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San Francisco 49ers

Five reasons for Niner Faithful to stay positive this season

Jon Chik

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Wide receiver Marquise Goodwin

Times are tough for Niner Faithful. The 2018 campaign has been marred by debilitating injuries, turnovers, heart-breaking losses and, above all else, inconsistency.

But as we’ve noted here at Locked On 49ers, very few teams in the NFL could absorb the loss of their franchise quarterback without their season falling to pieces, last year’s Eagles notwithstanding. And despite San Francisco’s inability to build on 2017’s season-ending five-game winning streak and falling well short of expectations with a 1-5 record, optimistic fans can still find some reasons to stay positive, invested and glued to the TV whenever the Niners take the gridiron. Here are the top five reasons to do so.

1. Of their five losses, the Niners could have won at least three of them

If you subscribe to the “no moral victories” or “you are what your record says you are” mantras, this isn’t what you want to here, but that doesn’t make it any less true: Despite typically being the underdog, San Francisco is taking talented teams right down to the final gun. Unfortunately, it’s also a pattern that’s all too familiar, as five of San Francisco’s first six losses last season were by three points or less, including two in overtime.

And while the Niners certainly need to figure out how to win some of these down-to-the-wire nail-biters, it’s still an encouraging sign when a team that’s been bombarded by injuries nevertheless remains competitive in road clashes against the likes of the Vikings, Chiefs, Chargers and Packers.

San Francisco’s brutal early-season schedule finally softens after Sunday’s home tilt against the Rams – the next three matchups are at Cardinals, vs. Raiders and vs. Giants — so another batch of late-season victories isn’t out of the question.

2. Marquise Goodwin is still one of the most exciting receivers in the league

A relatively unheralded free agent signee a season ago, Marquise Goodwin came to the 49ers with little in the way of hype or fanfare and perhaps wasn’t even a total lock to make the team. Now, other than Jimmy Garoppolo, he’s arguably the offense’s most indispensable player.

Finally healthy in 2018, the Buffalo Bill castoff needed all of one game to remind everyone just how dangerous he can be, as he looked like his usual explosive self against the Packers, hauling in four receptions for 126 yards and scores of 67 and 30 while leaving Green Bay’s defensive backs fruitlessly trying to keep up.

For as long as the 27-year-old is rocking the red and gold, 49er Faithful will wait with bated breath every time he runs a deep route because he’s truly a threat to explode through the secondary and haul in a long touchdown pass every time he does so, and more will be coming in 2018.

3. The Niners boast an elaborate and diverse ground attack led by Matt Breida

Speaking of exciting skill-position players, how about Matt Breida? After taking the rock 14 times for 61 yards and a touchdown in Green Bay on Monday night, the second-year undrafted free agent is averaging an absurd 6.8 yards on his 63 carries, which is easily tops in the league for any running back with more than 16 runs. And he’s done all this while fighting through ankle and shoulder injuries. Wow.

Furthermore, San Francisco is staying committed to the ground attack, running the ball on nearly 43 percent of its snaps. Though that may not seem like a lot at first glance, it makes the Niners the 13th most run-happy team in the NFL, and that run-to-pass ratio would probably be even higher if they weren’t 1-5 and spending a significant chunk of their games in catchup mode.

While the Niners’ offensive line has experienced ups and downs through the first six games, four of the five starters have received plus marks for their run-blocking (Joe Staley [68.8], Laken Tomlinson [69.7], Mike Person [64.8], Mike McGlinchey [88.4]), and McGlinchey is the top-graded run blocker in the NFL, regardless of position. Only Weston Richburg received a subpar run-blocking mark of 52.7.

With so many new faces (Staley is the only offensive lineman remaining from last season’s Week 1 starting lineup), the unit entered the season with some question marks, but they’ve done a nice job working out the kinks and paving the way for Breida to enjoy a breakout season.

4.The Niners know how to stop the run

Football is a game of wills, and perhaps the only thing better than seeing your team run the ball down everyone’s throat is witnessing your squad’s defense form a brick wall as soon as an opposing ball-carrier receives a handoff.

While it’s fair to suggest that Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead have each underachieved relative to when they were drafted, the two former first-rounders have each made significant contributions to shutting down opposing ball-carriers. Armstead has been nothing short of phenomenal in run defense, as he’s earned an 86.0 grade from PFF, which makes him the league’s third-best edge defender against the run. Fellow defensive lineman Cassius Marsh is 12th with an 80.2 mark (though he’s only been on the field for 46 run plays compared to 163 pass plays), and Thomas is 36th out of 103 qualifiers with a 71.8.

