SANTA CLARA — With No. 11 Washington hosting No. 20 BYU this weekend, San Francisco 49ers receiver Dante Pettis — a former Husky — has made a bit of a wager with former Cougar, Fred Warner.
“I don’t know why he would even want to,” Pettis said, before revealing that there is, indeed, a bet between the two.
It’s nothing big, but it may or may not involve the loser wearing a jersey from the winner’s alma mater. The wager is a bright spot in what’s become a season of uncertainty for the 49ers, from Jimmy Garoppolo’s ACL putting the brakes on the ongoing rebuild to a defense that’s been far from sure, even with linebacker Reuben Foster back in the fold.
Warner is San Francisco’s leading tackler, but on Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs, he and Foster combined for 10 of the 49ers’ 17 missed tackles. San Francisco now leads the league in that category, with 43, according to Pro Football Focus.
“When you teach tackling, everything that we talk about is you’ve got to run your body through their body,” said defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. “Get a body on a body, step on their toes, wrap up, keep your feet moving, drive for five and get them to the ground.”
San Francisco now ranks 25th in the league in efficiency, after giving up 384 yards of total offense and five touchdowns to the Kansas City Chiefs, and allowing them to convert 7-of-11 on third down.
“It’s very clear when you turn on the tape that we’re actually lunging and ducking our heads at the point of attack,” Saleh said. “… That’s not what we teach obviously, but, somewhere along the line there’s a disconnect. And so, as coaches, we’ve got to do a better job getting that message across. Again this week, trying to emphasize step on their toes, get your body on a body and wrap up.”
Now, the 49ers are trying something new. They had, in the past under this coaching staff, always run tackling circuits during fully-padded practices. On Wednesday, San Francisco ran a tackling circuit wearing just uppers. They’ll run another one on Thursday.
“Yesterday was the first time that we had the tackling circuit without pads, just to bring emphasis to tracking and stepping on toes, all the different things that we’re trying to emphasize,” Saleh said. “Today will be about running our body through people, thudding, wrapping up, keeping our feet moving through contact, not getting dead-legged.”
Cornerback Richard Sherman specifically cited lack of basic play recognition on the part of the 49ers defense as a problem in the Kansas City game.
“There were probably four or five plays as a defense that we want back, because it wasn’t anything special,” Sherman said. “It wasn’t like a guy just being incredibly talented and you just couldn’t stop the plays. Those happen in football games, where a guy just makes a heck of a play, and you’ve got to tip your hat. There were a lot of plays out there that we could just stop by being in the right spot, being where we’re supposed to be.”
Sherman, who was in a walking boot on Thursday, said he was confident that his left calf strain was not related to the bone spurs he had taken off of his Achilles during an early-offseason surgery on the same leg.
The 49ers signed Sherman to an incentive-laden deal in March after the two surgeries in November and March. Last week, a day after Sherman missed practice, head coach Kyle Shanahan said that Sherman had a heel injury, but it was just “wear and tear,” and that Sherman’s practice schedule would be adjusted to help him deal with the issue.
He suffered the injury on a run play in the second quarter Sunday, just before the two-minute warning against the Chiefs. Sherman said that there is no definite timeline for his return. He will miss this week, but beyond that, he said, it’s uncertain. He had played every defensive snap up this season until the injury.
“Not ready to push the panic button,” said Saleh, who worked with Sherman in Seattle and said he has a high tolerance for pain. “Sherm is a fighter. If he can go this week, I promise you he’ll go this week. Sherm will play through pain. He’s played through a torn hamstring, I’ve witnessed it, back in his younger days.”
Sherman recalled playing through that torn hamstring in 2016.
“You find a way to keep going,” Sherman said. “You find a way to manipulate your body, and you’ve got to stop thinking about it. It makes your other muscles and stuff compensate. You’ll be sore at the end of the game, but if you’re a ballplayer, you just figure out a way. If I can walk, I can run. If I can still get down the field, I can still do my job.”
Sherman said that the strain was a result of just not playing for eight months, after he ruptured his right Achilles in his ninth game for the Seahawks last season during Thursday Night Football against the Arizona Cardinals.
“It’s taking all these reps after not taking them for eight months,” said the 30-year old All-Pro. “Your body has to get used to doing it again.”
Running back Matt Breida (knee) and corner Ahkello Witherspoon (ankle, hip) were suited up and participated fully in practice, though safety Adrian Colbert (hip), running back Alfred Morris (knee) and guard Mike Person (knee) were limited.
Joe Staley was back practicing after a day off on Wednesday, but Jaquiski Tartt (shoulder) was not dressed. Tartt is “still in play” to play this week, said defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, but after not practicing for two days, that doesn’t look like it will be the case.
Without Sherman, the secondary is still looking thin ahead of facing seven-time Pro Bowler Philip Rivers and his Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday. Rivers has thrown eight touchdowns to one interception, and ranks fifth in the NFL in passer rating (115.7) and seventh in yards per game (302).
“They’re working through treatment, trying to progress through the week and we’ll know more as the week progresses,” Saleh said of his injured DBs.
Wide receiver Marquise Goodwin, who was limited with a quad on Wednesday, and was limited last week with the same injury, was full-go in practice on Thursday. Last week, he was targeted four times and made three catches, and it looks like he’ll get more snaps this week.
No third quarterback has yet arrived in Santa Clara. C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens were the only ones in black jerseys on Thursday.