Grant Cohn: Changes 49ers need to make to turn season around
To turn their season around, the San Francisco 49ers must beat the New York Giants on Sunday night. Here are five things to watch for in that game.
1. Major changes on offense
Thursday afternoon, a reporter asked 49ers offensive coordinator Geep Chryst if he were going to do anything differently this Week. The Niners' offense ranks dead last in the NFL.
Before the reporter finished his question, Chryst blurted out, 'Yeah, we made some major changes, but I can't go … I shouldn't say 'major.' We made some changes, some adjustments that we feel good about going into this game.'
Do the changes involve scoring points? That would be a good place to start.
In all seriousness, I can think of only two things Chryst could be referring to.
Thing 1: The offensive line. It's the worst in the NFL. Maybe Chryst intends to bench some of the starters and play younger players instead.
Thing 2: The offensive philosophy. Chryst built the Niners' offense around the tight ends — Vernon Davis, Vance McDonald and Garrett Celek. That offense stinks. It's time to try something else.
Maybe the Niners will start using their talented wide receivers — Torrey Smith and Bruce Ellington. Combined, they have caught just 11 passes this season.
2. Eric Mangini's defensive game plan
Against the Steelers and Cardinals, Niners defensive coordinator Eric Mangini called man coverages and blitzed heavily, and the defense paid the price, giving up big plays to wide receivers Antonio Brown and Larry Fitzgerald.
Last week against the Packers, The Mangenius did a 180. Instead of blitzing, he mostly rushed just four players, and had the rest of the defense playing brackets and combo coverages.
This is what Vic Fangio did when he was the Niners' defensive coordinator, and what Mangini must continue to do. The Niners' corners aren't good enough to cover receivers one on one if Mangini calls blitzes all the time like he did Week 2 and Week 3.
3. New ILB Gerald Hodges, and whose playing time he takes
On Tuesday, the 49ers acquired inside linebacker Gerald Hodges in a trade with the Vikings. Hodges is a solid young player who started seven games last year and three out of four games this year.
He's probably the best inside linebacker on the 49ers right now, because both of San Francisco's starters — NaVorro Bowman and Michael Wilhoite — are not playing well. Wilhoite simply isn't good, and Bowman seems stiff after tearing his ACL and MCL in 2014.
Did the Niners trade for Hodges so they can bench Wilhoite, or to give Bowman's knee some rest?
4. Colin Kaepernick's confidence
Colin Kaepernick has the yips.
Forget the deep passes — Kaepernick can't even complete the short ones anymore. He's missing gimmes. His confidence is at all-time low, and it's been that way since he threw four interceptions Week 3 against the Cardinals.
This Wednesday, head coach Jim Tomsula spoke about the importance of a quarterback's confidence. 'I want a confident man, just full bore ahead at that position,' he said. 'I believe it's critical.'
If Kaepernick plays tentatively for the third week in a row, if he has a shaky start and throws picks early, look for Tomsula to go to the bullpen and make a change at halftime. He would have no choice.
5. The team's energy
Including the postseason, the 49ers' record was 11-1 in the Eastern Time Zone under head coach Jim Harbaugh. Well-coached teams play well on the road, and Harbaugh was one of the best coaches in football. Still is, actually.
Is Tomsula a good coach? His Niners got blown out the first time they played on the East coast — Week 2 against the Steelers. The entire team came out flat, which never would have happened under Harbaugh.
If San Francisco comes out flat and loses to the Giants, the long flight home into the head winds will feel like eternity. The trainers probably will start handing out Ambiens like M&Ms to Tomsula and his players so they can go to sleep and block out their anguish.
Final score prediction: 49ers 10, Giants 20
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.