Week 4: What was lost is found (for now)

As I mentioned in the after game post thread, sometimes you have to get down to bottom to decide you don’t want to be there. The first 20 minutes of this game were not only as bad as I have ever seen the Hawks play under Carroll but nearly as bad as I’ve seen a pro team play the game period. Before we hit the meltdown button from a downwind position on that, consider: Remember Tenn, who clawed their way to a win over us? Lost a similar game today and have an identical record, 2-2. Minnesota who were out for blood after a last second loss in our house in 2020, who played with great intensity and incredible perfection from Cousins and their run game against us? Scored 7 points today, and lost a game for which they, in turn, never showed up, and are now 1-3. Kansas "Best Team in the Game" City has looked terrible on defense, and has the same record as us 2-2. The simple fact is that in today’s NFL with no offseason contact play and shortened preseason play, most teams are simply not ready to go in September. We are not alone in floundering, bad as it’s looked. This wasn’t quite a must win game, but the fact is we won it. And dominated the second half of it. We can still very much win the division. The playoffs are entirely attainable. September didn’t look much like that. We also faced a couple of pretty tough teams to start out. All is not lost.

Today’s win was better in a number of respects than it looked, to me. I’m going to cover the units, and get to the coaches last. For the first three games this year, a crisp offensive line performance in the first half was destroyed in each second half. Pockets were razored, run blocking crushed, and the offense consequently ineffective. We have a new blocking scheme this year. It has seemed that, after working brilliantly in the first halves, it was diagnosed by opponents, and second half adjustments took it apart. The Niners’ coaches obviously looked at the tape—and came out of the tunnel already doing those adjustments. Result: pocket razored, run blocking destroyed, Russell sacked on, what?, three consecutive third downs by SF’s admittedly talented defensive lineman, and negative total yardage for our offense after 25 minutes of play. . . . And then Solari and/or Mike Dickerson made their own adjustments. And the pockets started protecting Russell. And the run play worked better, if not dynamically, about which more below. And the team went to uptempo. And they moved the ball consistently, including making many big plays, and a couple more that should have been made. Russell was nearly sacked on a couple of blitzes, but for the most part was kept clean the rest of the game. The good news is that our coaches have figured out what the other coaches where doing against us; and sealed that off. And after that, we had our way with the other guys, pretty much. That has to continue going forward, but there is real cause for optimism, there. SF didn’t stop getting to us because they got lazy with a 7 point lead, they stopped because our guys stopped them.

On a down note there, Brown has looked like he sure as Hell should have been participating in practice in preseason, cause he’s been slow in pass pro (if pretty good in run blocking, there’s an inversion). The less said of Ogbuehi the better; at right tackle he played like a guy who’s been on IR for three weeks. We need better play out of our offensive line, but if the coaches give them the right adjustments, we’ll be OK.

On the horrible first 20 minutes on offense . . . One thing about the original WCO under Bill Walsh was the scripted plays, the first 25. Why did he do this? To see how the other side defended certain formations and personnel utilization. Then with that info, he’d take them apart for the rest of the game. I watched several dozen games in his prime where he did just that. There’s been some talk that Waldron is scripting some initial plays. I strongly suspect that the goal is the same. As much as it set my teeth on edge to watch the team run Carson up the gut on our first two offensive plays and then a nothing throw to the sideline, this may, again, be part of the script: to read what the Niners were going to do there. That may be why as terribly as offensive play went initially for us the Hawks, almost bizarrely, didn’t panic. That’s speculation, but I have to think the team knew that they might take some lumps early to get the diagnosis for the coaches. Once Shane ran that through the neural computer, *boom* we started to hit on solid gainers, go uptempo, and went down the field. My point here is that the ugliness may have been, in part, for a larger purpose. I’ll have to see this over more games to get a solid opinion. But we are likely not as bad as those first 20 minutes with the good play later only a fluke. And the takeaway is that Waldron was able to sort out what would work, and later in the game the Niners’ defense really couldn’t stop us until Pete went wretched Peteball on our penultimate possession with 5:30 to play. Take heart, sez I. There may have been a method in the sadness.

