Could Sunday be the day the 49ers break through and salvage their season? A week after an impressive second half that led to a victory at Chicago, the Niners face a much more daunting task when the NFC West leading Cardinals visit Levi’s Stadium.
Against the Bears last week, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo showed that given the time in the pocket, he is a strong, solid passer. Although not known for scrambling, Jimmy G also ran for two short TDs, one on a designed play and the other one in which he had to improvise.
There are still plenty of naysayers who want to see prized rookie Trey Lance on the field and Garoppolo relegated to the bench. Lance looks almost certain to be another of the new wave of young scrambling quarterbacks such as Arizona’s Kyler Murray and Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson, but the Niners are being cautious about handing the rookie the reins.
In mid-October, Lance came in for an injured Garappolo and injected some excitement by running 16 times. But head coach Kyle Shanahan refuses to rush the rookie into action right away, as he’s still only 21 years old and learning the complexities of the NFL. On top of that, Lance is still dealing with a knee sprain that Shanahan doesn’t want to see get aggravated by some hard hit on the field.
Garappolo should be the best quarterback on the field if the brilliant young Murray can’t shake off the effects of an ankle sprain and has to watch this one from the sidelines. Arizona’s young coach Kliff Kingsbury will probably not make a call on whether Murray will be available until Saturday or perhaps even Sundaymorning. But he seems unlikely to play, given the fact that he’d missed practice all week.
If Murray is sidelined, the Cardinals will be forced to go with veteran journeyman Colt McCoy, who, like Garappolo, is more of a pocket passer. That could be a big break for the injury-depleted Niners’ secondary, which has been shredded much of the season as opposing quarterbacks have taken advantage and frequently targeted the backups.
The Cardinals are looking to get back to winning, even though they may be shorthanded. In their last game, Arizona came within a play of staying undefeated and beating Green Bay, as receiver A.J. Green neglected to turn around and catch what would have been a game-winning score with 12 seconds to go.
Winning without Murray may be difficult, however, and the Cardinals are also shorthanded in two other key areas. Coveted pass rusher J.J. Watt, who left Houston to sign a huge two-year deal in the offseason is out with a shoulder injury. Meanwhile, premier wideout DeAndre Hopkins might be able play as he did against Green Bay, but the three-time Pro Bowler has been hobbled by a hamstring pull the last few weeks and that will probably negate his effectiveness. Cardinals’ nose tackle Rashard Lawrence and linebacker Zach Collins are also nursing injuries but might be available.
Another bright spot for the 49ers: Garoppolo could have a full complement of receivers, as star tight end George Kittle is probably going to return after being on injured reserve. The Niners have really missed Kittle, who may be the toughest, smartest and best tight end in the NFL. But his aggressive, tackle-breaking style has taken a toll on the big, blond receiver the last few years and his days of dominance might be on the wane. Players who like to run over people usually don’t last a long time in the NFL, as the bruises and bumps add up after a few years.
Still, just his presence on the gridiron will be a huge boost for a Niners’ air game that already features one of the game’s most exciting players, wide receiver Deebo Samuel. The lightning quick Samuel burned Chicago last week for 171 yards on six receptions, the third time this year he’s caught passes for over 150 yards. Samuel is fast gaining attention with the national media and fans, as his breakaway speed and versatility makes him one of the Niners’ most dangerous wideouts since the great Hall of Famer, Jerry Rice.
The Niners also are hoping second-year wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk will be able to shake the “sophomore jinx” and finally provide some help. Last year, Aiyuk was a revelation, making highlight-worthy plays while pulling in 60 passes. But this season it’s been a different story. Aiyuk has been mostly invisible until recently, when he caught four passes for 45 yards last week at Chicago. Aiyuk also made a key block that opened up an avenue for rookie running back Elijah Mitchell to punch through on the way to an important 39-yard scamper.
After last year’s startling performance, perhaps the young man was beginning to get a little too cocky and not pushing as hard during the week. But he’s now showing signs of working diligently to regain some of the magic. Kittle noted that Aiyuk has looked much better in practice recently. A recent conversation with coach Shanahan might have helped to light a light a fire under Aiyuk, although he refused to disclose any specifics of the discussion other than to say, “We had some words.”
Showing passion and working hard in practice are particularly important to Shanahan, and Aiyuk may have remembered what happened to Dante Pettis, a second round draft pick. Pettis, who is now playing with the NY Giants, was a waived by the Niners after not showing the kind of enthusiastic approach that Shanahan expected to see during the week
On the plus side, the emergence of rookie Mitchell has blunted the loss of premier running back Raheem Mostert, who went down with a season ending knee injury early in the campaign. The unheralded rookie has come out of nowhere to become the Niners’ top running back. Two big runs that Mitchell tore off last week in Chicago helped set up two scores.
On defense, defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans would love to have pass rush specialist Dee Ford available. Ford might be able to get into action for a few key plays, but the 30-year-old Ford continues to be bothered by injuries that limited him to just one game during last year’s pandemic-shortened season. Shanahan has wisely limited Ford to just under 18 snaps a game this year, as three back injuries which have led to two surgeries, plus a recent concussion, have made Shanahan very cautious. But having Ford available could be a huge plus for the defense as he could complement premier sack specialist Nick Bosa.
Another key matter that has been mentioned a lot in the local media has been the Niners play at home. To the dismay of their fans, Levi’s unfortunately has not provided the home field advantage that they expected. Instead, it’s been a case of a home field disadvantage. It’s hard to believe that it was two years ago when the 49ers rolled to 13 wins on their way to a Super Bowl. But in 2021 they’ve lost all of their juice at home. The Niners have dropped seven of their last eight games at Levis, including all four this season. A win Sunday, especially over a formidable opponent such as Arizona could help them right the ship and gain back a little swagger.
That would be great, but it’s almost certain that the 49ers will not make the playoffs this year. An 8-8-season record is more realistic.
Bruce Macgowan is a freelance contributor to The Examiner.