SANTA CLARA — Players take the bye week off. Coaches sure as heck don’t.
Coaches spend the week “self-scouting,” meaning they honestly and brutally evaluate their own team independent of its win-loss record. The 49ers are 3-0 entering their bye week. When Kyle Shanahan and his coaching staff reevaluate the first three games, they won’t focus solely on positives. They’ll identify the real reasons they’ve had success, and search for issues that could hurt them down the line.
1. Defensive takeaways
The defense has performed well in every conceivable way. It has allowed the second-fewest yards and the ninth-fewest points in the NFL.
But its most impressive statistic, and the biggest reason the 49ers enter the bye week undefeated, is this: Through three games, the defense already has forced seven turnovers. That’s how many turnovers the 49ers’ defense forced all of last season.
What has changed?
First, the pass rush. The 49ers recorded a sack 6.4% of the time the opposing quarterback dropped back to pass last season. That was the 10th-worst sack percentage in the NFL. This season, the 49ers’ sack percentage is 7.9, which ranks eighth best in the NFL.
They’ve added Dee Ford and Nick Bosa, who have played well. And they still have veterans DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead, who have improved significantly. Now, the 49ers have one of the best four-man rushes in the league, and the pass rush has transformed the entire defense.
“It doesn’t get seen by the naked eye,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “But the faster the rush goes, the stickier the coverage gets.”
Five members of the defense currently have an interception: Kwon Alexander, Mark Nzeocha, K’Waun Williams, Richard Sherman and Ahkello Witherspoon. Through the first three games, there was nowhere safe to throw the ball against this defense.
That could change after the bye week, because Witherspoon will miss at least a month with a foot sprain. That could be a major blow to the 49ers, even with their impressive pass rush.
2. Replacing Ahkello Witherspoon
Witherspoon was the weakest link in the secondary last season. He intercepted zero passes, broke up just four and allowed a quarterback rating of 107.6. He may as well have worn a giant bullseye on his back.
This season, he has one interception, a team-high five pass breakups and has allowed a passer rating of just 75.3. Before he injured his foot, he was the 49ers’ best cornerback, even better than Sherman, who has played well.
“When you have corners like Sherm who can go get the ball and Ahkello who can get the ball, now the offense has to throw inside to the teeth of our defense,” Saleh explained.
Teams rarely had to throw into the teeth of the 49ers’ defense last season, because they simply could throw at Witherspoon with impunity. Now, teams can throw at Witherspoon’s replacement, former undrafted free agent Emmanuel Moseley, and avoid the middle of the field.
“He’s not the biggest guy, but he plays very physical,” Shanahan said of Moseley. “He’s extremely detailed in everything he does. Everything you give him, even stuff that’s new for him, in a few days he always figures it out. He’s very football savvy and has the ability to cover.”
“We always look at the trade market and we’ll continue to,” Shanahan said. “But it’s got to make sense for us. How much does it help the team right now and how much does it help the organization going forward? You always think of now, but you also think of years in advance too and how it affects the salary cap, draft picks, things like that. The risk-reward.”
It seems the 49ers would prefer not to trade for Ramsey, who would cost at least one first-round pick. But depending on how Moseley performs, they might have no choice.
3. One-wide-receiver formations
The 49ers have a run-first offense. They lead the league in rushing attempts and rank fifth in yards per carry. And the running game might improve after the bye week.
When Shanahan self-scouts, he’ll learn his offense is averaging a whopping six yards per carry when there’s only one wide receiver and multiple tight ends on the field. This is the 49ers’ best personnel grouping.
They need to use it more frequently.
“When you’re running the ball, the edges are a lot wider when you have (multiple) tight ends in there,” Shanahan said. “(Defensive linemen) are further apart, and you make people commit to the run. Sometimes, that opens up some good passes, too.”
Through the first three games, the 49ers have used one-wide-receiver formations 28 times, and run out of them 23 times. Meaning defenses knew the 49ers would run, and still couldn’t stop them. That’s how effective these formations have been. To make them even more effective, Shanahan can call a few more passes out of them, just to keep the opposing defense guessing.
4. Offensive giveaways
After the 49ers beat the Steelers on Sunday, a reporter asked Kyle Shanahan during his postgame press conference how it feels to be 3-0.
“I’ve been 5-0 and not made the playoffs before,” Shanahan said. “So, that doesn’t mean much.”
Shanahan was referring to 2015, his first season as the Atlanta Falcons’ offensive coordinator. That season, the Falcons lost eight of their final 11 games and missed the playoffs, partially because Shanahan’s high-powered, seventh-ranked offense committed 30 turnovers that season — a very large number.
Since 2011, 44 teams have committed 30 or more turnovers in a season, and only four of those teams (9.1%) made the playoffs. The 49ers offense already has committed eight turnovers. It’s on pace to commit 43. An awfully large number.
“It’s hard to win when you turn the ball over,” Shanahan said. “You can get by when you’re doing that, but we know that’s not built to last. We’ve got to be smarter with the ball. We always work on that and talk about it, but we’ve definitely got to fix that stuff.”
First, the 49ers can punish people who fumble. Running back Raheem Mostert fumbled twice against the Steelers. After the bye week, the 49ers can give some of his carries to Tevin Coleman, who missed the past two games with a high-ankle sprain, but should be ready after the bye.
Next, Shanahan can call safer, less intricate plays. He gets too cute at times. Last Sunday in the red zone, Shanahan called a highly intricate play which resulted in a fumble. Center Weston Richburg’s shotgun snap hit wide receiver Richie James Jr. as James sprinted across the backfield. The ball fell to the grass and the Steelers recovered it.
Next time, just line up in a one-wide-receiver formation, hand the ball off to a running back and let him run between the tackles. That works.
Jimmy Garoppolo has had outstanding moments this season, but he’s on pace to throw 22 interceptions. A 49ers quarterback hasn’t thrown that many since Steve DeBerg in 1978, the season before Bill Walsh became the head coach. It’s hard to make the playoffs throwing all those picks. The last QB who threw at least 20 interceptions and made the postseason was Andy Dalton in 2013.
The 49ers have to find a way to minimize the picks.
They might try lining up Garoppolo in the shotgun more frequently. He seems to read defenses better and make smarter decisions from the gun.
According to NoCheckdowns.com, which charts every NFL quarterback’s throws, only 2% of Garoppolo’s pass attempts from the gun this season have been classified as “interceptable,” a pass the defense drops or picks off. When he’s under center, 10% of his pass attempts have been “interceptable.”
Shanahan tends to call quick, short passes when his quarterback is in the shotgun, and longer-developing deep passes when the quarterback is under center. Shanahan loves calling deep passes, but they might not suit Garoppolo.
“Can’t be greedy,” Garoppolo said when explaining his recent interceptions. “Just take the completion and move on. I got excited, got too greedy, whatever you want to call it, and made a bad decision.”
Garoppolo is far less greedy from the gun. Take note, 49ers.