These two teams aren’t very familiar with each other, as Sunday’s matchup will be just the sixth meeting all-time, and first since 2017 (San Francisco leads the series with threes wins compared to two for Jacksonville). So to help us get to know the 2021 49ers better, we spoke to Tyler Austin of Niners Nation — SB Nation’s website for all things Niners.
Is there a quarterback controversy in the Bay Area? How can Jacksonville attack San Francisco’s defense? How does the 49ers fan base truly feel about Kyle Shanahan? Ty has answers to these questions and more.
1. While rookie quarterback Trey Lance has gotten some playing time this season, Jimmy Garoppolo remains the starter and continues to get nearly all of the reps as of late. Which quarterback do 49ers fans want to see start for the rest of the season, and do you believe Lance is the quarterback of the future, or that San Francisco missed with the Lance pick?
Ty: This is an incredibly loaded question and the kind of powder keg that could blow your usually very calm group chat into World War III. From the moment that Lance was drafted, the dividing lines were drawn and two factions formed. With every released offseason workout video or any bit of leaked information from training camp and each preseason game highlight, those two sides became more and more entrenched in their beliefs.
On one hand there were/are the Trey Lance revolutionaries, who believe that the rookie should’ve been named the starter from the second he set foot at the training facility. They would accept his growing pains for the upside of his athleticism, which is an obvious advantage over his predecessor. Similarly, he adds a down the field and outside the numbers element to the passing attack that’s been sorely missing for years. Plus, the sooner he begins accruing experience the sooner he can reach his ceiling as a perennial MVP-candidate and Super Bowl winner. These are all very sound arguments.
On the other hand, you have the Jimmy Garoppolo loyalists, who feel that Jimmy has done nothing but win when he’s healthy, and he’ll continue to give the team the best chance to win this season. This group sees that the future is Lance, and loves the upside, but they also believe that a veteran hand on the wheel for one more season could be enough for a deep playoff run. Clearly, the man is a beloved leader in the locker room, and to give the keys of the car to a new face so quickly might rub some players the wrong way. There’s nothing wrong with the rookie sitting a year, taking some situational snaps, and coming out full throttle in 2022. These are all very sound arguments.
If I had to be a number on it, I’d first say it fluctuates from week to week. When things looked dire after the losses to the Colts or Cardinals, I think you could have talked about 75 percent of the fan base into inserting Trey Lance full time to ride out the season.
After the Rams victory, and seeing that Garoppolo has statistically been well above average in the last three games, as the offense has switched to heavy shotgun usage to accentuate his strength of quick passing, I think you could talk about 60 percent into sticking with him, no matter what. That is as long as Lance can see the field for some special packages every now and again.
The next couple weeks will really be the turning point. If the Niners can pick up steam with a win this Sunday, then it would seem the Garoppolo train will not be called back to the station anytime soon, and fans would happily agree. If things go off the rails? I’d expect Lance on the tracks for, at least, the last month, and fans will be saying it should’ve been from day one.
2. The 49ers rank eighth in the NFL in total defense (334 yards per game) and sixth against the pass (208.7 yards per game), but haven’t been great against the run, ranking 24th (122.8 yards per game). What has made San Francisco so difficult to pass against, and what can rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence and the Jacksonville offense do to find success on Sunday? Do you expect James Robinson and the Jaguars to be able to pick up yardage on the ground?
Ty: The Niners pass defense has been a case of Jekyll and Hyde this season, with honestly a little more Hyde than Jekyll. What you don’t see in the 208.7 yards of passing allowed per game is the 13 pass interference calls for a whopping total of 261 yards. Divide that by nine games and you tack on an additional 29 yards “allowed” through the air, which drops the unit to around the middle of the pack.
This issue, and a general lack of discipline in the secondary, hit its nadir with the absence of Jimmie Ward at free safety and Jaquiski Tartt at strong safety. Meanwhile Josh Norman has been serving as the long term replacement at cornerback for Jason Verrett who went down in Week 1 with a torn ACL. The street free agent has drawn numerous penalties in his tenure, but, most costly, was a taunting call that erased an unsportsmanlike conduct flag on Kliff Kingsbury, and gave the Cardinals a first down after they failed to convert on third-down-and-18.
The biggest reason that this hasn’t completely sunk the defense hangs upon the near constant pressure created by Nick Bosa, who’s currently the most double-teamed player in the league, and the otherworldly coverage skills of Fred Warner at the linebacker position in the middle of the field. Those two along with Jimmie Ward’s return tanked the Rams’ high-flying offense, which is no small feat.