Chris Carson. I almost wonder if he’s nicked up. But naw. CC has been dead slow since Week 1. He’s tentative much of the time hitting the hole, although a wild boar once there’s contact. They have run him to the outside maybe a dozen times this year, both wings, and he has not gotten around end ONCE. The play last week where Brown and Lewis excavated an ore pit for him, a geriatric back could have gotten to the goal line on. Two years back when Penny showed jets, Carson changed his style and hugely accelerated when given the ball for a year or so. It was great. That’s a distant memory. It was my strong impression in preseason that the plan was to go to a dual RB system, with equal usage of a power guy and a speed guy. Then Penny had the ‘mysterious injury,’ and vanished to wherever he is now lost in the Phantom Zone. And the coaches forgot about the depth chart and just gave the ball to Carson. And opponents are totally keying on him, so at least half his carries are fails from the touch. Now, once the offensive line got its act together in the second half today, Carson did have a couple of good inside runs. But the fact is, Carson’s utilization is definitely hurting our offense. Collins looked much more explosive, faster straight line, and fresh. We have to at least get back to the original dual back plan. At least. And frankly Collins should see, if anything, more touches of the two, because he has looked better from the preseason right to this hour in every game where they've both played. And a priority for the offseason is for us to get a speedy, productive running back. Whose name, guaranteed, will not be Chris Carson, much as I love him for what he does well.

Metcalf . . . Sheesh. Dude had three drops. Or was it four? Twice he lost the ball when hit, and a beautiful rainbow from Russell he had simply bounce out of his hands. Yes, yes, he had a TD. And he fought for it damned well, to his credit. Do I want him extended? Absolutely NOT. Look, D.K. is who he is. He had bad hands in college, he had stiff hips in college, he’s the same guy, and he’s staying the same guy. I won’t even mention his rock head plays every single season except to mention them in passing. Now, clearly he’s not going to have the production under Waldron he had under Schott, though that’s in part because defenses are keying on him and dude is not making the same kind of big plays when pressured by the defense. I pray we trade him in the offseason, frankly. But I’m more than willing for him to help us win this season. Just he’ll have to quit screwing up the plays the team is feeding him. Please? After he dropped that rainbow, Waldron/Russell fed him a tailor made target. He didn't hang onto it. Pretty please, D.K.?

We still didn’t see much passing to tight ends, and no production. I have to think they needed Dissly to stay in an block, and Everett who was to be the playmaker but was unavailable. Parkinson just came off IR and may not have been trusted by the coaches, though it still irritated me they didn’t even try to target him. Swain, as mentioned by Mookie elsewhere, has become a solid if unspectacular WR3. He can help us, and I’m glad of that. Lockett was dinged up coming in, and you have to figure that the Niners worked hard to take him out of the passing game, too. That said, Waldron kept moving his targets around and Russell hit on enough to make the win come to us and embrace the jersey.

Russell Wilson. There’s been some slanging on No. 3 again, and to be fair he looked early on today like Dazed Russ of 2020, sailing passes, late on reads, and generally not effective. And then we see why he’s a Hall of Famer. Beautiful passes to Collins and some intermediate stuff. Then he completely improvised two scoring plays, one deciding to run the ball in himself when the Niners failed on left side contain, and one of those magical plays when he escaped certain death in a blitzed pocket fo find the one man he could hit and hit him for 6 in a blink. Wilson is simply one of the great talents in League history. I want him to continue to improvise under pressure, because THIS is what he does. I like that Waldron has gotten him to throw the ball away on routine busted plays. But let Russ create when we need a big play, because he’s as big a big playmaker as anyone in the game. He literally willed us into the end zone on those.