At linebacker, Fred Warner has also been a stout run-stuffer for the 49ers, notching a grade of 72.1, good for 16th out of 79 qualified players at the position.

Tackling remains an issue for the Niners, but they consistently get penetration into the backfield, and Melvin Gordon is the only running back to enjoy a big day against San Francisco this season.

5. San Francisco will have a chance (or two) to ruin Seattle’s season

Not a Seahawk fan? Tired of losing watching your team lose to Seattle year after year after year?

Then stay tuned for the Niners’ two clashes with the Seahawks in Weeks 13 and 15 when San Francisco will have the chance to end a nine-game losing streak against Seattle that began with the painful 2013 NFC Championship. The 49ers and their fans certainly had loftier aspirations than playing the “spoiler” role, but finally claiming a win (or two) against the despised rival would be extremely satisfying, particularly if Seattle’s playoff hopes take a major hit as a result.

Considering that the undefeated Rams are unlikely to be caught by anyone in the NFC West, Seattle may only be able to reach the postseason by way of one of the two wild card spots. And since the NFC playoff picture is likely to be a jumbled mess when the Niners and Seahawks are playing each other on Dec. 2 and Dec. 16, San Francisco will have every chance to deliver a serious knockout blow.

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San Francisco 49ers

PODCAST: Weekly Wink, Winning Streak, Mailbag

Brian Peacock

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© Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Podcast for Tuesday, December 18

  • Guest: Nick Winkler
  • Mailbag
  • Impact of winning vs draft position
  • Free agent options Sean Lee and Anthony Barr
  • Nick Mullens’ trade value

 

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San Francisco 49ers

PODCAST: Rapid React To Week 15 Overtime Win vs Seattle Seahawks

Brian Peacock

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© Kyle Terada -USA TODAY Sports

Podcast for Monday, December 17

  • Takeaways and game balls from San Francisco’s 26-23 victory
  • Richard Sherman revenge game
  • Special teams accounts for 20 points
  • DeForest Buckner has maybe his best game in San Francisco
  • Updated draft position

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San Francisco 49ers

49ers Film Room: Rookie Safety Marcell Harris’ second NFL start

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49ers Film Room: Marcell Harris
© Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

A week after a rough debut, San Francisco 49ers strong safety Marcell Harris made major strides in his second NFL start. Locked on 49ers’ Chris Wilson breaks down the rookie defensive back’s game film from the Niners’ Week 14 matchup against the Denver Broncos.

With their playoff hopes in the rear-view mirror, San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch set a youth movement in motion for the remainder of the 2018 regular season. Proven veterans like Pierre Garcon, Malcolm Smith and Earl Mitchell have been relegated to the bench or shut down for the remainder of the year due to injury, opening the door for the 49ers’ batch of rookies and second-year players to prove their worth.

One of those rookies is strong safety Marcell Harris, San Francisco’s sixth-round draft pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. The 49ers believe they received the defensive back at a discount, as Harris’ draft stock suffered after he missed his senior season due to a torn Achilles tendon. Harris — who started just nine games at the University of Florida — is a raw talent who played best as a box safety in college, and was projected to be a mid-round prospect prior to his injury.

After beginning the 2018 NFL regular season on injured reserve, Harris was activated by the 49ers last month, but was primarily used on special teams over his first three games. However, injuries to three of San Francisco’s safeties thrust Harris into a starting role against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 13. Unfortunately, Harris didn’t impress in his starting debut, which is somewhat expected from a player with limited college action who hadn’t seen the field in nearly two years.

But with the rust knocked off and another week under his belt, Harris looked like a different player against the Denver Broncos. After missing three tackles the previous week, which was reflected in his 25.6 tackling grade from Pro Football Focus, Harris racked up seven tackles and received a tackling grade of 80.1 from PFF in Week 14. While he’s far from a complete project, Harris demonstrated the athleticism, instincts and attitude that made the 49ers’ front office choose to take a flier on the talented prospect.

