Plus Kittle’s return, a superb showing in the secondary, and why it’s easy to play quarterback in this offense.
On Saturday, we saw what this 49ers team, a team that’s been decimated with injuries on both sides of the ball, is talented enough to beat a playoff team if they don’t turn the ball over. C.J. Beathard was efficient, Jeff Wilson Jr. was effective, and George Kittle did enough through the air while the defense continued to be excellent. Here are four takeaways from the 49ers’ win over the Cardinals.
Playing quarterback is that easy in this offense
All season, fans have been frustrated with Nick Mullens, and for a good reason. From sacks to missing throws, to turning the ball over, Mullens did everything he could to hold the 49ers back. As a backup, an undrafted one at that, the expectations were too high for Mullens. That’s because of the weapons and play-caller.
What we saw Saturday was C.J. Beathard playing within himself. Should Beathard have had an interception? Sure. There are plenty of “almost” interceptions every week around the NFL from starters, and we’ve seen that first-hand from Mullens and Jimmy Garoppolo. “Almost” turnovers turn into points for the offense, just like “almost” sacks and pressures turn into first downs.
Per RBSDM, Beathard had a higher EPA/play, quarterback rating, and success rate than Kyler Murray. Beathard running for a first down on one play was a pleasant surprise and a nice changeup. While C.J.’s touchdowns were all “gimmes,” they’re still touchdowns, and he shouldn’t be downgraded for them because we don’t do that for any other QB.
Don’t turn the ball over. Make a handful of plays with your arm or legs, make the throws you’re supposed to, and win. In a Kyle Shanahan-led offense, receivers are running open all game. There was a play where Brandon Aiyuk likely could have had a touchdown in this game on a play where Beathard threw it to Kittle. That’s me, nitpicking and wanting more. Beathard did enough, and for a third-string QB, that’s all you can ask for.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate Robert Saleh. It’s Week 16. You’re well aware of the 72 injuries on defense. Despite fielding backups at each level, the 49ers entered Week 16 tied for the fewest missed tackles in the NFL. Pro Football Reference has San Francisco averaging just over two missed tackles a game. Against the Cardinals, a team that likes to get you in space and force you to make open-field tackles, the 49ers defense missed five, and a couple of those came on one scramble from Kyler Murray.
Prepared. That’s the best way I could describe Saleh. He always has this defense ready to play. If you hadn’t watched the 49ers, you wouldn’t think they were down multiple starters. Sound tackling, minimal coverage busts, and base level execution are why the Niners defense has remained a top unit in 2020.
Saleh has a “Seattle coordinator” wrap, but that’s not fair to him as Saleh has evolved beyond being a “Cover-3 coordinator.” When I say base level execution, Azeez Al-Shaair is jumping into throwing lanes to take away Murray’s first read. Tarvarius Moore aggressively fits the run in the correct spot. At the same time, defensive lineman Alex Barrett, who has been re-signed and released numerous times this season, held his own on Saturday. That’s thanks to being prepared, and it starts from the top down.
Enjoy next week while you still can, because Saleh is a goner.
George Kittle is good at football
You won’t get this type of analysis anywhere else. The threat of Kittle is what the 49ers missed. He caught four of his five targets for 92 yards. Each of those targets resulted in first downs, and 48 of Kittle’s 92 yards came after the catch. That is what’s been lacking at the tight end position—also, his blocking.
For the first time since Week 7, the 49ers had a 100-yard runner. When San Francisco ran outside of the tackle, they had 13 carries for 129 yards. All season, I’ve been harping that the tight ends, backs, and wideouts have cost the ball-carriers big gains. Kittle’s blocking paved the way for the 49ers’ ground game to get back to their bread and butter, which is running wide.
Shanahan talked about how the energy has been different with Kittle at practice during the postgame. Players have an extra pep in their step. Everyone is a little more lively. I’ve always felt like the best players bring out the best in their teammates. The expectations are different when Kittle is on the field. You’re kidding yourself if you think the players don’t know that.
We saw Saturday night that Kittle makes everyone’s job around him easier.
Difficult decisions on the backend
Saturday also showed that the 49ers would have some difficult decisions to make this offseason. Ahkello Witherspoon, Jason Verrett, and K’Waun Williams were all outstanding against the Cardinals. The trio combined for ten run stops with only one missed tackle, an interception, and a pair of pass breakups. Plus a sack because that’s what K’Waun does.
Witherspoon’s career has been a rollercoaster in San Francisco. At his peak, in early 2019, he looked closer to an All-Pro cornerback than a third-round pick. Inconsistencies, injuries, and trouble playing the ball when it’s in the air has led to Witherspoon being benched more than once. Shanahan spoke about Ahekllo’s mettle and how he’s handled not playing this season in a positive light.
Shanahan mentioned how Witherspoon went to Saleh and Richard Hightower, the Niners’ special teams coach, asking how he could find ways to help the team. That attitude might keep Witherspoon around after this season. His talent, as he displayed on the interception in the end zone, is what will keep ‘Spoon in the NFL. Aside from the 38-yard pass allowed on Saturday, Witherspoon has played well in a limited role this season. He bounced back in a great big way and made plays when the defense needed somebody to make something happen.
Verrett locked down one of the two best receivers in the NFL. He’s a player the 49ers have to bring back unless another team makes an offer to Verrett he can’t turn down. Williams, being banged up all season may benefit both sides financially.
It’ll be a fascinating offseason, and the 49ers are likely to look a lot different in 2021. If I’m John Lynch, I’m bringing these three players in the secondary back.