MAQB: Kyle Shanahan's Game Plan Helped Jimmy Garoppolo Bounce Back

Looking back at both sides of the ball after a big win for the 49ers. Plus, two young pass-catchers who could step up in Chicago, Denver's defensive stars, the Titans' offensive line depth and more notes from around the league.
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Two more games tonight! Let’s go …

• I first saw this number from Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle, and it sure does say something about how the Niners are coached: 229 of Jimmy Garoppolo’s 268 passing yards on Sunday night were accumulated after the catch. To me, that’s a staff led by Kyle Shanahan understanding it has a banged-up quarterback in need of a shot of confidence, and setting up a plan to protect said player and gradually build him back up. We’ve seen what the Niners have behind Garoppolo now. Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard are fine as backups, but that’s what they are: backups. The Niners’ best chance comes with Garoppolo bouncing back. And Shanahan sure looks like he’s trying to give the 28-year-old a shot to do just that. The long-term discussion on where the team goes at the position can wait.

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• Another interesting fact while we’re on the Niners: They had just one defensive lineman who played in Super Bowl LIV playing last night. That was Arik Armstead. You’ll remember D-line was the position group the team rode all year last year and to a lead in that game against the Chiefs. So I’d say holding the Rams—who have a talented offensive group, and run a ton of innovative stuff—to 16 points isn’t bad.

• Two names I’d keep an eye on in Chicago: tight end Cole Kmet and receiver Darnell Mooney. The rookies had strong camps, with the second-rounder Kmet showing a game resembling that of ex-Raiders Pro Bowler Zach Miller and Mooney making wow plays on close to a daily basis going against NFL defensive backs for the first time. The former has a shot to unlock all the scheme stuff Matt Nagy has been wanting to tap into with multiple tight end sets. The latter is a true burner who could wind up opening things up for other skill guys. If those guys keep growing, it’s fair to think there’ll be more the offense can do to help out Chicago’s very good defense (which has Roquan Smith coming of age in the middle).

• Any discussion on the Denver defense’s performance on Sunday in Foxboro should start with Bradley Chubb’s big afternoon—he had a sack and four tackles, but was a menace far beyond just those plays. And it’s even more impressive that he’s playing this way without Von Miller to take attention away. But just as important was how the Broncos flash-improved roster depth, which was much needed coming into the fall. Malik Reed, a 2019 undrafted free agent, had two sacks playing opposite Chubb. Veteran linebacker Anthony Chickillo, plucked from the Saints practice squad last month, had a sack too. And Deshawn Williams, brought back by the team a third time this summer, had a pick. As you can see, those sorts of things add up.

• The Titans losing left tackle Taylor Lewan is no small thing—but GM Jon Robinson at the very least has given his coaches some depth. Both Dennis Kelly and Ty Sambrailo have extensive starting experience, and have played both sides of the line. Sambrailo was actually Denver’s starting left tackle for the first three games of their Super Bowl season five years ago, but got hurt then and has been nicked up since. Kelly, meanwhile, is a pro’s pro. That the two have 49 career starts between them at least gives the Titans some viability at the position (remember they also lost right tackle Jack Conklin in the offseason). The real question now is how quick first-round pick Isaiah Wilson, who’s lived down to the reputation he had for immaturity coming out of Georgia thus far, can contribute. He came off the COVID-19 list recently, following a summer during which he was busted at a college party and cited for DUI.

• One more thing on the Titans: When you talk to Mike Vrabel on nights like Sunday, it’s pretty noticeable how he makes everything about the players. It came up again when he and I were talking about how smoothly the team handled the last 22 seconds of regulation, with Ryan Tannehill finding A.J. Brown for the game-tying touchdown in a hurry-up situation, one where a lot of teams just would’ve clocked the ball. “Everything we do is about the players,” Vrabel said. “Everything we do, our success, is because of the players. So for them to be able to function and operate, we’ve got to get them the best call, it’s one that they know and one that they understand and the one that they can execute. And they have confidence in it.” It seems pretty simple, right? And it’s something that, of course, an ex-player like Vrabel would be acutely aware of. And that street goes both ways, with the players knowing the guy who’s calling the shots can relate to what they’re up against. “Obviously having a former player who’s won Super Bowls, who played in the NFL just as long as most of us would like to play, 14 years in the league, it’s very easy to buy into things he’s trying to preach, the things that he said, the things that he’s learned over his years, especially being coached by one of the greatest coaches in NFL history, Bill Belichick,” safety Kevin Byard said over the phone last week. “When you have him come in, when he first came in, it was very easy to buy into everything he was saying, the message he was trying to preach.”

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• The Lions defense came together on Sunday in a way it hadn’t before—choking out an opponent it had down—and it’s worth mentioning that three players Matt Patricia imported from Foxboro had a big hand in it and wound up grading out exceptionally well. Trey Flowers, Jamie Collins and Duron Harmon all played more than 70% of Detroit’s defensive snaps. Flowers had a sack, Harmon had a pick and Collins finished second on the team with seven tackles, and had a pressure and pass defensed on top of it. The Lions schedule softens a little over the next six weeks, so I wouldn’t rule out a run at a playoff spot.

• The Texans’ loss on Sunday will likely mean more trade inquiries—and interest in their receiver room, in particular. Kenny Stills and Will Fuller are in contract years, and I wouldn’t rule out Randall Cobb and Brandin Cooks being available either. It’s worth watching, too, because owner Cal McNair’s willingness to let Jack Easterby wheel and deal over the next two weeks could telegraph how McNair sees Easterby fitting into football operations going forward.

• Leighton Vander Esch would be my Cowboy to watch Monday night. Coming back from a broken collarbone, his role in helping direct traffic out there will be vital—especially considering that through five weeks Jaylon Smith’s play in Mike Nolan’s defense has been pretty disappointing. Scans have shown the bone is healed, though he’s still dealing with a shoulder sprain associated with the injury. Vander Esch will be back on the field, by the way, after five weeks away, which means he beat the initial timetable of six to eight weeks. Also, I’m told that Nolan has heard some internal concerns that the Cowboys are trying to do too much scheme-wise (which has been a common criticism of Nolan in the past). So it’ll be interesting to see if Dallas simplifies what it’s doing defensively a little against Arizona.

• Finally, since Monday marks Kyler Murray’s return to his hometown of Dallas, and a stadium where he won state titles as a high-schooler, I’m passing along his prep highlights. His tape, for my money, rivals the all-time ones we’ve seen from guys like Reggie Bush and Noel Devine (look that one up). Enjoy.