Kyle Shanahan Answers for sliding 49ers already on team
It was around this time last year that the San Francisco 49ers found themselves in a difficult spot heading into their bye week.
The Kansas City Chiefs had just beaten them soundly at Levi’s Stadium to drop to 3-4 on the season. But the biggest solution to that team’s problems was already in the building. The Niners acquired running back Christian McCaffrey in a blockbuster trade a couple days earlier with the idea that he could spark a second-half run. He did, and the Niners ripped off 10 straight wins to close the season on the way to an NFC Championship Game appearance.
Little more than a year later, the Niners head into their bye and Tuesday’s NFL trade deadline with a much better record but just as much urgency to right the ship after Sunday’s 31-17 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. After a 5-0 start, the loss to the Bengals was San Francisco’s third in a row, dropping them to 5-3 and out of first place in the NFC West division.
Though the Niners are likely to be active in the search for outside help, coach Kyle Shanahan made it clear Sunday afternoon that another McCaffrey isn’t walking through that door. Which means improvement must largely come from within, a process that will begin with plenty of self-reflection over the bye week before the Niners play the Jacksonville Jaguars on Nov. 12.
“No, none of this changes anything with the trade deadline,” Shanahan said. “How we played today or how we played these last three weeks. … I do believe we have the answers in our building. I believe we have good players. I believe we have good coaches. It’s up to me to get them to do better.
“I thought we started out pretty good, but there’s some things that we haven’t been able to hide here these last few weeks and that’s why we’ve got to continue to push them in every aspect because some people do go on these losing streaks and they don’t have those answers and you’re just living in hope.”
Sunday’s loss was the Niners’ first three-game losing streak since the 2021 season and comes on the heels of a stretch in which they had won 15 straight regular-season games (tied for a franchise record) and beat their first five opponents this season by an average of 19.8 points per game.
Even during their early season domination, Shanahan had alluded multiple times to the mistakes his team was making but able to get away with because it had jumped out to big leads. Penalties and red zone woes had been problematic but the Niners offset many of those by making big plays on offense (21 plays of 20-plus yards was sixth most in the NFL) and giving up few on defense (10 20-plus yard plays allowed were fewest in the NFL). They’d also been dominant in the turnover battle, going plus-7 with a league-low two giveaways.
The past three weeks have offered a dramatic shift in the opposite direction for most of those categories. The Niners have been outscored by an average of 7 points per game, outgained by an average of 62 yards per game and have given up 15 plays of 20-plus yards (the second most in the NFL in that span). What’s more, the Niners have turned the ball over seven times (tied for fourth most) and are minus-3 in turnover margin (also tied for fourth worst) in that span.
After not throwing an interception the first five weeks, Niners quarterback Brock Purdy has thrown five in the past three games, including four in opposing territory, one of which came inside Cincinnati’s 10 on Sunday. The compounding mistakes have also limited the Niners’ ability to run the ball often or effectively.
“All I know is that it’s hard to win football games when you lose the turnover battle which we’ve done two weeks in a row,” tight end George Kittle said. “And we obviously just have to play better and we have to put ourselves in situations where we can run the football more and we don’t have to throw the ball so many times.”
While many of those issues have been alarming, the defensive problems have been the most surprising. The Niners have regularly fielded one of the league’s best defenses in recent years and even with the change to new coordinator Steve Wilks from DeMeco Ryans (who became the Houston Texans head coach), the Niners figured to be tough to score on again this season.
That was the case the first five weeks but hasn’t been of late. As the schedule and quarterbacks they face have gotten tougher, the Niners have given up almost 70 passing yards more per game through the air and opposing quarterbacks have a QBR nearly 16 points higher over the past three weeks.
Those issues combined with a pass rush that has struggled to get home and a controversial blitz call before halftime of last week’s loss to the Minnesota Vikings have put Wilks under the microscope. But Shanahan said Sunday that there’s plenty of blame to go around.
“This isn’t on any one coach or any one side of the ball,” Shanahan said. “We haven’t scored over 20 points here in three weeks, too. So, I think our defense needs to do better. I think our offense needs to do better. I think our team needs to do better. When I say our team, I mean every single player in there and I think every single coach.”
Now, the 49ers head into a long layoff that should allow left tackle Trent Williams’ sprained right ankle and Deebo Samuel’s injured shoulder to heal. That should help but it’s going to take much more to make a run as the Niners enter a stretch in which they’ll play Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, Seattle, Philadelphia and Seattle again in the five weeks coming out of the bye.
“We’ve got to sit here and wait about 14 days to deal with this feeling that we have, which nobody wants, but I think we need to,” Shanahan said. “I think our guys need to be pissed off a little bit. I think we need to come back with a little better focus because it hasn’t been enough and we haven’t been getting it done.”