The NFC West’s first round of divisional head-to-heads is set for this weekend. On one side will be the undefeated Arizona Cardinals taking on the fellow unbeaten Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium, while our Seattle Seahawks will look to shake off a rare two-game losing skid against the 2-1 San Francisco 49ers in Santa Clara. This is Seattle’s first trip to Santa Clara since 2019, having played last season’s road game in Glendale.
This has the feel of a must-win game for the Seahawks, as 1-3 in a division will put them in a three-game hole against either Arizona or Los Angeles. Worst case scenario is the Seahawks lose to the 49ers, the Rams beat the Cardinals, and Seattle is entering Thursday night with a definite must-win.
San Francisco just had a heartbreaking loss to the Green Bay Packers in their home opener, otherwise they’d also be 3-0. Before the latest installment of this rivalry kicks off, I asked Ty Austin of Niners Nation some questions about the team, and he’s brought some in-depth answers!
1.) It’s impossible to ignore what the 49ers did over the offseason by trading up to draft Trey Lance, the obvious successor to Jimmy Garoppolo. So far Lance has been used sparingly and Garoppolo has been his usual self in terms of having some good games and some bad moments. Do you believe we’ll see Lance starting games this season or do you think Kyle Shanahan will keep Lance mostly on the bench until Garoppolo departs (presumably) next year?
Personally, and this is just based on the generally annoyed vibes radiating off Kyle Shanahan anytime the subject comes up, is that Jimmy Garoppolo will start every game this season. That’s my answer as of right now, today, this exact moment, and I reserve all rights to change said opinion at a later date.
It seems like the preseason revealed what a lot of people didn’t want to be true, but was probably pretty obvious if you had considered the bigger picture. Trey Lance is a supremely talented, but raw athlete, who only notched 17 college starts and hadn’t seen any game action since October 3rd, 2020.
The highs were high, especially the 80 yard touchdown pass to begin his professional career, but the lows were also low. He missed open receivers, panicked under pressure, and reverted back to bad habits. All to be expected from a rookie quarterback, especially one that could only celebrate his draft status with a legal alcoholic beverage earlier this year.
Shanahan has already stated that he feels the best thing for Lance’s development has been his work on the scout team, and continued his steadfast support of Garoppolo’s preparedness and ability to run the offense, up to, and including, this week. In a borderline Iverson-y bit of dismissal, he declared, “This isn’t the preseason,” when asked about an increased role for the rookie.
The only thing that seems to get on Shanahan’s nerves more than questions he doesn’t want to answer seems to be when quarterbacks can’t efficiently run his offense. For all of the knocks against him, Garoppolo has done a pretty good job of that as a starter, reflected in his 26-9 record. I doubt Shanahan haS the patience for the rookie growing pains of Lance when the team went out of their way to keep a seasoned vet on the roster to make another run in 2021.
All that being said, allow me to offer two somewhat obvious caveats. First, Garoppolo gets injured, which has been the case more often than not during his time in San Francisco. Second, things truly come off the rails, and the 49ers are out of playoff contention come say Week 13. At that point, for Shanahan not to start Lance would be coaching malpractice.
Until one or both of those things occur, I’d be shocked to see anyone but Garoppolo taking snaps before the end of the year.
2.) What’s your early assessment of the 49ers defense under new defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans? This comes with the obvious note that Jason Verrett is done for the year and Dre Greenlaw will miss some time.
I’ve vacillated between optimistic and downright impressed by DeMeco Ryans’ performance as defensive coordinator. He’s proven to be a cool and calm hand on the wheel, providing a needed bit of continuity from the Saleh era without simply trying to replicate his predecessor’s success. He prefers a more aggressive style that features press man coverage and heavier blitzes, which seems to have provided a positive jolt to the unit.
In the opening game, the 49ers dominated the Lions until, as you mentioned, Jason Verrett went down, shaking everyone to their core. The impulse to pull players, and the distraction of losing a team leader, who battled injuries for years, excuses the late 4th quarter meltdown.
The following weeks required standout defensive performances to cover for anemic offensive starts. Holding the Eagles on a crucial goal line stand turned the game’s momentum, and prevented a 10 point deficit before half. It helped that the offense came to life, and went down the field for a score to make it 7-3, instead.