The day started out bad. The play that turned it around to me was Diggs’ perfect robber pick. We didn’t do anything with it, but that was a declaration from, to me, the best player on our defense that we were the better team. The D woke up after than. I like Jones at LCB. Yes, he ran the wrong coverage on a play that gave up a fool score. Although if he hadn’t played man on that receiver, Blair blew the inside coverage on the play that so that guy would have been hugely open. Most of the day, Jones was tight in coverage. He defensed some targets. He was solid in run support. He was standard deviations better than Flowers, and allowed Reed to go back to RCB where D.J. himself was shutdown all game. We see with the coverage bust why the coaches did not rush Jones out there and went with emergency player utilization for three weeks. That should be over and done with now. Period. Jones left and Reed right were simply and massively better than anything we’ve done at cornerback in the first three weeks.

Ryan Neal. Look, this guy has to be promoted to slot corner. Why? Neal makes plays! He’s assignment sound, even when half the other guys out there are floundering. He gets his eyes in the backfield so he knows where the play is going. He gets his hands to the ball, and defensed more passes today than half the guys we have put out there in the defensive secondary combined. He’s technically very sound on tackling, and it showed in some big, crucial stops. Above all, he plays with confidence, intensity, and purpose. I have to think his level of play picked up the guys around him. We really need to get playmakers on the field, and Ryan Neal is one. Blair is faster, but often a disaster in coverage, and continues to make bonehead plays that cost us. Amadi is good, but Neal is the better athlete. That the coaches put Ryan out there today says that they may finally be accepting the reality: we are better with him on the field---and that was true exactly the same way last year. The coaches read on that?: "More Blair." My answer: "No more Blair." I sure hope that the coaches forget to take Ryan Neal off the field for the rest of the year.

Jamal Adams. I’ve been down on him a bunch, so I’ll at least note that his intensity of play, especially over the last 40 minutes, really helped the defense, and he got in on some big tackles and pass breakups. I have to think he’ll play better as the season goes on, and we badly need that from a guy who’s going to be out there 100% of defensive snaps. His aggressiveness continues to hurt us as well as help us: he totally bit on the trick play pseudo-flea flicker that would have been a laugher TD for SF except for a poor throw because Adams let Kittle go and was 10 yards off. So, uh, assignment sound isn’t exactly locked down for Jamal. But it was his best game of the year so far. Did we even see him blitz once? If not, good. Keep him in the back seven, we need that speed of his there.

Brooks made some big plays. The coaches here too have finally accepted that he’s a pure weapon on the blitz. Jordyn sniffed out and got in on blowing up some strong side runs and QB read-options to good effect. He needs reps, there are still some mistakes. The physical talent is there. The linebackers did a much better job stopping the run by the Niners in the second half, too, so whatever adjustments were made worked, thankfully. Bobby upped his level of play as the game went on, and had a magnificent tip of a pass to deny a completion. Wags sits in the passing lanes like a master at this point.

We have real talent on the defensive line. I’ve said it before, but we faced three of the better offensive lines in the game in the first three weeks while our own guys have not been in synch. Our guys were creating pressure, especially in the second half. Duncan, Robinson, and Taylor all got a hand on one or the other of the SF QBs repeatedly without quite being able to get a firm hold or a strip, but they were getting in there. The holding on our rushers by SF in the last 20 minutes was atrocious and occurred simultaneously on multiple guys getting back there, especially on Duncan who was roped-and-tied on numerous consecutive plays. There was some very creative action in the trenches. I saw Poona turn and screen off a guy coming out of the backfield on pass defense, even if maybe improvised, while Wags stunted around him to pressure Lance into throwing the ball away. Al Freaking Woods defensed a pass which Lance threw an instant before Wood would have eaten him like a madeleine biscuit. Our defensive line play is a work in progress, but there’s talent to work with. I have to think we’ll get better.

