Grant Cohn: A challenge for remainder of 49ers' season
I challenge you, 49ers.
I challenge every member of your organization to start improving after the bye week.
You have six games left. I challenge you to make the most of them. Since Kyle Shanahan became the head coach in 2017, you have played 26 games and not improved as a team. You lose every week unless Jimmy Garoppolo plays, or you face an opponent that quit on its head coach and doesn’t want to compete.
I challenge you to end that trend between now and Week 17.
I’m calling you out one by one, starting with your head coach.
1. I challenge Shanahan to improve his offense in the red zone and during the fourth quarter.
You’re the main reason the offense can’t finish, Kyle.
You don’t know how to win a game unless it’s a blowout. Your record is 0-9 in games decided by four points or fewer when Garoppolo doesn’t play.
You coach well enough for the first three quarters. That’s when your offense gains a whopping 6.37 yards per play. But during the fourth quarter, it falls apart, gains only 3.75 yards per play. That’s on you.
I recently asked why you struggle closing out opponents, and you said you need “closers,” meaning better players.
Wrong. You have a closer. You just don’t know how to use him during crunch time.
Tight end George Kittle is your closer. He is one of the best tight ends in the NFL. He’s having an All-Pro season. But you have called only 11 passes for him during the fourth quarter — roughly one per game. You don’t let him close.
Instead, you call passes for backup wide receivers Kendrick Bourne and Trent Taylor. It makes no sense. Each has 16 fourth-quarter targets. That’s 32 combined, compared to Kittle’s 11. That’s on you, Kyle. It’s your job to get Kittle the ball with the game on the line.
Your red-zone offense has gotten worse, too. In 2017, the offense converted red-zone trips into touchdowns 47.1 percent of time. This season, the offense has converted only 46.9 percent of the time.
Don’t blame the regression on Garoppolo’s injury. During his eight starts, the offense converted only 44.4 percent of the time in the red zone. He brought out the worst in you as a red-zone play-caller.
You need to focus on running the ball more effectively. In 2017, your offense gained 2.3 yards per carry in the red zone. This season, it averages 1.6 yards per carry in the red zone. The league average is 2.6.
Find a solution, Kyle.
2. I challenge Robert Saleh to improve his defense when the 49ers lead with fewer than four minutes left.
You’re the main reason the defense can’t finish, Robert.
Your defense plays well most of the time. It currently ranks 10th out of 32 teams in fewest yards allowed. But when the 49ers have a lead during the final four minutes of a game, your defense disappears. Suddenly, it gives up 5.9 yards per play and allows an average passer rating of 107.9.
I blame you, Robert.
You can’t just call vanilla coverages late in the fourth quarter and allow the opponent to expose your weakest link, cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon. Teams always put their best receiver on Witherspoon during crunch time. He’s everyone’s target. You have to protect him, Robert. Every other defensive coordinator in the NFL would.