you may not have followed the 49ers year much - particularly after Jimmy G took an early exit with a torn ACL. The 49ers were preseason darlings for a lot of pundits making their preseason predictions and, despite a roster still full of holes, many had them competing with the Rams for the division title. To help us sort through all the issues and some of the bright spots of this 49ers squad, I reached out to David Fucillo of Niners Nation. He was kind enough to provide great answers to fill in the blanks.
Windy City Gridiron: 1. It has been a bit of a lost season for the 49ers with the Jimmy Garoppolo injury, but this squad has found some pluck the last two weeks, beating the Broncos and Seahawks at home. What has been the winning recipe in the last two games? Is this a good thing for the future or are fans upset about losing draft position?
Niners Nation: It’s been a rather odd run here. The 49ers went 1-3 in arguably their easiest stretch of the season (@ AZ, vs. OAK, vs. NYG, @ TB), but have since gone 2-1 entering their toughest stretch of the season. Sometimes the NFL is tough to figure out!
The 49ers have found success for a couple reasons. The first is the defense has stepped up in a big way after inconsistency much of the first 12 weeks. They shut down the Broncos vaunted run game, and then contained Russell Wilson in the fourth quarter, when he is at his most dangerous. Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner has been the leader on defense, but where it has been interesting is the fact that the team is rolling out a host of rookies due to injuries. They have rookies starting at nickel back and strong safety, and then a second-year nose tackle. The unit is growing together and showing real signs of progress.
On offense, quarterback Nick Mullens is impressing. He had a record-setting debut against the Raiders, but seemed to regress the next two weeks against the Giants and Bucs. However, he has bounced back with solid performances against a really good Broncos defense and a solid Seahawks defense. Mullens doesn’t have a big arm, but Kyle Shanahan is proving his play-calling prowess to get guys open for Mullens.
Plenty of 49ers fans would prefer the team lose and draft edge rusher Nick Bosa with the #1 overall pick. However, that seems unlikely now. It increases the degree of difficulty for the 49ers to find much-needed pass rush help. At the same time, snapping a ten-game losing streak to a rival and doing it in relatively impressive fashion gives the team momentum heading into the offseason. If they could split their final two against the Bears and Rams, it would certainly give the organization all sorts of confidence. That being said, yes, some people are upset about losing draft position.
WCG: 2. Former Iowa Hawkeye George Kittle has emerged as a top tier tight end this year, something that is even more surprising given the mix of QB’s under center. What has he done to step up his game to put himself into the elite conversation and have you opposing defenses focused their scheme on trying to stop the dynamic second-year pass catcher?
NN: Kittle flew under the radar coming out of college because he played in a run-heavy offense and dealt with various injuries during his career. However, the athleticism was always there. He ran a 4.52 40 in the 2019 NFL Combine, finishing third to Evan Engram and O.J. Howard in that measurement. He ran that with a 6’4, 247 pound frame, which is kinda ridiculous. He’s incredibly physical and brings separation skills in abundance. He can bowl over safeties and cornerbacks, while linebackers cannot really keep up with him down the field.
We’ve started to see teams doubling him up more. Two weeks ago against Denver, Kittle had 210 receiving yards in the first half, but was shut out in the second half. The key for the 49ers has been the emergence of rookie wide receiver Dante Pettis as a viable alternative. Veteran receiver Pierre Garçon has been placed on injured reserve, while Marquise Goodwin missed time dealing with family issues and is slowly being worked back into the mix. After a slow start, the past four games has seen Pettis catch 17 receptions for 338 yards and four touchdowns. He is emerging as a serious threat that might force Chicago to play Kittle a little more straight up.
WCG: 3. The 49ers defense has been up and down this year, highlighted by DeForest Buckner’s double digit sack season. However, the 49ers have a league low 2 interceptions and only 5 takeaways total, far behind the 31st ranked Ravens (11). What’s going on with this defense?
