Road trip at Redskins no cakewalk for 49ers

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SANTA CLARA — The experts consider this game a glorified bye week for the 49ers. An easy win.

The 49ers are undefeated. The Washington Redskins, their opponent Sunday, are 1-5. End of analysis. The 49ers are supposed to fly across the country, show up to the game, win by a couple of touchdowns and fly home without breaking a sweat. The 49ers are 10-point road favorites. New ground for them.

The experts may come to realize what the 49ers already understand: The Redskins are no pushovers. They will put up a fight.

The 49ers should win, but there are five reasons the game could be much closer than many of the experts think.

1. The 49ers haven’t been frontrunners before: This is the first time practically everyone has picked them to win a game. Almost no one will pick the Redskins.

The past five games, plenty of people picked the 49ers to lose. Those predictions fueled the 49ers, who believed they were underrated and disrespected. Now, they get almost nothing but praise. Can they still motivate themselves? Can they play with urgency?

“They have been told they’re not good,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “They have been told that they shouldn’t be here. They have been told that they should all be cut. We have all been told that we should be fired. So, don’t forget what it’s like to be on the other side of the fence and don’t think that just because you’re being patted on the back that you are going to continue to have success.”

Good teams feel the need to prove themselves every week. Sometimes, good teams come out flat and lose a game they should win. In 2011, the 49ers went 13-3 and beat some fantastic teams, but also lost to the Arizona Cardinals, who went 8-8 that season. Funny things happen in the NFL.

At some point, the 49ers will lose a game no one expected them to lose. Could this be that game?

Richard Sherman understands what’s at stake. “Anytime you sit back and think you’re doing something special, you get distracted. And that’s when you get hit in the mouth.”

2. There will be an early kickoff: Not only do the 49ers have to play an opponent they might overlook, they have to play on the road for the second week in a row. And they have to play a game that starts at 10 a.m. Pacific time.

The last time they played a game so early, Week 2, they beat the Cincinnati Bengals 41-17. But the 49ers had spent the entire week leading up to the game in Youngstown, Ohio. Meaning they were on East Coast time when they got to Cincinnati. They will not be on East Coast time when they play in Washington.

Will the 49ers come out flat and sleepy? If they’re not awake before they step on the field, they’ll find it hard to wake up during the game once the Redskins have the lead and the momentum.

3. The Redskins have a new identity: The Redskins are not the Redskins from two weeks ago. They fired their head coach, Jay Gruden, and replaced him with former Oakland Raiders head coach Bill Callahan.

Under Gruden, whose record was 0-5, Washington was Redskins Lite. They weren’t good at running the ball, and they hardly ran it. They were a finesse, three-wide-receiver, pass-first offense.

Under Callahan, whose record is 1-0 as interim head coach, Washington is Redskins Heavy. They’re a tough, two-tight-end, run-first offense. They also just signed a fullback.

“They ran the ball a lot more (under Callahan), which you knew would be a goal of his,” Kyle Shanahan said. “Bill has done this for a long time, a coach I have a ton of respect for. He knows how to run the ball.”

Last week, thanks to Callahan’s schematic adjustments, the Redskins’ 34-year-old future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson had his first good game of the season. He gained 118 yards and averaged 5.1 yards per carry. He looked young again.

“They’re capable of beating anyone,” Shanahan said. “I know they just won their first game, but they have some good players in there. They’ve got a very tough D-line. They’ve got some corners. They’ve got a good safety. They have some good O-linemen. Everyone knows what Peterson can do.

“Anytime you go against some good players and good coaches, it doesn’t matter what your record is, that ball bounces the wrong way, you don’t come in ready to play your best game, they will humble you and beat anyone in this league.”

To make matters even more complicated for the 49ers, the Redskins have a new offensive play-caller — Kevin O’Connell. Gruden called the plays before he got fired. O’Connell may or may not call plays better, but the 49ers don’t know his tendencies, so they could have a tough time preparing for the Redskins’ offense. They hardly have a book on him.

“Our scheme is set up to take on anything that a team gives us,” Saleh explained. “We’ve just got to be ready to make an in-game adjustment.”

4. The 49ers’ run game has struggled without Kyle Juszcyk: The Redskins’ offense has the element of surprise, but the 49ers’ defense has tons of talent. The defense should play well.

The main question concerns the offense. How many points will it score? What exactly will it do well?

Before fullback Kyle Juszczyk injured his knee, the 49ers ran the ball extremely well. They averaged a gargantuan 5.6 yards per carry with Juszczyk on the field.

But last week without Juszczyk, the 49ers averaged just 2.4 yards per carry, and their longest run was just nine yards. When they had Juszczyk, they often ran for much bigger gains, because he created the long runs with excellent downfield blocks.

The Niners might continue to struggle running the ball the next few weeks. The passing game needs to step up.

5. Jimmy Garoppolo isn’t himself.

The 49ers currently rank 30th out of 32 teams in passing attempts. And most of the 49ers’ passes have been short throws. The 49ers have a passing problem.

Experts have framed this problem as wide-receiver related, because the 49ers’ wideouts are young and inexperienced. But they don’t appear to be the issue. A close look at the offense reveals the problem concerns Garoppolo.

Garoppolo’s passes don’t have the zip they had before he tore his ACL. He used to drive his throws consistently. Now, he seems hesitant to transfer his weight onto his surgically repaired left leg. So, he throws mostly with his arm, and his passes float.

You can see his reticence to plant his leg when he throws a pass to a receiver running a 12-yard out route. That throw requires big-time velocity, because the quarterback has to throw toward the sideline. When Garoppolo threw that pass in 2016, the ball traveled in the air for 1.2 seconds. When he throws it this season, the ball travels for 1.4 seconds.

Garoppolo doesn’t throw as hard as he used to.

A reporter recently asked Garoppolo how he has evolved as a quarterback. “This year?” Garoppolo asked. “Well, obviously the knee getting healthier and healthier is always a good thing.”

He still thinks his knee isn’t 100% healthy. It’s “getting healthier,” in his mind, even though the team and doctors say it’s fully healthy. Garoppolo seems to have a mental block.

Bill Walsh used to say the quarterback defined the limit of his offense. Garoppolo is the perfect example. Until he learns to trust his knee again, he is the limit. And right now, it’s a very limited limit.

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