Undefeated 49ers still have room for improvement
SANTA CLARA — Halfway through the season, the 49ers still haven’t lost. But some of the lasting images from their latest win were negative. Of course, images aren’t everything. The 49ers beat the Cardinals, played hard and are the only undefeated team in the NFL. Still, as the coaches and players would admit, some things are concerning.
Richard Sherman missed a tackle near the sideline, and Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Andy Isabella ran 88 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Call that lasting image No. 1. Five 49ers defenders streaked down the field, all with chances to bring down Isabella, and none did. They looked like a slapstick act, not an elite defense, as they chased in vain.
Sherman stormed to the sideline, sat on the bench and screamed at defensive backs coach Joe Woods as Woods listened and nodded. Lasting image No. 2.
After the game, Sherman leaned across a podium with his eyes wide open, eagerly awaiting critical questions. Still seething. Lasting image No. 3.
“That was a humbling game,” he admitted. “We need to be humbled on all levels. Everybody will watch the tape and judge themselves critically, because we can’t play like that. That’s not championship football.”
Sherman sounded like the 49ers had lost.
Of course, they didn’t lose. They won 28-25. But they were challenged by a team that probably will win no more than six games this season. Here are five concerns the 49ers must address.
1. The secondary.
It still hasn’t faced an upper-echelon quarterback. The best one the 49ers have faced this season is Arizona’s Kyler Murray, who posted a 130.7 passer rating against them.
The secondary should improve when cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon returns from a foot sprain and a quad strain. He was by far the 49ers’ best defensive back before he went down Week 3. But it’s not clear when he will return.
“It’s day to day at this point,” Witherspoon said Thursday in the locker room. “Definitely close to being 100%, but no timetable.”
The 49ers originally expected Witherspoon to return by now.
“He had a setback about 10 days ago,” head coach Kyle Shanahan explained.
While Witherspoon recovers from his setback, the 49ers’ starting corners are Emmanuel Moseley, who gave up the 88-yard catch to Isabella last Thursday, and Sherman, who, at the age of 31, has lost speed.
“There’s nobody who understands the game at his position better than he does,” Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of Sherman on a conference call. Carroll coached Sherman the first seven years of Sherman’s career. “He’s savvy, smart, tough, he’s a playmaker.”
Sherman certainly makes plays — he has intercepted three passes this season. But he also has given up 14 first downs. No one else on the 49ers has given up more than five.
Sherman has a surgically repaired Achilles tendon, is not as quick as he used to be, and struggles changing directions, So, he plays far off opposing receivers to prevent the long catch. As a result, he gives up lots of shorter catches.
The 49ers need Witherspoon back ASAP.
2. The run defense.
The past four games, the 49ers’ defense has given up a gargantuan 5.5 yards per carry. That’s not championship football, as Sherman would say. The 49ers must improve their run defense, or it could hold them back in the playoffs.