If the 49ers are going to reach the playoffs this season, they will need to do something the organization has not accomplished since 1972: overcome a 2-3 record to start the season.
Since that season, the worst start that resulted in a playoff birth came in 1985. The defending Super Bowl champions started that season 3-2, but losses to Chicago and Detroit would see them fall to 3-4 after the first seven weeks. San Francisco would win seven of the last nine contests to finish 10-6 before losing 17-3 in the wildcard game to the New York Giants.
Heading into the season, there were expectations the defense might struggle early on. This thought was rooted in the change from Robert Saleh to DeMeco Ryans as the coordinator. With Ryans taking on the role for the first time in his career, it could be expected there would be some growing pains. In reality, the defensive unit has been a strength in the early going.
Surprisingly, the issues that have plagued the 49ers this season have come on offense. While San Francisco has a new offensive coordinator in Mike McDaniels, it was expected the presence of Kyle Shanahan would cover up any growing pains. That has yet to happen.
Over the last three games, the 49ers offense has been unable to put points on the scoreboard, averaging 4.7 points per game in the first half. Only the New York Jets and Detroit Lions have been worse during the first half over this period.
While most of the focus this season has been on the level of play at quarterback, the issues on the offense start with the offensive line. Going into the offseason, the 49ers knew they needed to do something to shore up the center and right guard positions. The actions they took have yet to pan out.
The first move San Francisco made was signing veteran center Alex Mack during free agency. From a high level view, this made sense. Mack had played for Shanahan during stops in Cleveland and Atlanta, so he knew the offense and would be well versed in calling out assignments for the group.
At 35 years old, Mack is one of the oldest members of the 49ers and his age has shown at times. Mack regularly struggles to generate any movement at the line of scrimmage in the run game when asked to block the man over him, and at times has been unable to get to defenders at the second level or in space.
Throughout training camp, the veteran also had difficulty in pass protection, especially when the defensive player would attack his shoulders. This has shown up time and again during the early part of the season in passing situations.
During the draft, San Francisco tried to find an upgrade at right guard, and thought they had found one when they selected Aaron Banks in the second round. Banks had played left guard during his time at Notre Dame, and he struggled with the transition over to the right side early in camp before injuring his shoulder in the first preseason game. Through the first five weeks of the season, Banks has been a healthy scratch for each game.
The miss on Banks has forced the 49ers to go with Daniel Brunskill instead. Brunskill played well when called upon in 2019, but his play has fallen off since then. Much like Alex Mack, he has struggled to generate movement in the running game and has proven to be a liability in pass protection.
Another area of concern for San Francisco has been the lack of opportunities for wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk. After leading the team in targets, receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns as a rookie in 2020, Aiyuk seems to be an afterthought this season.
Through five weeks, Aiyuk has been the target of passes only three times per game, down from eight his rookie season. For an offense that is struggling to find playmakers, the lack of opportunities for one of the most dynamic players on the team is puzzling.
Here is what general manager John Lynch had to say about Aiyuk during an interview with KNBR earlier this week: “He’s got the makings of not just a starting football player in this league but a very good one at that critical position. So, to be able to compliment Deebo (Samuel), with George out for right now, we need that explosiveness in our offense. And that starts this week. Everyday it’s important we figure that out.”
For the 49ers offense to improve, they need to figure it out, as Lynch said. Even if they do, it may be too late.