Mike O’Brien ’23
Note: This article was written before San Francisco’s Halloween Night win over Arizona.
As we approach the midway point of the 2019-2020 NFL season, there now remains two undefeated teams in the league: the 8-0 New England Patriots and the 7-0 San Francisco 49ers. While it is no surprise that New England has been able to steamroll the competition with the combination of a smothering defense and a favorable schedule thus far, the 49ers continue to be one of the league’s biggest surprises. Coming off a measly 4-12 campaign last season that included an ACL tear to franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and not winning a single game on the road, San Francisco is having one of the greatest turnarounds the league has seen in recent years.
The Niners are the first team since the 2013 Kansas City Chiefs to win four games or less in their previous season and then start 7-0 the following year. The main strength in this Niners team has been the defense. While the New England Patriots undoubtedly own the league’s best defensive unit, San Francisco is not far behind; the Niners rank second in the NFL in fewest total yards allowed per game with 223.5 as well as ranking first in fewest passing yards allowed per game with 133.5. The main defensive weapons include Nick Bosa and Richard Sherman. Bosa, a rookie defensive lineman and the younger brother of San Diego Charger Joey Bosa, is already wreaking havoc on the league. Bosa ranks inside the top 25 sack leaders in the NFL already, including three against the Carolina Panthers this past Sunday while tacking on an interception. While Bosa leads the defensive front, cornerback Richard Sherman anchors the secondary. Sherman is tied with a handful of other players for 11th best in the league for interceptions, with 2 on the season already, including a pick-six on Jameis Winston of Tampa Bay in Week 1.
While Garoppolo looks to be the face of the 49ers franchise on offense, the Niners running game has taken over as a force to be reckoned with. The three-headed monster of Tevin Coleman, Matt Breida, and Raheem Mostert have propelled the Niners to an average of 172.2 rushing yards per game, good for second best in the league. Coleman displayed just how good he is with a four touchdown showing against Carolina this Sunday, while Mostert added a score of his own. Whether it be the Niners staff being hesitant to overuse Garoppolo after coming off an ACL tear last season or the emergence of an elite running back committee, these Niner running backs are stomping all over the league and carrying San Francisco thus far.
Many would also consider 49ers tight end George Kittle to be the best in the league, and for good reason. Although the 4-12 record may not be an indication of any bright spots for the team last season, Kittle was far and away the shining star for the team. The second year tight end set an NFL record for single-season receiving yards by a tight end, an honor previously held by former Patriots legend Rob Gronkowski. Kittle currently ranks amongst all NFL players for 44th in the league for receiving yards, including wide receivers. While it is not likely that he will be able to match his other-worldly receiving production from last year due to the emphasis on the rushing game and a bolstered receiving corps with the addition of Emmanuel Sanders, Kittle’s impeccable contribution to run and pass blocking is just as important as his receiving roll this year.
San Fancisco had many doubters at the start of the season, as its first four games were played against lesser opponents such as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Cleveland Browns, whose combined records now amount to a horrible 6-22. It was time for San Francisco to face a worthy opponent during a Week 5 game against the defending NFC Champions and divisional rival Los Angeles Rams. While many thought that San Francisco would not be ready for this test after not having to face a real opponent to start the season, the Niners were ready for Los Angeles with a 20-7 victory. After allowing a touchdown to the Rams on the opening drive of the game, the 49ers defense turned up the heat and did not allow a score for the rest of the game. The secondary did its job by holding Jared Goff to a meager 78 yards on the day. Kittle and Jimmy G were a sharp contrast to the Rams nonexistent aerial attack with Garoppolo throwing for 243 yards and contributing a rushing touchdown, while Kittle tacked on eight receptions for 103 yards.
Still, San Francisco had doubters after a small margin of victory over the struggling Washington Redskins by a score of 9-0. But the score did not tell the whole story of the game; playing in a downpour of rain in D.C., it was evident neither of the offenses could get going, and yet again the Niners proved that they had a superior defensive unit compared to their opponents, pitching their first shutout of the season. Another seemingly large test for the 49ers appeared to be against the Carolina Panthers, who after dropping their first two games of the season went on a 4-0 run with newly promoted quarterback Kyle Allen. With Allen having a record of 4-0 as a starter and the Niners boasting a 6-0 record on the season, something would have to give. And it was the Carolina Panthers who folded. With a staggering final score of 51-13, the Niners dominated the Panthers on both sides of the ball. With game-changing contributions from Coleman and Bosa, the 49ers put their foot on the gas and never looked back to move onto 7-0.
But the doubters do seem to have some points to their arguments. While the Rams and Panthers seemed to be formidable opponents, LA is not the team it was last year, losing as many games through Week 8 (three) as they did last year en route to a 13-3 record and Super Bowl appearance. The Niners also preyed on the inexperience of Allen in their rout of Carolina. While the Niners have had a favorable schedule so far, the real tests will come in the second half of the season, with a schedule that includes playing the Seattle Seahawks twice, the Green Bay Packers, and the Saints and Ravens both on the road. All four of these teams have been contenders the entire season, so this will be a real challenge to go up against these teams in such a short span of time.
Additionally, while the 49ers defense seems to have no real holes, Jimmy Garoppolo does seem to raise some question marks on offense. With no prior playoff experience, and the 49ers looking like a lock for the playoffs barring a midseason collapse, Garoppolo could struggle in a game with much higher pressure than the regular season. Additionally, with such an emphasis on the running game, the 49ers rank poorly in passing YPG, just 24th in the NFL. Therefore, if the Niners come up against a team that can stuff the run such as New Orleans, they may be in trouble. However, if the NFC runs through San Francisco in the playoffs, there is no denying that Garoppolo is undefeated at home as a starter. While there may be some lingering concerns on the backburner, look for these 49ers to make a deep postseason run.