• San Francisco fell victim to one of the worst rash of injuries in the NFL last year. Assuming the team’s health improves, a playoff appearance is in reach.
By Andy Benoit
August 28, 2019

The 2019 NFL season is just weeks away, so Andy Benoit makes a few predictions for each NFL team. Today he analyzes the San Francisco 49ers, who finished 4–12 and third in the NFC West last year.

The offense erupts. Few teams have better-fitting personnel for their scheme. QB Jimmy Garoppolo has the twitchy release to make every inside throw at the intermediate levels. His reads are mostly defined because head coach Kyle Shanahan’s system is predicated almost entirely on building passes off the threat of the run, and it goes well beyond San Fran’s fantastic outside zone play-action. Shanahan plays with two backs more than any schemer by a wide margin, which is why his Niners each of the last three years have signed a pricey free agent back: Kyle Juszczyk, Jerick McKinnon and Tevin Coleman. With two backs in (with McKinnon’s injured knee in question, it’ll likely be Coleman with either the fullback Juszczyk or fellow tailback Matt Breida), the Niners compel defenses to prepare for more run possibilities, limiting a D’s options in coverages. Shanahan exploits the suddenly predictable coverages through route combinations or mismatch-making formation wrinkles. 

George Kittle keeps producing. He may not top his tight end record 1,377 yards from last year, but the 2017 fifth-round pick registers All-Pro caliber numbers again in a system that makes great use of “flood” concepts, where three routes — one deep, one intermediate and one short — attack the same side of the field, out-leveraging zone coverage. On these designs, the ball very often finds the intermediate route, which Kittle, on “corner” and “crossing” patterns, runs with aplomb. 

The defense breaks out. That is, as long as ends Nick Bosa and Dee Ford are healthy (both had notable injuries in training camp). The Niners made huge investments here because their scheme’s Cover 3 foundation is contingent on getting pressure up front—and last year there was almost none (especially off the edges). On top of surrendering the second most touchdown passes in the league, San Francisco, also plagued by myriad injuries in the secondary, forced a putrid seven turnovers, which is four below the NFL’s previous all-time low. Flanking talented defensive tackle DeForest Buckner with premium edge rushers has a domino effect that, among other things, hides an improving but still far-from-flawless secondary, making this a top-10 defense.

The run defense also comes along. Stacked behind the talented D-line is a stalwart linebacker tandem in unheralded 2018 third-round sensation Fred Warner, who plays with the poise of a 10th-year veteran, and productive ex-Buc Kwon Alexander, who also boosts San Francisco’s nickel coverage. 

BOTTOM LINE: This team would have broken out in 2018 if not for the league’s worst rash of injuries. A healthy roster means a playoff run. 

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