As for the Jags, I would expect James Robinson to pick up a good amount of yards, especially running between the tackles. With Javon Kinlaw lost for the season, the interior of the Niners’ line is light on space eaters who can gobble up backs. They’re playing undersized at those positions, which can aid in pressuring the quarterback, but not so much for stopping the run.
For Lawrence, I’d recommend taking some deep shots against Josh Norman. Worst case scenario, he could probably get a few DPIs against him or, at best, a long connection. If those cash in early, and Robinson drains the clock that could be a recipe for success against this defense.
3. Now in his fifth year as head coach, how do 49ers fans feel about Kyle Shanahan and his staff? Do you expect Shanahan to stay in San Francisco for the foreseeable future?
Ty: Entering the season, I think you’d have found that Kyle Shanahan would’ve been overwhelmingly beloved by the fans, and respected by NFL media types. Between his Super Bowl run, six wins in 2020 given the extensive injuries, and the trade/pick of Trey Lance, everyone was feeling the love for our head coach.
Fast forward a month and a half, and all that goodwill evaporated faster than a drop of water in the dry, dry desert. Fans turned quickly after the early season skid, pointing to a stagnant offense or the perceived bungling of Lance’s development, which falls directly under his purview. Complaints about his handling of personnel choices, like the doghouse-ing of Brandon Aiyuk or icing out of rookies Trey Sermon and Aaron Banks, also drew plenty of ire.
In the eyes of many the proverbial hot seat started boiling, and a few suggested he join the unemployment line in the near future. While this fantasy managed to perpetuate itself for a few weeks, there was never a reality in which it would happen.
Shanahan signed a six-year extension after the Super Bowl, so the 49ers will be paying him until 2025, whether he’s the head coach or not. He’s maintained a good relationship with ownership and his general manager, unlike a certain Michigan man, and seems to be well-liked by his best players. Plus, the big swing for Lance should shield him for as many first-round picks as he gave up for the quarterback of the future.
So, let’s check back about his job security in 2023-2024.
4. Coming off of a surprising blowout win over the Los Angeles Rams, do you expect the 49ers to make a run in the second half of the season? Is this a playoff team? Why or why not?
Ty: The first half of the season was a bumpy ride for the 49ers and the fans, but things seemed to finally come together against the Rams. For one week, the team that everyone felt they’d been promised showed up and showed out. Hopefully, this was not just a fleeting moment where all the parts finally gelled for one resounding victory, but instead a true turning point.
If, and this is a BIG if, the team can remain at this level of health down the stretch, I believe they have a playoff run in them. At the very least, circle that seventh spot as a fairly achievable goal. Shanahan reshaped the offense to better suit Garoppolo, the run game exploded, George Kittle returned at 100 percent, and Deebo Samuel emerged as one of the game’s best wide receivers. Add those pieces up, and the offense is firing on all cylinders. That alone should account for a playoff appearance.
5. Is there one under-the-radar player on offense and one under-the-radar player on defense who can make an impact on Sunday who Jaguars fans may not be familiar with?
Ty: After Monday night’s game, Elijah Mitchell might no longer count as an under-the-radar player, but I think if you’re a sixth-round pick, who missed most of training camp/preseason, you can count as under the radar. The rookie running back has thrived as Raheem Mostert’s replacement, and leapfrogged the higher-selected and better pedigreed Trey Sermon. Expect a big dose of Elijah Mitchell this Sunday.
As for the defense, I would shout out Azeez Al-Shaair, who’s taken over the WILL linebacker position for the injured Dre Greenlaw. He immediately established himself as a fast, instinctual, and physical presence in the middle of the field. He has notched a combined 60 tackles and five solo tackles for loss. In Monday’s game, Al-Shaair brought so much heat that he actually bent his face mask! Pretty sweet.
Bonus: Score prediction?
Ty: The Niners will have to travel across the country and through multiple time zones for this one, but in the past that’s done little to slow them down. I’m basing this prediction on the most recent outing of the Niners, and hoping and praying that they manage to keep themselves at that level. If they do, I think this one should be a relatively casual outing for them, otherwise that playoff run might have to be put on hold.
49ers 38 - Jaguars 20
If you are interested in reading my responses to Ty’s question, those can be viewed on Niners Nation.