Niners need to guard against letdown against the lowly Jaguars

By Bruce Macgowan

By Bruce Macgowan

Special to The Examiner

Are the 49ers for real? Are they going to make a strong run for the playoffs? Was the stunning win Monday night a sign of things to come?

Sunday’s game at Jacksonville over the lowly Jaguars won’t give us a definitive answer, but it should add a little more clarity to this 2021 season.

When teams win a big game on national TV against a powerful rival, there is a natural tendency to suffer a let down the following week, whether or not they want to admit it.

But star tight end George Kittle struck a hopeful note when asked about how the 49ers might duplicate the effort against the Rams.

“We need to bottle it up. We’re going to to try to build on the energy and take it to another level…,” said Kittle. “If we can do that, we can be a scary team.”

For that to happen, the Niners probably need a healthy and effective Elijah Mitchell. The rookie running back carried the ball 27 times against the Rams as San Francisco kept possession for nearly twice as long as the Rams in the win Monday night.

With star runner Raheem Mostert done for the year, Mitchell has been one of this year’s pleasant surprises. But on Monday night he suffered a broken finger and had to have a pin surgically inserted a few days later. Right now, it’s not clear if Mitchell will play against the Jags.

Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said he’s not surprised he will probably be handing the ball off again to the Niners’ leading rusher. “It’s not the first time he’s battled through an injury. He’s a battler. I knew it the first time he was in the huddle in the Detroit game. He’s impressive,” said Garoppolo.

Ask virtually any player on the offensive side of the ball and they’ll tell you they love it when the head coach decides he wants to pound out yardage with the ground attack. The 49ers ran the ball 44 times for 156 yards against the Rams. The number of yards may not sound impressive but it allowed San Francisco to keep the ball away from Mathew Stafford and the Rams offense and wore down guys such as star Aaron Donald of the Rams’ defense. Kittle was asked how the players felt when Kyle Shanahan told them they were going with a heavy ground game. “Oh man, the whole offense stood up and cheered!”

The big guys on the offensive line love it when they don’t have to drop back in pass protection and can be aggressive by pushing off. And the quarterback especially likes it because he’s not going to have to drop back and look through a maze of defenders to try and locate an open receiver. Perhaps more importantly, he also avoids the possibility of getting hit or sacked. If you can move the ball effectively on the ground, you can save the passing game as the 49ers did for the critical junctures of the game.

That’s where a guy likes Mitchell comes in. A sixth round draft pick out of Louisiana, the 22-year-old rookie was pressed into service early and has responded well. Just past the halfway point of the season, Mitchell has pushed through the line for 516 yards while scoring three TDs. Built low to the ground at 5’10” and 200 pounds, Mitchell is big enough to ram defenders back and small enough to squeeze through tight spaces in the line. His numbers in college impressed 49er scouts as he bulled his way for over 3,200 yards while scoring 41 TDs during his four years at Louisiana.

“When you’re in the huddle with guys like him, you’re looking in their eyes and asking, ‘Is the moment too big for him?’ He reminded me of (JaMycal) Hasty last year. Hasty came in and was ready to roll. Elijah is the same way,” Garoppolo said.

That raises the question: Will Mitchell carry his performance against the Rams over to this Sunday’s game at Jacksonville? If so, that should make things easier for the explosive Deebo Samuel. Against the Rams, Samuel ran for one score and then caught the game breaking TD on a 40 yard catch and run in the fourth quarter. Garoppolo says Deebo has emerged as one of the team leaders. “In training camp there was sort of lull in our receiver room. We didn’t really have a vocal leader. Deebo is not the most vocal guy in the world but he leads by example and in one-on-one (matchups,) he’d step up first, make big plays and get guys excited…. Deebo and me have played a lot of football together. There were a couple of broken plays where we made eye contact and he just did it. He did a good job at that stuff.”

One of the unsung units that came up with some key hits on defense against the Rams was the Niners’ secondary. Veteran Jason Verrett went down early in the season and there have been other casualties week to week as well, but rookie Talanoa Hufanga stepped in and made a couple of big hits, crunching Ram receivers to break up passes and deliver headaches. And of course, everyone was impressed with 30-year-old veteran Jimmy Ward, who had two interceptions including a pick six that put the 49ers up 14-0 in the first quarter.

Last week, Rams star Cooper Cupp caught 11 passes for 122 yards, but none of them were really damaging. Against the Jaguars, the defense will have to keep close watch on former Cal star, the veteran Marvin Jones Jr., who has pulled in 41 passes while scoring three times. The Jaguars didn’t have to depend on Jones much in the surprising 9-6 win over a heavily favored Buffalo team a couple of week ago, but highly touted Jacksonville rookie Trevor Lawrence is certain to look his way more than a few times on Sunday.

Lawrence, who led Clemson to a national championship as a freshman, has been humbled by his experience thus far in the NFL. He made some noise in his debut with three TD strikes on opening day against Houston, but he’s only passed for five more in the last eight games. Lawrence has also been hampered by not coming up with the yards needed on third down plays and his receivers have dropped plenty of passes. Lawrence is a rangy young man who stands 6 feet, 6 inches but he’ll be challenged Sunday facing a 49er defense that shut down the Rams.

For the Jaguars to pull off an upset, they will need another stout defensive effort as they did against Buffalo and then again last week against the Colts, where they gave up 23 points and lost by only six.

But the Jaguars, like the Niners, know about frustrating losing streaks. Jacksonville has not won a game against the NFC opponent in over three years.

The 2021 season has also been a learning experience for first year head coach Urban Meyer. Meyer won three National titles as a college coach with Florida and Ohio State, but it’s been a much different story with the Jaguars who are one of the league’s lesser lights. There has been recent talk about whether Meyer would even survive this season.

Critics have pointed out that he has mismanaged the Jaguars locker room, made some bad choices involving who should be playing and has been an occasional distraction off the field with some antics that were not at all popular. Yet Meyer remains surprisingly optimistic about the season.

“I will fight for that locker room. I believe in those guys… there’s a lot of positivity. We’re not that far off. I refuse to believe we’re far off,” he said recently.

But those brave words may ring hollow if the Jags fall victim as expected to a 49ers team that is on the verge of turning its season around.

Bruce Macgowan is a freelance contributor to The Examiner.

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