Special teams. Wow. Dickson put in some great punts. Our coverage units laid some serious wood, knocking Aiyuk’s helmet off and his attention out of San Francisco County entirely. And the fumble recovery, so critical, but in part caused by the fact that the coverage team was down on the guy in a hurry after that prior big hit and made him jittery with his eyes off the catch. Our teams are a weapon that can change game momentum and even tilt the field for us. It’s so great to have that back. Turnovers were a critical part of the Legion years. Well, special teams are getting that mojo back for us, and we are finally playing some of the guys on defense who actually, ah, do that. Once we start applying real pressure to an opponent on teams and on defense, mistakes will happen to them and we can begin to capitalize on that. And as a side note, Shanahan’s all but inexplicable inability or unwillingness to fix his weaknesses on teams continues to be a huge cheat code for opponents like us, with his kicking and return units sabotaging the team for a total of 11 points in turnaround in this game alone.

Utilization. My biggest gripe with the coaches to this point in the season has not been the discoordinated play. That’s part of the overall situation for many teams, as I’ve said, however infuriating it has been and is. My greatest gripe has been utilization. With guys of lesser talent and playmaking ability sent out on the field or given targets and such while simply better guys are left standing on the sideline. It took too long to get Flowers off the field, even if Jones wasn’t fully ready. Neal is a huge sparkplug for us, but the coaches only put him out there in desperation. Taylor and Robinson were getting not even half time usage between them so that other useful but lesser talents got the snaps instead. I like Mawoya and Hyder, but we now have seen that Taylor and Robinson really make things happen; good things. It took too long for the coaches to turn to Collins. We are still forcing the ball to Metcalf even when he’s not getting the job done, while other eligible receivers see no targets at all in a game (like Parkinson). It’s rational that the coaches play veteran guys who are assignment sound, especially early in the year, and that guys who have been big weapons for us such as Metcalf and Carson should get primary looks. But we’ve simply hurt ourselves by not looking at who’s producing and who’s not. I seriously don’t want to see Blair or Flowers on the field again outside of true physical emergency. We seriously need to spell Carson more, and actually have a RB who is moving the ball consistently to do that with. The biggest single problem of the team to this point so far, to me, is feeding snaps to preferred guys and leaving other guys who are actually more productive at the margins. I’m not suggesting that we simply play the hot hand, but that we utilize guys who are helping us win more than a couple of isolated plays a game as we've seen too much in recent years and in the first three weeks.

Refs. I was pleasingly surprised to not see the refs tilting the field for the Niners for once, and in their home stadium no less. The penalties seemed fairly equal, and were actually more damaging to the Niners overall, including crucial offensive holding and procedural calls early and a DPI later. Now, the failure to call some of the most blatant offensive holding I have ever seen was quite egregious in the last 20 minutes, though as some have commented elsewhere today there seems to be a drift that the League has an inclination to that end. I do like that the refs pretty much let the two teams play. And the game was a better game in consequence of that. What a surprise.

Pete Carroll. There’s been plenty to criticize Pete on in how we’ve started this year; some illusory, too much all too real. I hated that we went to Peteball clockworking with 5:30 left and yet again made no attempt even to get a 1st down. And the disorganization of players on the field has been pretty hideous. Here’s the thing though: part of Pete’s MO as a motivational coach is to trust the players to come together and play for each other. He has preached that continuously. And you know what? That happened today. When things were ugly and we were down 0-7 that should have been worse some 20 minutes in, the defensive guys started to play with some real fire, and to play off each others' effort. And the offensive line started to get it together. And Russell and some dudes started making some plays. And the teams guys went after the play with a vengeance. And dudes even looked like they were having fun by 45 minutes in. Pete tells his guys, "It’s on you but I believe in you," as far as I can tell. And that part of his skillset finally paid off. And will likely continue to pay off. All is not lost. So long as our talent starts to play for each other and to a purpose. For the half of the day that really mattered in this game, they did.

Final note in a short week: To beat the Rams, take Kupp out of the equation. Zona did; Rams lost. It’s that simple. Because LAR doesn’t have enough to win if Cooper isn’t wreaking havoc. We need to put a playmaker on him, with help adjacent. Sounds like Neal should be on him in the slot, with Adams lurking near, no? Thursday comes pretty soon. We’ll be in a much better position if we win that one, too. And we can.