Kolsky: Little wins can add up to a big payoff for 49ers

Playoffs?! There’s a straight line there from 49ers’ Week 1 win

It’s year three of the six-year deals the 49ers franchise bestowed upon Kyle Shanahan and his chosen GM John Lynch, and the “Faithful” are understandably restless. Triumphs have been few, far between and mostly insignificant.

Nevertheless, the 49ers enter the season as a surprisingly popular — and apparently data-supportedpick to make the playoffs.

That would probably take 10 wins, not to mention finishing ahead of the Seahawks for the first time since 2012, and I can’t say I share the optimism of those prognosticators. A playoff berth is a nice goal to have though, and it doesn’t feel totally unreasonable.

To get that done, there is a healthy list of smaller victories the 49ers will have to manage. Viewed through that prism, Week 1 was a nice start.

An Improved Pass Rush

The 49ers defense has been in the bottom half of the league in points allowed since the departure of Jim Harbaugh, and 25th or worse since 2016. The team addressed that by adding big-time pass rushers in top draft pick Nick Bosa and veteran Dee Ford.

With Pro Bowler DeForest Buckner between those two, the 49ers have one of the more formidable defensive lines in the league — on paper — and they put that into practice on Sunday. Ford and Bosa each had a sack and Ford’s forced a fumble, especially noteworthy since he forced a league-leading seven last season, more than the rest of the Niners’ roster. Buckner chipped in with a tackle-for-loss and a QB hit.

Last November, the 49ers let Bucs QB Jameis Winston get comfortable, and he went 29-for-38 for 312 yards and two touchdowns without a turnover. Sunday, they harassed him into 20-for-36 for just 194 yards, one touchdown and three picks (plus the fumble).

Winston may be willing to throw it to the other team at any given moment, but that was equally true 10 months ago. This 49ers defensive line has a chance to be something special, and in turn set up the rest of the defense for success.

An Unimproved Secondary

For the Niners to even sniff the playoffs, the secondary must improve dramatically from last year. They spent very little on offseason improvements — the source of much handwringing, including by the hands typing this screed — so it’s going to have to come from within.

Veterans Richard Sherman and Jaquiski Tartt started Week 1 alongside youngsters Ahkello Witherspoon and Tarvarius Moore, and in a surprising and appealing twist, Witherspoon and Moore were the standouts.

Moore made plays throughout, including a touchdown-saving pass deflection, and finished with eight tackles. Witherspoon got Pro Football Focus’s highest coverage grade with three pass deflections and a game-clinching pick-six.

The pass rush should certainly help matters, but a leap from Witherspoon would make it much tougher for opposing offenses to decide who to attack.

Just Enough Jimmy

Judging from a pretty conservative gameplan and middling results, Jimmy Garoppolo has a ways to go after his first game post-ACL reconstruction.

Garoppolo was at times hideously inaccurate, which may partially account for the lack of WR production; he also showed glimpses of the ability that earned his massive payday last offseason.

The touchdown pass was particularly beautiful, and Jimmy’s command seemed to improve as the game went on, but it’s going to be a process. Shanahan showed restraint in keeping it simple, but as the 49ers face tougher competition there will be no choice but to put more on the square-jawed gunslinger’s shoulders.

Like so much of Garoppolo’s tantalizing career, the Tampa win was a tease. If two George Kittle scores hadn’t been called back, there would be fewer concerns, but the small sample size makes it tough to know anything for sure.

If he’s more often the guy who dropped a dime on Richie James for a 39-yard score, a playoff run is possible. If we get more of the guy who air-mailed wide-open Kendrick Bourne and threw to a covered Kittle when Marquise Goodwin was running free, mediocrity seems assured.

Other Potential Pitfalls

San Francisco sadly finds itself in a spot where, even if all of the above goes to plan, they’ll need some favorable bounces on the margins to make the playoffs happen:

* Kittle killing it: The stud TE was good Sunday, and he would have been great if not for penalties ruining two potential touchdowns. That said, Kittle’s track record is as short as it is impressive and he’ll have to produce a reasonable facsimile of last year’s record-breaking season.

* WR Emergence-y: The 49ers need a number two receiver to Kittle. In Week 1 Dante Pettis played just two snaps, Goodwin and Bourne underwhelmed, and Deebo Samuel fumbled. With the dearth of established options, don’t be surprised if Samuel and fellow rookie Jalen Hurd (who missed the opener with back pain) are the lead wideouts by season’s end. Any playoff possibility probably depends on them getting there sooner than later.

* Stop losing running backs: There’s no position on any team that can stand up to losing a productive player on a weekly basis. Tevin Coleman should be back before too long, but the 49ers simply can’t continue to suffer RB injuries and remain competitive.

* Don’t get potential pro-bowlers ejected: Kwon Alexander played like a man on fire for 14 minutes, then got a quick hook for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Jameis Winston. The 49ers run defense was significantly softened in his absence.

* Keep the offensive line intact: The same starters who finished last season played virtually every snap Sunday and were solid. Garoppolo wasn’t under much pressure — sacked just once — but also appeared bothered when he didn’t have a clean pocket. Especially as the quarterback works out the kinks in his new knee, continuity in front of him is paramount.

* Continued special teams dominance: Mitch Wishnowsky had one really good punt in two attempts and the Niners covered kicks well, not to mention Mark Nzeocha’s punt block. If Robbie Gould could have gotten six more inches on his 57-yard FG attempt, it would have been a perfect day. The 49ers will need help from special teams units to hang in the hunt this year, and Week 1 was promising.

*****

If this feels like an optimist’s view of a franchise six seasons removed from winning football — well, that’s because it is. The exercise was to draw a line from the 49ers to the postseason, and that requires the power of positive thinking.

It’s worth saying, though, that it’s a straighter line than it was a few days ago. If the Niners can keep earning small triumphs, they might just add up to one big playoff spot.

Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives in Berkeley with his wife, son and an aging Shih-Tzu/Schnauzer mix. You can hear him on the Bay Area sports radio station 95.7 the Game, 2p-6p every weekday evening alongside Damon Bruce and Ray Ratto. You can listen to his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. You can find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.

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