It's almost like night and day - the San Francisco 49ers first 10 games of the 2021 season. Beyond the season opener where the team dominated the majority of their outing against the Detroit Lions, it's been far from picture-perfect or let alone the standard of play expected from the club.
While much of the start of the season was plagued with a number of game-costing mistakes, it appears as if the team found its stride at the midway point of the season making drastic turnarounds as the unit got back to its standard of football. San Francisco has won three of its last four contests and is coming off of back-to-back victories where the team has dominated the stat sheet and pulled off commanding 20-plus point wins just in time for a much-needed morale booster at this point in the season.
"I think it's just coming together," linebacker Fred Warner said. "Right at the right time when we're getting in the back half of the season and we're getting hot. I think that's just who we are, though. I think all along we've been trying to find that identity, trying to find ourselves and it's starting to show through."
Entering into Sunday's trip down south to Jacksonville, the short week matchup had the outside perception of a "trap game" facing a 2-7 Jaguars team whose defense had notably turned a page for the better as of late. But San Francisco kept its foot on the gas, opening the game with their second-straight 18-plus play drive (20 plays to be exact) that chipped over 13 minutes off the clock, the longest in the NFL since the Tennessee Oilers had a 13:27 drive at Dallas (11/27/97), per the Elias Sports Bureau.
Identity, or lack thereof, has been a common theme to open the 49ers season that featured a four-game losing streak and a team that appeared to lack consistency across all three phases. More recently, the 49ers appeared to have found their footing (pun intended), as the unit has gotten back to its run-heavy roots. San Francisco rushed 44 times for 156 yards in their Week 10 primetime rout over the Los Angeles Rams, and even without their leading rusher Elijah Mitchell, followed up on Sunday running the ball 42 times for 171 yards - dominating the time of possession and flow of each game.
"Honestly, it felt pretty similar to the Super Bowl year," quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said last week. "It felt like we ran the ball 30 times every time that year. When we can do that and be successful on third down, that's a good recipe for us."
On Sunday, the 49ers added yet another wrinkle to their offense. Wide receiver Deebo Samuel was San Francisco's leading rusher on the day, posting eight carries for 79 yards (9.9 yards per carry) and a rushing touchdown. Samuel wasn't just the 49ers lead rusher, in fact, the wide out garnered more rushing yards than the entire Jacksonville team rushed combined. Teams already have to account for the wideout in the passing game as he currently sits second in the NFL in receiving yards, but Samuel continues to be one of San Francisco's most versatile and impactful offensive players in his third year with the 49ers regardless of where he lines up
"When he runs the ball that well, it's pretty impressive to have," Kyle Shanahan said. "I think he had almost 10 yards a carry and eight runs... usually when a receiver has done that, it's because they have one 70-yarder, and Deebo is extremely efficient. He got everything and more on those looks."
While Samuel was leading on the ground, the re-emergence of Brandon Aiyuk led San Francisco through the air. Aiyuk caught all seven of his targets for a season-high 85 yards and a touchdown. Following a slow start to the season and a trip to Shanahan's proverbial "doghouse," Aiyuk was responsible for just 16 targets, nine receptions, 96 yards and a touchdown through the 49ers first six games of the season. Since, he's amassed 26 targets, 20 catches, 245 yards and two touchdowns over the 49ers last four contests. His spike in production has both taken the load off of Samuel and assisted Garoppolo in his recent ascension.
Garoppolo has been playing efficient football as of late and with Aiyuk's recent string of performances, has garnered a 145.6 passer rating when targeting the wideout over the last three games.
But it's not just Aiyuk helping the quarterback excel. Over the last four weeks, Garoppolo is averaging just under a 73 percent completion percentage while throwing six total touchdowns to just one interception and averaging 8.44 yards per attempt. Per Pro Football Focus, Garoppolo has garnered an 85.7 overall grade over the last four weeks, which is the highest of any starting quarterback in the NFL during that span.
Garoppolo and the 49ers offense struggled on third downs earlier in the season, sitting 30th in the league at 31.4 percent (22-for-70) through Week 7. Over the last two weeks, Garoppolo has seen a massive turnaround in that regard, completing 8-of-12 third down plays for 102 yards, two touchdowns and a quarterback rating of 96.7. The 49ers overall have converted 14 of their last 26 third down opportunities (54 percent), the second-best mark in the NFL.
Also of note, ball security has become an interesting stat. The 49ers have played clean ball in each of their last four victories. In fact, the 49ers are 4-0 when they commit no turnovers and are 1-5 otherwise.
"We sat here after the Arizona game... everyone is trying to solve these problems, and we literally said we've got to stop turning the ball over, we have to get a couple of turnovers on defense or special teams, and that's all we've done the last two weeks," tight end George Kittle said. "We're not turning the ball over, (we're) converting third downs and we're putting our best players in positions to make plays. They're taking advantage of those opportunities and they're making those plays.
"Deebo's looking great. Aiyuk looked great today. I thought our tight ends blocked our tails off and our O-line looked great and I think Jimmy is still slicing and dicing. Our offense is clicking right now and Kyle's calling the right plays that he knows that we're going to take advantage of."
On the other end, San Francisco's defense (and special teams) has been on the receiving end of the takeaways battle, notching four over the last two games, a vast difference from the start of the season. The unit opened the season garnering just five takeaways over their first eight contests and sitting -9 in turnover differential, the 29th-worst mark in the NFL.
"The mentality all season has been to get the ball back for the offense, and that's happened obviously these past two weeks," Warner said. "That's one of the biggest differences of why you see us dominating teams is when we're winning that turnover battle. That's always a plus. I think just playing for one another, just playing hard and eliminating explosives is what has helped us."
Beyond a primetime victory against a team that the 49ers have historically fared well against, and a rout against a Jaguars team that is still figuring itself out, Week 12 will provide not only a large test for San Francisco, but could also have plenty of postseason implications. As it stands, the 49ers are currently in the hunt for one of the three Wild Card spots along with the Rams (7-3), New Orleans Saints (5-5), Philadelphia Eagles (5-6), Carolina Panthers (5-5) and their Week 12 opponent, the Minnesota Vikings (5-5).
The team has appeared to have re-discovered its recipe for success at a prime time of their season. The 49ers have proven they can go toe-to-toe with good teams, including a last-minute loss to the Green Bay Packers in Week 3 followed by a Week 5 shortcoming to the Arizona Cardinals. Their next test against a Kirk Cousins-led Minnesota team who is looking to build off their recent momentum can further cement whether the 49ers hot streak is just a timely fad or if San Francisco has gotten its mojo back just in time for a late-season push.
"These past 14 days have, I don't want to say changed our team, but we're moving in the right direction," Garoppolo said. "We've just got to keep going. There's a lot of football left to be played. Minnesota's going to be a good challenge for us this week coming up, and we've got to get ready for them."
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