Nick WagonerESPN staff writer5 minutes of reading
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — It was about this time last year The San Francisco 49ers find themselves in a tough spot heading into their bye week.
The Kansas City Chiefs beat them 3-4 at Levi’s Stadium. But the biggest solution to the team’s problems was already in the building. The Niners landed running back Christian McCaffrey in a blockbuster trade two days ago with the idea that he could spark runs in the second half. He did, and the Niners reeled off 10 straight wins to end the season en route to an NFC Championship Game appearance.
A year later, the Niners are in the bag and heading into Tuesday’s NFL trade deadline with a perfect record, but a rush 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 and dropped them to 5-3 and out of first place in the NFC West.
While the Niners may be active in their search for outside help, coach Kyle Shanahan made it clear Sunday afternoon that another McCaffrey isn’t walking through that door. That means improvement will have to come mostly from within, starting the week before the Niners play the Jacksonville Jaguars on Nov. 12 with plenty of self-reflection.
“No, none of this changes anything at the trade deadline,” Shanahan said. “How we played today or how we played the last three weeks. … I believe we have the answers. I believe we have good players. I believe we have good coaches. It’s up to me to get them. Do better.
“I thought we started well, but in the last few weeks there have been some things that we haven’t been able to cover here, that’s why we have to keep pushing them in every aspect, because some people lose this. Lines and they don’t have those answers, you live with hope.”
Sunday’s loss was the Niners’ first three-game losing streak since the 2021 season, and they have won 15 straight regular-season games and swept their first five opponents this season. Averaged 19.8 points per game.
Even during their early dominance, Shanahan repeatedly pointed out the mistakes his team was making but were able to get away with as they jumped out to big leads. Penalties and red zone woes were problematic, but the Niners made up for a lot by making big plays on offense (21 plays of 20-plus yards were sixth in the NFL) and gave up some on defense (10 20-plus yard plays allowed. Fewest in the NFL). They also dominated the turnover battle, going plus-7 with a league-low two giveaways.
The past three weeks have provided a dramatic reversal in the opposite direction for most of those categories. The Niners are averaging 7 points per game, averaging 62 yards per game and giving up 15 plays of 20-plus yards (second most in the NFL in that span). What’s more, the Niners turned the ball over seven times (tied for fourth-most) and were minus-3 in turnover margin over that span (tied for fourth-worst).
After not throwing an interception in the first five weeks, Niners quarterback Brock Birdie has thrown five in the last three games, including four in opponent’s territory, one of which came inside Cincinnati’s 10 on Sunday. Collective miscues limited the Niners’ ability to run the ball often or effectively.
“All I know is, when you lose the turnover battle like we did two weeks in a row, it’s hard to win football games,” George Kittle said. “And we obviously have to play better, and we have to put ourselves in situations where we can run the football more and not throw the ball too many times.”
While many of those issues are dangerous, defensive issues are the most surprising. The Niners have consistently fielded one of the league’s best defenses in recent years, and despite new coordinator Steve Wilks’ transition from DeMeco Ryans (who became Houston Texans’ head coach), the Niners have struggled to score again this season.
The first five weeks were like that but not late. As the schedule and quarterbacks they face have gotten tougher, the Niners have given up nearly 70 passing yards per game through the air and opposing quarterbacks have outscored QPR by nearly 16 points over the last three weeks.
Those issues put Wilks under the microscope, along with a pass rush that struggled to get to the house and a controversial blitz call before halftime of last week’s loss to the Minnesota Vikings. But Shanahan said Sunday that there’s plenty of blame to go around.
“It’s not about any one coach or any one side of the ball,” Shanahan said. “We haven’t scored more than 20 points here in three weeks. 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 player out there, I think every coach.”
Now, the 49ers are heading into a lengthy layoff that will allow left tackle Trent Williams’ sprained right ankle and Debow Samuel’s injured shoulder to heal. That should help, but as the Niners enter a stretch, it will take more to make a run
“We have to sit here and wait about 14 days to deal with this feeling that nobody wants to, but I think we have to,” Shanahan said. “I think our guys need to be a little more angry. I think we need to come back with a little better focus because it wasn’t good enough and we didn’t do it.”