Let’s break down some of San Francisco 49ers safety Marcell Harris’ Week 14 game film, and highlight both the good and the bad from the rookie’s second NFL start:

 

49ers SS Marcell Harris Off the Edge in Run Defense

49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh lined Harris up close to the line of scrimmage for the majority of Sunday’s contest. In fact, Harris played on the line —  in 7-technique or off the edge — as often as he lined up in a traditional deep safety role.

When on the line or stacked next to the 49ers’ two inside linebackers, Harris worked closely with the team’s front four linemen against the run — particularly with defensive end Solomon Thomas. On our first play, Thomas does most of the work by blowing up the pulling guard, which forces running back Royce Freeman outside. After taking a moment to properly diagnose the play, Harris gets around the edge and reaches the ball carrier before tight end Matt LaCosse has time to cross the formation to impact the play:

 

49ers SS Marcell Harris Saves DE Solomon Thomas

While Thomas made Harris’ job a lot easier in our first example, on the following play, Harris makes up for Thomas’ mistake in run defense. When the ball is snapped, right tackle Jared Veldheer goes straight to the second level while fullback Andy Janovich passes in front of quarterback Case Keenum toward the wide side of the field. Thomas decides to split between the two blockers and run down the line of scrimmage, until he realizes the Broncos’ end around is heading toward the area he vacated. Thomas leaves Harris all alone on the outside to defend the run, with a pair of blockers between the safety and the ball carrier. But Harris quickly diagnoses the play, sidesteps Veldheer and heads toward the edge. Once Janovich overcommits to the outside, Harris cuts behind him and quickly brings wide receiver Courtland Sutton down for a loss:

 

49ers SS Marcell Harris as a “Robber”

Although Harris has fairly limited football experience, he knows how to play as a “robber,” and excelled at the position during his time in Florida. Saleh has the 49ers line up in a two-deep look, as both linebacker Fred Warner and nickel corner D.J. Reed use outside leverage in an attempt to bait Keenum into attacking the vacant middle of the field. As the ball is snapped, Reed gives wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton an unimpeded inside release, as Harris crashes down to jump the route. Keenum keys in on Hamilton, and by the time he recognizes the 49ers’ defensive play, pressure forces the QB to exit the pocket and throw the ball away:

 

49ers SS Marcell Harris Comes up to Deliver a Big Hit

When Harris lines up deep in a two safety look, he doesn’t always look comfortable in pass coverage, but he’s quick to head downhill and make his presence felt by an opposing receiver. With the 49ers in Cover 2, Keenum steps up and hits Sutton on a short pass across the middle. The wideout avoids linebacker Elijah Lee with a quick move inside, but then finds a willing tackler in Harris, who travels down from deep in the secondary to deliver a big hit on Sutton. The rookies quickly get face-to-face to share some choice words but the situation doesn’t escalate, as Harris demonstrates the desired combination of intensity and self-control teams look for in a hard-hitting defender:

 

49ers SS Marcell Harris’ Football Instincts Prevent a Big Play

If you simply watched the television broadcast of this play, you’d think Harris made a dangerous mistake in coverage, but this was actually one of Harris’ top plays of the day. Thinking run, Harris initially attacks the line of scrimmage, which leaves him shallow in the flat, but in a decent position to defend against the lone receiver in his vicinity. However, after Lee bites hard on the play-action, he totally loses his bearings. Lee turns backward, searching for a receiver in the secondary, and misses Sutton crossing in front of him, despite Warner’s warning. Luckily, Harris peeks back and sees Sutton crossing the field uncovered. As Keenum readies himself for the pass, Harris turns and quickly catches up with the wideout as he streaks down the sideline. With his intended receiver covered, Keenum checks down to the flat vacated by Harris, but miscommunication between the QB and his running back causes the pass to fall incomplete:

 

49ers SS Marcell Harris Gets Pancaked by RB Phillip Lindsay

Blitzing off the edge wasn’t one of Harris’ strong suits in college, as the safety logged just a single sack over his three seasons at the University of Florida. Harris has the physical ability for the job — particularly when he faces a 5-foot-7, 184-pound running back — but his technique needs improvement. Instead of firing off the line, Harris hesitates slightly when LaCosse lets him run free, leaving RB Phillip Lindsay to block the blitzing safety. Then, instead of running through the smaller blocker, Harris hesitates again before making a move to the outside. Lindsay engages Harris at the perfect moment, and plants the 208-pound safety into the turf:

 

