Ahkello Witherspoon sure has the look of a ball-hawking No. 1 cornerback for the 49ers. (Stan Olszewski/Special To S.F. Examiner)

Grading the 49ers’ third quarter

The 49ers enter the final quarter of the season with a winnable game and more hope than they’ve had in the last two seasons combined.

Their third quarter was by far the most encouraging of the Kyle Shanahan era. The Niners won two of three games by beating teams they should’ve beaten. It sounds like that success was expected, but with this group, the Faithful should take encouraging signs wherever they can find them.

Jimmy Garoppolo played just one game during that span, but his start was the water that raised all boats. For one Sunday in Chicago, receivers stopped dropping passes, the offensive line held their blocks and the defense did its job during its limited playing time.

The first half of the season, when the 49ers went 0-8, ensured the team a high draft pick. From here on out, the goal will be to stay competitive and keep Garoppolo healthy.

If they win, great. If they lose, make it close, which is also great. There’s a reason Shanahan regularly refers to next season despite having plenty of time left in this one.

But, for the sake of living in the now, here’s how the 49ers fared in the third quarter of the season (first quarter, and first half grades included):

Quarterback: C+

The Niners lost several games this season solely because they didn’t have a QB who could make even average plays.

Brian Hoyer was a disaster; CJ Beathard held the ball too long — exacerbating the offensive line’s problems. Garoppolo has a strong arm and thinks quickly in the pocket.

I can’t give this position a better grade until I see more, though. One game doesn’t negate three games of average-at-best play.

And, to Beathard’s credit, when he was given time to operate, he wasn’t too bad. He took advantage of a New York Giants defense that had completely given up on its lame-duck coach, and I’m not sure Hoyer could’ve done even that at this point of his career.

The 49ers have a group of quarterbacks they can be proud of, and if they continue to follow their current trajectory, this will be an A by the end of the season.

First half grade: F

First quarter grade: D+

Running backs: B-

Carlos Hyde’s effectiveness running the ball has taken a serious hit. He rushed for more than 75 yards once in the third quarter of the season despite getting at least 12 carries in each game.

As a receiver, he’s been OK. He’s tied for fourth among running backs for receptions with 52. But he has the most drops and the highest drop rate at his position, according to Pro Football Focus data.

Where he earned his favorable grade was in pass protection. Hyde isn’t the kind of back to shy away from a blitzing linebacker, and it’s kept him on the field despite his limitations as a receiver. According to PFF, Hyde has the 12th-best pass blocking efficiency, and it’s been a crucial aspect of his game as the offensive line struggles through injuries.

Matt Breida and Kyle Juszczyk also help the mark here. The undrafted rookie averaged 6.1 yards per carry against the Giants and has been an effective change-of-pace guy despite playing limited snaps. Juszczyk salvaged a forgettable third quarter by picking up a crucial first down late in the win against the Bears.

All three are threats out of the backfield, and with Garoppolo under center, they help make Shanahan’s vision for the offense come into focus.

First half grade: B-

First quarter grade: A-

Receivers: C+

Losing the leader of this group to the injured reserve was a huge setback. But Pierre Garcon going down has opened up opportunities for Marquise Goodwin and Trent Taylor, which they haven’t fumbled.

Goodwin accounted for at least 68 yards in the 49ers’ last four games. He’s a world-class sprinter, but he’s shaping into a more dynamic receiver under Shanahan and he recently turned 27. He’s entering his prime, and when this team improves this group, he’ll become more valuable.

Taylor has been described as a quintessential slot receiver and has the quickness and hands to justify that description. He’s tough, too, fighting through the flu to catch all six passes Garoppolo threw to him last weekend.

If George Kittle can stay healthy — and that’s a considerable if — he’ll be a solid pass-catching tight end for years to come. He and Taylor appear to be draft-day steals by general manager John Lynch, and this offense entered the season in desperate need of players of their ilk.

If the 49ers can replicate that magic in April and get a true
No. 1 on the roster, this offense should reach a new level.

First half grade: C-

First quarter grade: C-

Offensive line: C-

Joe Staley’s days of being one of the best left tackles in the league are probably over — PFF ranks him as the 11th best in the NFL — but you could do much worse. And Trent Brown on the other end of the line ensures plays that attack the outside have a shot of succeeding.

The interior, especially the guard spots, are a bigger issue. But Joshua Garnett is expected to be back next season, and with fewer glaring holes on the roster, Lynch and Shanahan can make improving that spot a priority in the offseason.

Having a quarterback who can make quick and accurate reads will help mask this unit’s problems. If they can string together four more healthy games, they should be able to finish the season with a slightly above-average grade.

First half grade: D+

First quarter grade: C

Linebackers: C+

Reuben Foster has played enough to prove that he’s going to be a force in the NFL for as long as he’s healthy. The rookie has the fifth-best rank among his position, according to PFF, and he’ll only get better as he becomes more accustomed to the pro game.

Foster masks a lot of the other issues at this position, but his rapport with fellow rookie Brock Coyle is growing by the week, and it’s helping Coyle greatly.

The pressure was put on Coyle after the Niners cut Ray-Ray Armstrong, and he’ll have to perform well to ensure he keeps his job next year when Malcolm Smith returns from injury.

But the foundation is there with Foster — one of the fastest linebackers in the game.

First half grade: C-

First quarter grade: Inc.

Defensive line: B

After taking the season by storm, DeForest Buckner has slowed down lately. That will happen when opposing offensive lines focus most of their efforts on you. Despite that extra attention, he’s carrying a 88.2 grade from PFF.

Elvis Dumervil has 5.5 sacks and could easily reach 10 if the Niners keep playing from ahead.

There’s depth at this level, and the 49ers haven’t missed Arik Armstead too much, despite his solid play before going down to another season-ending injury.

The Niners run defense is markedly better than it was last season, and this group — along with Foster — deserves a good deal of credit for that development. Even if there is still room to grow.

First half grade: B+

First quarter grade: B+

Secondary: B-

Despite being hit with several injuries to some of their best players, the 49ers secondary has been impressive this year. Rashard Robinson is gone, but Ahkello Witherspoon has stepped into the No. 1 role and appears to be getting better by the week.

He may not be the strongest tackler, but he can adjust and make plays on the ball in the air and should be the kind of gambling corner that can rack up interceptions.

Besides, he has safety Adrian Colbert behind him to ensure those hits are made. The seventh-round rookie has impressed defensive coordinator Robert Saleh so much, it could make for some difficult decisions this offseason regarding his position.

“He’s going to have four really cool opportunities to go showcase some more,” Saleh said Thursday. “But he’s shown some really cool traits that we look for out of that free safety.”

Eric Reid, no matter where you line him up, is one of the best in the league, making this unit one of the most impressive on the team.

First half grade: C+

First quarter grade: C+

Special teams: A-

It’s still good, and Robbie Gould delivered a win himself at Soldier Field by nailing five field goals.

The best news: This isn’t the only unit worth celebrating anymore.

First half grade: A

First quarter grade: A

Contact Examiner Sports Editor Jacob C. Palmer at jpalmer@sfexaminer.com or on Twitter, @jacobc_palmer.

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