Meanwhile, the fact the defense even had a chance to blow a lead with 37 seconds left against the Packers is because they managed to suppress Aaron Rodgers for most of the second half. Without picking up the slack for Garoppolo’s fumble, which gifted Rogers a starting field position at the Niners’ 38 yard line, the game would’ve essentially been over, down two scores with about two minutes left. Unfortunately, Davante Adams is really good, and his quarterback is a wizard. It happens.
As of now, Ryans has shown himself capable, but his ability to adjust over the rest of the season will tell the tale.
3.) What has been the biggest surprise (pleasant or otherwise) to San Francisco’s 2-1 start?
I’ll give you one pleasant surprise and one otherwise. The pleasant surprise has been Deebo Samuel leveling up to an absolute monster. He’s currently second in the league in yards, and the offense almost singlehandedly ran through him the first two weeks. After an up-and-down sophomore season, marred by injuries, he has leveraged his unique mix of power and speed to ramble and rumble through defenses, like a souped up semi.
As for a surprise that’s not so pleasant, the lack of running game has been baffling. The team currently averages a minuscule 3.6 yards per carry, which pales in comparison to last year’s 4.3, and ranks a full yard lower than the Super Bowl team. Trying to recapture that 2019 mojo, Alex Mack was added at center to bolster the offensive line, and two running backs were added in the draft. So, what’s happening?
Injuries have already ravaged the position. Raheem Mostert ended his season after a handful of snaps, JaMycal Hasty suffered a high ankle sprain, Elijah Mitchell dinged up his shoulder, and Trey Sermon carried the ball once in Week 2 before a dirty hit left him with a concussion. The lack of options led to fullback Kyle Juszczyk receiving a career high of five carries against the Packers.
However, health isn’t the only issue. Green Bay, who have long had issues against the run (see NFC Championship game, 2019), sold out to stop it this last week, dropping safeties down and daring Jimmy Garoppolo to beat them over the top. Their gambit paid off, stifling the usually plug-and-play outside zone system, and, try as he might, Jimmy couldn’t beat them. He’ll need to be sharper for teams to respect him, and present fronts that the Niners can exploit on the ground.
4.) How much pressure is Kyle Shanahan under to get back to the postseason? He’s had a bit of a weird career in that he only has one playoff appearance through four seasons but it’s also the only one in which he’s had a healthy starting quarterback the entire way.
I’m gonna go ahead and say, outside of his own seemingly extreme standards for success and failure, very little pressure. Obviously, everyone involved should want and expect a playoff appearance out of a team not that far removed from a Super Bowl run, but this is clearly an organization with an eye toward the future that includes Shanahan‘s involvement.
He signed a six-year extension on his original six-year contract just last offseason, still basking in the afterglow of the team’s best effort since 2013. He’s demonstrated his offensive prowess, and showed he can guide a team to within minutes of the ultimate prize. More importantly, he’s avoided the land mines of the Jim Harbaugh regime by maintaining good relationships with his general manager and ownership.
Secondly, the Trey Lance selection almost certainly guarantees Shanahan will see most of that extension, no questions asked. After spending so much good will and draft capital to bring in his handpicked protege, he’d have to really botch the young signal caller’s development to start feeling the heat this side of 2024.
5.) The NFC West looks like it will be as tough as expected with Arizona and Los Angeles both at 3-0. What are your optimism levels for the 49ers winning the division compared to just snagging a wild card spot?
Let’s put the optimism levels in the borderline cautious range. If I were to assign a percentage to their odds, it’d be floating around 20% to take the division. While the 49ers offense has yet to impress, the defense has looked solid, and I believe in Shanahan enough to bet that he’ll unlock a counterpunch to what teams have started doing to slow down the rushing attack.
Of course, the Rams, featuring the reborn Matthew Stafford, seem poised to be world beaters, and are the obvious favorites, especially after what they did to Tampa Bay. That being said, I don’t think we’ll have an accurate picture of their ceiling until they face off against the rest of the division, which starts this week against Arizona.
Everyone is within two games, and everyone has to play each other two times, meaning with the unpredictability of the NFL season, literally, anything is possible.
Thanks to Ty for answering my questions! You can check back on gameday for my answers to his questions over at Niners Nation.