Bye week gives 49ers chance to study what's working, what's not
SANTA CLARA — Players take the bye week off. Coaches sure as heck don’t.
Coaches spend the week “self-scouting,” meaning they honestly and brutally evaluate their own team independent of its win-loss record. The 49ers are 3-0 entering their bye week. When Kyle Shanahan and his coaching staff reevaluate the first three games, they won’t focus solely on positives. They’ll identify the real reasons they’ve had success, and search for issues that could hurt them down the line.
Here’s where the 49ers coaches probably will focus:
1. Defensive takeaways
The defense has performed well in every conceivable way. It has allowed the second-fewest yards and the ninth-fewest points in the NFL.
But its most impressive statistic, and the biggest reason the 49ers enter the bye week undefeated, is this: Through three games, the defense already has forced seven turnovers. That’s how many turnovers the 49ers’ defense forced all of last season.
What has changed?
First, the pass rush. The 49ers recorded a sack 6.4% of the time the opposing quarterback dropped back to pass last season. That was the 10th-worst sack percentage in the NFL. This season, the 49ers’ sack percentage is 7.9, which ranks eighth best in the NFL.
They’ve added Dee Ford and Nick Bosa, who have played well. And they still have veterans DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead, who have improved significantly. Now, the 49ers have one of the best four-man rushes in the league, and the pass rush has transformed the entire defense.
“It doesn’t get seen by the naked eye,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “But the faster the rush goes, the stickier the coverage gets.”
Five members of the defense currently have an interception: Kwon Alexander, Mark Nzeocha, K’Waun Williams, Richard Sherman and Ahkello Witherspoon. Through the first three games, there was nowhere safe to throw the ball against this defense.
That could change after the bye week, because Witherspoon will miss at least a month with a foot sprain. That could be a major blow to the 49ers, even with their impressive pass rush.
2. Replacing Ahkello Witherspoon
Witherspoon was the weakest link in the secondary last season. He intercepted zero passes, broke up just four and allowed a quarterback rating of 107.6. He may as well have worn a giant bullseye on his back.
This season, he has one interception, a team-high five pass breakups and has allowed a passer rating of just 75.3. Before he injured his foot, he was the 49ers’ best cornerback, even better than Sherman, who has played well.
“When you have corners like Sherm who can go get the ball and Ahkello who can get the ball, now the offense has to throw inside to the teeth of our defense,” Saleh explained.
Teams rarely had to throw into the teeth of the 49ers’ defense last season, because they simply could throw at Witherspoon with impunity. Now, teams can throw at Witherspoon’s replacement, former undrafted free agent Emmanuel Moseley, and avoid the middle of the field.
“He’s not the biggest guy, but he plays very physical,” Shanahan said of Moseley. “He’s extremely detailed in everything he does. Everything you give him, even stuff that’s new for him, in a few days he always figures it out. He’s very football savvy and has the ability to cover.”