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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- Scouting report on 6th round TE Kaden Smith
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- New York Jets front office turmoil
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PODCAST: Matt Barrows of the Athletic
- Guest: Matt Barrows, 49ers beat writer for The Athletic
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PODCAST: Winky Wednesday, DeFo Contract, Hard Knocks
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- Listener mailbag
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