49ers exceeding expectations in key areas

SANTA CLARA - No one expected the 49ers would demolish the Packers by 29 points last Sunday.

No one expected the 49ers would make Aaron Rodgers look old, scared and just plain awful.

No one expected the 49ers would be 10-1 right now.

Even the most optimistic projections failed to predict just how good the 49ers would be this season. They're legitimate Super Bowl contenders - they might even be the favorites. Hard to imagine just a few months ago.

Here are the top five ways the 49ers have exceeded expectations.

1. The secondary was a weakness and now it's a strength.

Last season, the 49ers gave up an average quarterback rating of 105.4 - second highest in the NFL. They hardly could cover anybody. And yet, this offseason, the 49ers added no new starting defensive backs. And in the draft, the 49ers took a punter before taking a corner or a safety. A freaking punter.

And now, despite changing nothing in the secondary, the 49ers have given up an average quarterback rating of 72.7 - second lowest in the NFL.

“It always starts with the pass rush,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said. “If you can get (to the quarterback), you can have seven guys mixing up man and zone coverages.”

The 49ers certainly beefed up their pass rush this offseason. They traded for Dee Ford and drafted Nick Bosa, and those two force quarterbacks to throw quickly. Meaning the defensive backs don't have to cover receivers for five or six seconds anymore.

But the pass rush shouldn't get all the credit. The defensive backs have improved as well. Safeties Jaquiski Tartt and Jimmie Ward both have been reliable and durable for the first time in their careers after missing lots of games with injuries the past few seasons.

Ward has played particularly well. In eight starts, he has broken up seven passes. “Ward has been one of my favorite players since I've walked in this door,” Shanahan said, “People have gotten down on him just because he's gotten hurt most of his years here, but that doesn't take away from how good of a football player he is. The longer he stays out there, the more people notice.”

People also have noticed the 49ers' young cornerbacks - Ahkello Witherspoon and Emmanuel Moseley. Witherspoon began the season as the starter but sprained his foot, and Moseley replaced him and played well. Moseley has six pass breakups in eight games. Witherspoon has five pass breakups in five games. For now, they share playing time.

“Ahkello is our guy once he gets fully (healthy),” Shanahan said. “Moseley has also done a hell of a job in showing this league that he's a real good player that plays at a starter level.”

2. Arik Armstead has become a dominant pass rusher.

When the 49ers picked up the fifth-year option in Armstead's contract this season, some fans raised their eyebrows. It seemed questionable to give a one-year, $9 million contract to a defensive end who had never recorded more than three sacks in a season.

Most people expected this would be Armstead's final season with the 49ers, and they would let him leave as a free agent in 2020.

Now, Armstead has 10 sacks in 11 games. The 49ers can't let him leave. They have to find a way to give him a multi-year extension worth about $90 million.

“Our style of play, it's benefited all of the defensive linemen, but probably Armstead the most,” Shanahan explained. “We're allowing him to be a little bit more decisive, and the rest has been him. He's had no hesitation and he's stayed healthy.”

3. Fred Warner has become an elite middle linebacker.

Before the season, many observers expected wide receiver Dante Pettis to make the greatest strides among the second-year players. He's a former second-round pick who was in line to become the offense's No. 1 wide receiver.

But Pettis hasn't lived up to expectations - he has only 11 catches and has fallen to the bottom of the depth chart. Big-time sophomore slump.

Former third-round pick Fred Warner has taken the strides many expected Pettis would take. Warner is bigger and stronger than a year ago, and leads the 49ers defense with 80 tackles.

“Sometimes, guys have a real good first year, and then relax a little bit thinking they figured it out, and then get extremely humbled the second year,” Shanahan said. “Fred exceeded expectations. Came back like a 10-year vet. I think it's shown in every game.”

Warner won the NFC's Defensive Player of the Week, partially because he stripped the ball from Rodgers on Sunday. Warner has forced three fumbles this season by simply punching the ball out of players' hands.

“All 11 of our defensive guys try to do that every play,” Shanahan said. “Fred's probably the best one at it.”

4. Daniel Brunskill has become a legitimate starting offensive tackle.

Before the season, experts said the offensive line was the one position that needed to stay healthy for the 49ers. They needed all their starters to protect Jimmy Garoppolo as he recovered from a torn ACL.

But Mike McGlinchey missed four games with a knee injury. Joe Staley missed six games with a broken shin and currently is out with a dislocated finger. His replacement, rookie Justin Skule, got benched Sunday against the Packers.

And yet, the 49ers' offense hasn't fallen apart, nor has Garoppolo gotten injured, mostly because they have Daniel Brunskill, a second-year offensive tackle who was an undrafted free agent.

Brunskill replaced McGlinchey at right tackle for four weeks. Against the Packers, Brunskill replaced Skule at left tackle and played well.

“He took advantage of his opportunity,” Shanahan said. “He did a real good job. In the second half I forgot that he was still in there, which shows how good he did. When you don't bring up a tackle's name, when you don't mention him at all, it means his guy is not making plays. Then, when we watched the tape, it was nice.”

Brunskill has given up only one sack in four starts this season. He should have a long-term future with the 49ers.

5. Deebo Samuel has become a go-to receiver as a rookie.

In training camp, even Shanahan didn't seem to have high expectations for Samuel in his rookie season. Samuel mostly played with backups, while Pettis took most of the reps with the starters.

It appeared the 49ers were bringing Samuel along slowly, not putting pressure on the young wide receiver to produce right away. Allowing him to develop. Taking the prudent, conservative approach.

Just last month, the 49ers traded for veteran wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, partially because none of the 49ers' young wide receivers, including Samuel, had stepped up and become consistent performers.

Since then, Samuel has come of age.

The past three games, he has 196 receiving yards and one touchdown. He seems ready right now to help the 49ers make a run to the Super Bowl.

“Deebo has just gotten better and better each week,” Shanahan said. “When the ball goes to him, regardless of how he feels or what's going on, you know Deebo is going to catch it. You know he's going to make a play. He's a guy we trust. He's a guy who plays the right way. He's a guy who has a lot of ability and he's a guy we are going to count on the rest of this year.”

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