49ers SS Marcell Harris Doesn’t Save DE Ronald Blair

This time, Harris bites on the play-action as defensive end Ronald Blair — similar to Thomas on the previous play — splits between the tackle and fullback and runs down the line of scrimmage. Harris tries to change direction once he realizes his mistake, but slips, allowing left tackle Garett Bolles to take a shot at the safety. With Harris caught inside, wide receiver Tim Patrick is free to follow his lead blocker for a Broncos first down:

 

49ers SS Marcell Harris’ Poor Technique in Zone Coverage

At times on Sunday, it was evident that Sunday’s matchup was Harris’ second NFL start, and that the young safety is learning a new defensive scheme. Harris does well in getting outside the No. 2 receiver, although free safety Antone Exum would have appreciated if his fellow safety redirected Sutton on his way to the flat instead of allowing the wideout to run unimpeded up the field. With no receivers in his area, Harris looks for work, but he turns away from the quarterback instead of simply sinking back to help cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon.

Harris’ poor technique on this play creates a number of problems. By letting Sutton run free up the field, Exum is forced down to defend the hole behind the sinking inside linebackers. With Exum focused on Sutton, Witherspoon has to be prepared for a potential home run post route by Hamilton, but with Harris trailing the wideout, Witherspoon thinks he’s free to commit to the deep middle as soon as Hamilton cuts inside. Meanwhile, Harris bails on his deep coverage, as he sees Witherspoon in position to defend Hamilton’s post route. Unfortunately, Harris turns back to the QB at the worst possible moment — too late to see Keenum release the pass in his direction and too late to see Hamilton cut outside toward the sideline. With Harris spun around and Witherspoon overcommitted deep, an accurate pass would have meant a long reception for the Broncos, but luckily, Kennum air-mails the ball out-of-bounds:

 

49ers SS Marcell Harris Gets Picked in Man Coverage

With San Francisco lined up for a double-A-gap blitz, Harris is in man coverage against LaCosse, while Reed is tighter to the line against wide receiver River Cracraft. Both defenders are lined up with inside leverage to protect against a short pass over the middle, given the vacancy left by the blitzing linebackers. Both receivers release to the inside after the snap, but Cracraft quickly cuts between the two defenders in an attempt to distance Harris from his man. A small shove from the wideout is enough to create ample separation for LaCosse, who looks back for the pass as Harris struggles to recover. But instead of hitting his open tight end, Keenum locks on to wide receiver Andre Holmes, and as the quarterback tries to buy extra time by climbing the pocket, he’s hit from behind by edge rusher Cassius Marsh:

 

49ers SS Marcell Harris Ends Denver’s Fourth-Quarter Drive

When the pressure was on during a key fourth-quarter drive, Harris was at his best, as the rookie made crucial stops on three consecutive plays. On second down, the Broncos task Patrick with blocking the safety in order to free up an extra lineman to double-team 49ers defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. After the snap, Harris uses his strength and proper leverage to push Patrick back and off to the side, before disengaging and filling the hole, bringing Freeman to the ground for a short gain:

After failing to learn their lesson on second down, Denver attempts to use Patrick against Harris on another inside run on third down. Patrick doesn’t have a chance, as Harris beats him off the line and into the Broncos’ backfield. Patrick grabs Harris and tackles him to the ground, but not before the safety brings Freeman down in the backfield for a loss:

On fourth down, the Broncos decide to get the ball into the hands of their most electric playmaker, Lindsay. Since it worked before, Denver tries another pick play against Harris, who lines up across from the running back. The Broncos flood the boundary side of the field with all five receivers, but Keenum’s first look is Lindsay, who runs a “flat-7” concept with LaCosse. Both Harris and Lee are on the same page, as Harris cheats toward the outside, and Lee steps up to defend against a potential draw play. As the ball is snapped, both Lindsay and Harris sprint toward the flat. LaCosse tries to release outside and into Harris’ path, but Witherspoon engages and pushes the tight end back inside, as Harris fights through the rub in Lindsay’s direction. Keenum hits the back of his drop and fires the ball to his running back, but as soon as Lindsay catches the pass, Harris spins him to the ground short of the sticks.

For more on San Francisco 49ers safety Marcell Harris, check out Friday’s Locked on 49ers podcast, as host Brian Peacock and guest Chris Wilson discuss the rookie’s breakout performance in Week 14.

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