I have picked the 49ers to win three games so far this season. I’m not making that mistake again this week.
The Niners are playing the Redskins. The Redskins are good. They beat down the Raiders, who were supposed to be the emerging bullies in the NFL. The Niners are no bullies.
The Redskins are coming off a bye week, so they’re physically ready to play. And they should be mentally ready, too. They have to keep pace in their division with the Eagles, whose record is 5-1. If the Redskins lose, their record will be 2-3. They can’t afford to be 2-3. They have a big incentive to win.
The Niners may not be prepared to play this game. It’s their third road game in a row, and it’s a 1 p.m. start on the East Coast. That means it will feel like a 10 a.m. start for the 49ers — their body clocks will be on Pacific time. They may not wake up until the second half.
Some West Coast teams prepare for a day game on the East Coast by practicing at 10 a.m. all week. The early workouts help adjust the players’ body clocks. But the Niners didn’t practice at 10 a.m. this week. They practiced at 2 p.m. like they always do.
There’s no good reason to pick the 49ers to win this game.
That doesn’t mean they can’t win. Every team always has a chance to win in the NFL, and the Niners have a chance Sunday, even though the chance is very small.
Here are the five things the 49ers must do to beat the Redskins.
1. Improve third-down defense.
By some measures, the 49ers defense is good. It’s allowing 3.6 yards per carry, which ranks eighth-best in the NFL. And it’s allowing 5.2 yards per play, which ranks 14th-best in the NFL. For comparison, the Seahawks defense also is allowing 5.2 yards per play.
But on third down, the 49ers defense is giving up first downs 47.4 percent of the time. That’s the second-worst rate in the NFL. The Niners defense can’t get itself off the field. It’s playing a ton of snaps.
On Thursday, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said his defensive players will “all perform at a great level if we can get their snap counts down.”
Buddy, you’re the defensive coordinator. What do you mean “We”? You have to get their snap counts down. That’s your job.
Here’s what you do, and it’s very easy. All that stuff you call that’s not working — stop calling that. Call something else.
On third-and-more-than-7, don’t rush only four defenders like you usually do. Rush five. And if five can’t pressure the quarterback, rush six. Force the quarterback to throw the ball quickly before he gets hit. He’ll have to throw to a receiver in front of the first-down marker, and your defense can tackle him and force a punt.
On third-and-less-than-7, don’t call soft zone coverage like you usually do. Don’t concede the first-down catch. Call man-to-man, bump-and-run coverage with “inside leverage.” That means instead of aligning your corners face to face with receivers, align them slightly to the inside of the receivers. This will take away the slants, crossing routes and all the short stuff offenses like to use on third-and-short.
That’s how “we” will reduce your players’ snap counts.
2. Force at least two turnovers.
The 49ers offense has had 35 drives on the road this season, and it has scored only two touchdowns. That’s one touchdown every 17.5 drives. That’s bad.
The Niners offense can’t consistently execute long touchdown drives. It commits too many penalties, drops too many passes, allows too many sacks. It need will need short fields to score touchdowns against the Redskins.
And that means the Niners defense has to force at least a couple of turnovers. Force a fumble, intercept a pass, something. Those events will give the 49ers their best chance to win.
And the 49ers very well could force some turnovers if rookie linebacker Reuben Foster can function after the high-ankle sprain he suffered Week 1. Foster most likely will play against the Redskins. During the season opener, he played just 11 snaps, but he almost intercepted a pass — the ball bounced off his hands. And he intercepted a lot of passes during training camp. He’s a playmaker.
Had Foster been healthy the past five games and on the field instead of NaVorro Bowman, who just got cut, the 49ers probably would have won at least a couple times. I’m just saying.
3. Don’t let Carlos Hyde play on third down.
Part of the reason the 49ers offense can’t sustain long drives: It stinks on third down. It’s converting only 29.7 percent of third downs into first downs, the second-worst rate in the league.
A big reason the 49ers offense stinks on third down: It can’t protect quarterback Brian Hoyer. And a big reason it can’t protect Hoyer is Carlos Hyde. He misses blocks.
He should be a good blocker — he’s big and tough enough to hold his own against linebackers. But he struggles to find the right player to block. He often stands in the backfield and blocks no one while a blitzer runs past him and sacks Hoyer. He looks like a spectator who wandered in from the stands.
Two weeks ago against the Cardinals, Hyde allowed two quarterback hits and a sack. And last week against the Colts, he gave up a sack on the first third down of the second half. After that play, the Niners benched Hyde for three series.
The Niners don’t have to bench Hyde again this week, but they can’t let him play on third downs any more. They can’t let his mistakes continue to hurt the team.
4. Increase Matt Breida’s playing time.
Another reason the 49ers offense isn’t good: It’s slow.
Brian Hoyer is slow. Carlos Hyde is slow. Kyle Juszczyk is slow. Pierre Garcon is slow. Trent Taylor is slow. The only exceptionally fast starter is Marquise Goodwin, and he’s not enough. The offense needs more speed.
Kyle Shanahan’s offense last season in Atlanta was extremely fast. Julio Jones and Taylor Gabriel were explosive, and so were the running backs, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
Matt Breida is similar to Freeman and Coleman. The Niners need to play Breida more. He’s electric. He can catch a swing pass in the flat and score an 80-yard touchdown. He gives the Niners’ slow-cooked, crockpot offense quick-strike potential.
Breida is instant mac and cheese.
5. Use Victor Bolden Jr. on offense.
The most electric player on the team may be Bolden Jr. He’s the kick returner, and an undrafted rookie like Breida.
Bolden Jr. doesn’t need three or four steps to hit top speed. He’s there after one step. If he gets a crease, he’s gone. He’ll be at midfield before you know it.
Using Bolden Jr. only as a kick returner is a waste of his talent. The Niners need to play him on offense, too. He’s a wide receiver who can run reverses, end arounds, fake end arounds, jet sweeps, fake jet sweeps, and he can catch screen passes and even go deep. He would make the offense much faster, and give the Redskins defense another player to worry about.
One long play by Bolden Jr. against the Redskins can lift up the entire 49ers team — players and coaches. They’ll think, “My goodness, we actually have a chance now. There’s hope.”
The 49ers need hope.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.