Nick WagonerESPN staff writer5 minutes of reading
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — This time last year, the San Francisco 49ers found themselves in a difficult situation entering their bye week.
The Kansas City Chiefs had just beaten them soundly at Levi’s Stadium to drop to 3-4 on the season. But the biggest solution to this team’s problems was already in the building. The Niners acquired running back Christian McCaffrey in a blockbuster trade a few days earlier with the idea that he could spark a second half. He did, and the Niners rattled off 10 straight wins to close out the season en route to an appearance in the NFC Championship Game.
A little more than a year later, the Niners head into Tuesday’s NFL bye deadline with a much better record but just as urgent to fix things after Sunday’s 31-17 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. After a 5-0 start, the loss to the Bengals was San Francisco’s third in a row, dropping them to 5-3 and out of first place in the NFC West division.
While the Niners will likely be active in their pursuit of outside help, coach Kyle Shanahan made it clear Sunday afternoon that another McCaffrey is not walking through that door. Which means the improvement will largely have to come from within, a process that will begin with a lot of self-reflection in the final week before the Niners play the Jacksonville Jaguars on Nov. 12.
“No, none of that changes anything at the trade deadline,” Shanahan said. “How we played today or how we played the last three weeks … I believe we have the answers in our building. I believe we have good players. I believe we have good coaches. It’s up to me to make them do better.
“I thought we started pretty well, but there are some things that we haven’t been able to hide here the last few weeks and so we have to keep pushing them in every aspect because some people keep losing streaks and they don’t have those answers and you just live in hope.”
Sunday’s loss was the Niners’ first three-game losing streak since the 2021 season and comes on the heels of a streak in which they won 15 straight regular-season games (tied for a franchise record) and outscored their first five opponents this season by an average of 19.8 points per game.
Even during their dominance early in the season, Shanahan repeatedly mentioned the mistakes his team was making, but was able to get away with jumping out to a big lead. Penalties and red zone woes were problematic, but the Niners made up for many of them by making big plays on offense (21 plays of 20+ yards were the sixth most in the NFL) and giving up a few on defense (10 plays allowed by over 20 yards were the fewest in the NFL). They were also dominant in the turnover battle, hitting a plus-7 with two league-low turnovers.
The past three weeks have offered a dramatic reversal in the opposite direction for most of these categories. The Niners have been outscored by an average of 7 points per game, outgained by an average of 62 yards per game and have given up 15 plays of 20+ yards (second most in the NFL over that span). What’s more, the Niners have turned the ball over seven times (fourth-most) and are minus-3 in turnover margin (also fourth-worst) in that span.
After not throwing an interception in the first five weeks, Niners quarterback Brock Purdy has thrown five in the last three games, including four in opposing territory, one of which came inside Cincinnati’s 10 on Sunday. The combined mistakes also limited the Niners’ ability to run the ball often or effectively.
“All I know is, it’s hard to win football games when you lose the turnover battle, which we did two weeks in a row,” tight end George Kittle said. “And we obviously just have to play better and we have to put ourselves in situations where we can run the football more and not have to throw the ball as many times.”
While many of these issues were troubling, it was the defensive issues that were the most surprising. The Niners have regularly played one of the best defenses in the league in recent years, and even with the transfer of new coordinator Steve Wilks from DeMeco Ryans (who became the head coach of the Houston Texans), the Niners thought they would have a hard time scoring again this season.
That was the case in the first five weeks, but not later. As the schedule and the quarterbacks they face have gotten tougher, the Niners have given up nearly 70 more passes per game through the air, and opposing quarterbacks have a QBR nearly 16 points higher over the past three weeks.
Those issues, combined with a pass rush that struggled to get home and a controversial blitz call before halftime in last week’s loss to the Minnesota Vikings, put Wilks under the microscope. But Shanahan said Sunday there’s plenty of blame to go around.
“It’s not up to any coach or any side,” Shanahan said. “We haven’t scored over 20 points here in three weeks either. So I think our defense has to do better. I think our offense needs to do better. I think our team needs to do better. When I say our team, I mean every single player there and I mean every single coach.”
The 49ers now head into a long layoff that should allow left tackle Trent Williams’ sprained right ankle and Deebo Samuel’s injured shoulder to heal. That should help, but it will take a lot longer to make a run as the Niners enter a stretch where they’ll play Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, Seattle, Philadelphia and Seattle again in the five weeks following the bye.
“We have to sit here and wait about 14 days to deal with this feeling that we have that nobody wants, but I think we need,” Shanahan said. “I think our guys have to get a little angry. I think we need to come back with a little bit better focus because it wasn’t enough and we weren’t able to do it.”