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5Qs and 5As with Niners Nation: ‘I’m not feeling as confident as I usually do’

It’s a baffling thing to knock a coach for when you look at the league-wide context.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Rams return from their bye to take on a familiar foe in the San Francisco 49ers. Both teams are fighting to return back to the top of the NFC West after the surprising Seahawks overtook it within the last week.

LA played the 49ers earlier this month and the result wasn’t pretty as San Francisco earned a 24-9 win in primetime. The Rams have lost seven-straight regular season meetings and are looking for their first such win since the final week of the 2018 campaign.

With the Rams looking to put the losing streak behind them, I spoke with Tyler Austin of SB Nation’s 49ers blog Niners Nation to gain more insight into LA’s opposition ahead of the rematch this weekend.

Q - The 49ers have lost back-to-back games against the Falcons and Chiefs respectively. What has been the biggest reason for those losses and how do they rebound on the road in LA?

A - Not to correct you, Evan, but the 49ers didn’t just lose back-to-back games against the Falcons and Chiefs. They got punched in the mouth, ragdolled, and KO’d by a flying elbow drop from the top rope by the Falcons and Chiefs. Usually, when you’re as talented as the Niners and play two utterly non-competitive games in a row, there’s a whole flurry of reasons to explain it. So, allow me to try to sum this up.

The simplest and most familiar answer to fans of this team: Injuries. At points against Atlanta, the Niners’ once world-beating defense was missing up to eight starters, including superstar Nick Bosa, big time free agent acquisition Charvarius Ward, and safety stalwart Jimmie Ward. This left them particularly equipped to stop an offense designed to squeeze the life from a game like a boa constrictor.

By the next week, the defense healed up and returned pretty much everyone who hasn’t already been out for a longer stretch. However, a fair amount of those guys looked either a step slow or a bit out of sync, which makes sense if they were limited in practice at best, and it only looks worse when you face Patrick Mahomes.

Beyond the injuries, these were just really terrible matchups for the Niners right when they could least afford it. Specifically, the Falcons, who’ve looked friskier than anyone had imagined, run the football extremely well. They do it often and they do it with a mobile quarterback. Given the injuries along the defensive line and a propensity to get burned by quick QBs, this spelled a disaster for what had been a stout run defense. Meanwhile, the Niners did themselves no favors on offense. A fumble returned for a touchdown, penalties that wiped out big gains, and difficulty establishing their own run game led to an unimpressive outing.

As for the Chiefs, well, they’re still the Chiefs. Anyone could look bad against them at any time, and the Niners just got caught in the path of the buzzsaw. They score in bunches and blitz like madmen. When that works, there’s little the Niners could do to overcome it, especially when you kick field goals or throw red zone INTs instead of hanging touchdowns on the board.

I do believe the Niners can bounce back against the Rams because the defensive line should be able to take advantage against their inferior counterparts and Christian McCaffrey should be better integrated into the offense by Sunday. If those two hypotheticals become reality, Kyle Shanahan should be smiling all the way home to San Francisco. Of course, there could be a million other factors come game day, but winning in those two areas are how the Niners are meant to win games.

Q - Against KC, Christian McCaffrey finished with 62 total yards in limited action since being traded to the 49ers on Thursday. How did you feel about all the draft capital used to acquire him and how would you access his first game with the team?

A - Considering CMC racked up 62 total yards after landing in San Francisco on FRIDAY, I’m very happy with that production and cannot wait to see what he can accomplish with more time to acclimate to the offense. As for my feelings about the draft picks used to attain him? F— them picks, baby!

I know everyone harps on the Niners and their many bites at the apple when it comes to acquiring talent in the running back room, even though undrafted free agents and sixth rounders have gotten the job done in the past, but what you have to understand is that Shanahan has finally found the perfect dance partner for his musical beat.

Furthermore, those many bites of bad apple are exactly what led them here. What’s worse? Running out players who won’t succeed in the offense or trading picks to acquire someone who you know will? Which represents the bigger sunk cost?

Just think of it, McCaffrey has the combination of speed, vision, and run/pass versatility that made him a superstar in a bad situation in Carolina. Now he’ll be able to put those qualities to good use in an offense designed for him to thrive. Plus, he’s only 27 and under contract until 2025. Sign me up!

Q - The defense, which had been a top-five unit all season, fell flat on their faces after giving up a season-high 529 yards to the Chiefs. Was their performance the result of having a rough game or had Patrick and his Mahomies found a weakness in this defense to be further exploited moving forward?

A - I talked a little bit about this earlier, so I’ll say this quickly. The defense just didn’t quite look like their usual selves, and I think it had a lot to do with players returning from injury either not 100% or without much practice time. Understandably, they seemed off.

Compounding that fact was Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid being in their bag on Sunday. Those two had all the right answers right when they needed them most and made the Niners looked silly. It’s easy to do when you’re one of the league’s best play callers and you have a 10 year old’s Madden Create-a-Player as your QB.

Without a doubt, DeMeco Ryans got outcoached for the first time in his career, and unfortunately it ended up as the worst defensive performance in the Shanahan era. I imagine other teams will attempt to learn from what the Chiefs did, but not everyone has Mahomes and now it’s Ryans’ responsibility to adapt. He has before, and I’d bet on him to do it again.

Q - Under Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers have a 4-31 record when entering the fourth quarter and are a staggering 1-30 when facing a deficit of three or more points in that same span. Obviously every game is different but what do you attribute these failures in mounting a comeback to?

A - I’ll chalk that less than flattering performance up to two main reasons. One, and most importantly, it’s really hard to execute comebacks in the NFL. Just look at this tweet by one of my fellow Niners Nation writers, which collects the records of other head coaches in the same situation.

See, not so easy, even for one of the league’s greats. Why all of a sudden everyone decided to care about this very specific stat, other than Shanahan lacking some urgency in the comeback bid against the Falcons, I don’t know. It’s a baffling thing to knock a coach for when you look at the league-wide context.

The second reason I’ll point to for this team’s lack of success in these situations is that Shanahan’s offensive philosophy doesn’t lend itself to quick scoring. In an ideal world, the Niners want to have a two-score lead with the opportunity to put the game clock on 2x speed by pounding the rock. He wants to win by winning the time of possession battle. People might have a problem with that choice, but it’s worked well enough to make an NFC Championship game and Super Bowl, so I’m willing to trust him.

Q - DraftKings Sportsbook has the 49ers listed as 1.5-point favorites with an O/U of 42. What is your prediction for Sunday’s game and how could the Niners sweep LA for the fourth season in a row?

A - To be honest, I’m not feeling as confident as I usually do heading into these matchups. Sean McVay had two weeks to prepare, and the Rams might be in an equally desperate position as the Niners, and willing to throw the kitchen sink at this game to win. The ultimate weakness remains Jimmy Garoppolo and there’s a lot riding on whether you get the good or bad version of Jimmy. He’s actually played slightly above his average on the year, so he might just be due for a stinker of all stinkers, especially if Aaron Donald starts to make him feel the heat on a regular basis.

However, the addition of Christian McCaffrey, and the highlights of what he did to the Rams right before the Niners traded for him, gives me hope. The extra week of a healthier defense preparing together gives me hope. The home field advantage at SoFi Stadium gives me hope. So, I’ll predict:

49ers 27 Rams 23