NN: The takeaways have been a problem. Jim Harbaugh once compared takeaways to a jar of olives, where once you get the first one out, they tumble out. The 49ers have not been able to shake open the olive jar sufficiently. It’s interesting to note the team ranks 12th in fumbles forced, but dead last in fumbles recovered. Turnover luck is a very real thing, and we’re just not seeing it right now. I suspect it reverts closer to the mean next year and we see the team finish with more takeaways.
At the same time, if the 49ers can add a legitimate pass rush threat, if not a couple, that will help this defense force more turnovers. The pass rush has been inconsistent this season, and if they can add either a Josh Allen in the draft or a Dee Ford in free agency, it will gain some steam. That will make life easier for the secondary, which could result in more bad plays by opposing quarterbacks.
WCG: 4. The 2017 draft brought our two respective franchises together in a draft day trade that drew rave reviews for John Lynch by “fleecing” Ryan Pace and the Chicago Bears. (Full disclosure - I was one of those detractors who was upset about the process behind trading up one spot.) Now that we’re 18 months past that trade and have a lot more data about team building, how do 49ers fans feel about John Lynch and the future direction of the 49ers franchise? What needs to happen next off-season for 2019 to be more competitive?
NN: There has been plenty of discussion among 49ers fans about just what to make of that trade. They were never going to take a quarterback, so it was a win in the sense of getting more picks while getting the guy they wanted. That view of the trade is pretty straight forward. Where it gets a little murkier is the results. The 49ers drafted Solomon Thomas with the third overall pick, and things get murkier from there. They traded the Bears third round pick to the Saints, who turned that into Alvin Kamara. Whoops. That deal landed them starting safety Adrian Colbert (now on injured reserve). They turned the Bears 2018 third round pick into linebacker Fred Warner, who is the team’s starting MIKE and a standout performer. All well and good, but it comes back to Solomon Thomas. He has struggled to get going, in part because the team had not played him at his position of strength inside. That seems to be changing, and he is showing some signs of life in the latter half of this season.
The fanbase is more confident than not, but people are still waiting for the big breakthrough. It seemed like this would be the year the team got back into at least the edge of playoff contention. Instead, Jimmy Garoppolo and Jerick McKinnon blew out their knees, and fans were left waiting for 2019. Pressure is off the GM/HC duo for the time-being, but assuming there are no hiccups in Jimmy G’s recover, the pressure will be on in 2019. They’ll have a high draft pick and a ton of cap space. They need at least one, if not two edge rushers to boost the pass rush. They could potentially use another pass catcher, either a complementary tight end or another wide receiver. They will likely need at least one guard as well.
The 49ers will be more competitive just by getting Garoppolo and McKinnon back. With the development of the rest of the roster this season, this is a team that can compete for a wild card berth next year. If they can land a big-time pass rusher and one more notable pass catcher, they could move from wild card contender to surprise division contender. They need to hit big on what will likely be a top five draft pick, finding a player who can impact the defense from day one. They don’t need to go overboard in free agency, but a receiver and a guard, with some secondary depth through the draft or free agency are critical.
WCG: 5. I think it’s safe to say that 49ers fans have no real interest in seeing the division rival Rams do well in the playoffs. So, can we make a deal that you guys lose to the Bears but knock off the Rams in week 17, allowing the Bears to sneak into the #2 seed? Also, could you send Robbie Gould back to us? Thanks!
NN: We’ll see what we can arrange! This is an intriguing game. The line opened with the Bears as five-point favorites, but the line quickly dropped to 3.5 points. It has settled in at four points, and probably won’t change much between now and kickoff. My first thought is that either the 49ers win this game outright, or the Bears win by double digits. I just don’t see this game falling in between that. Chicago does not seem to be nearly as good on the road as at home, but that defense is incredibly fearsome. I’m really looking forward to this game as another big test for Nick Mullens. If he puts up another respectable performance, his trade value could be something to watch in the offseason.
And no, you don’t get Robbie Gould back. Finders, keepers.
Thank you to David and Niners Nation for the time. Hit up the comments below or find me on Twitter @gridironborn to keep the conversation going.