The San Francisco 49ers hosed the Cleveland Browns on Monday Night Football and have left the world pondering one question: Are the Niners for real? They are real, and they are fantastic.
The 2019 NFL season is young, but that has not stopped pundits from making early predictions as to who will make the playoffs? Who will make the Super Bowl? Is this team bad or is this team good? Records are an established benchmark of success in the NFL.
Unless you are the San Francisco 49ers.
Despite going into Monday Night Football in Week 5 with a 3-0 record, many believed the Niners to be a fluke. A scam. “They have not played any real teams, so they cannot possibly actually be a good team.”
Which is why the 49ers looked to prime time to showcase who they truly are: a top 5 NFL team. They not only came out of Week 5 with a dominant 31-3 win over the offseason-hyped Cleveland Browns, but they left little on the field for the talking heads to doubt.
Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, running back Nick Chubb, wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, by all accounts, comprise a talented offensive unit for Cleveland. Chubb came into Levi’s Stadium following a career game with 165 rush yards and three touchdowns in Week 4 against the Baltimore Ravens, the latter being a career high. Beckham and Landry are both capable of completely dominating corners and safeties. And Mayfield has, well… Mayfield is tenacious and often wakes up feeling dangerous.
He must have woken up on the wrong side of the bed, or maybe even in the wrong room. The entire Browns offense was a non-factor under the prime time lights.
Maybe beating the Browns was not enough to convince the general population the 49ers are for real. Maybe dominating on prime time, while all of America watched at home, did not settle enough unsettled hearts.
Maybe, but the Niners are 4-0, and they surely woke up Tuesday morning feel all sorts of dangerous.
But take emotion out of the equation. Ignore the record for just a second and take in the cold, hard facts. Settle into reality and accept San Francisco is for real.
The 49ers defense is for real
The Niners made big additions on the defensive side of the ball this offseason. EDGE Nick Bosa, linebacker Kwon Alexander and EDGE Dee Ford have all been key difference makers for defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. If the NFL handed out a “Most Improved” award, it would be handed to the 49ers defense. This is a team which had just seven defensive takeaways all of 2018 and has already created seven in 2019, credited largely to the improved pass rush.
But how do the 49ers stack up to the rest of the league?
Simply stated, San Francisco’s defense has been very good. The unit is ranked second overall in total defense; the second best pass defense and fifth best rush defense through five weeks. The Niners are also the only team to not allow a rushing touchdown on the season.
Not only have the 49ers stopped teams on the ground and through the air, but they have been dominant in taking the ball away. San Francisco is tied third in forced fumbles, tied first in interceptions for touchdowns and is second in total interceptions. There is an adage about turnovers, or maybe more an analogy. Something along the lines of turnovers being like pickles in a pickle jar. It takes a while to break the first one loose, but they flow out after that first one comes.
The 49ers offense is for real
Defense wins games, or at least that’s the saying. But what is an NFL team without a competent offense? In 2018, the 49ers’ four wins came with an average margin of victory of 10.75 points.
They have improved that margin in 2019 by nearly seven points, a spread of 17.5 points a game. What is more telling is the Niners lost seven games in 2018 by 10 points or less. Losing quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo so early in 2018 left the offense to run through an undrafted quarterback, a group of undrafted running backs, and a fifth-round tight end who somehow had the greatest year ever at the position.
All of that amounted to just four wins: a win total already matched by the 2019 team.
That same group of running backs is terrorizing the NFL in 2019, though. The wizardy of head coach Kyle Shanahan has the 49ers boasting the league’s best rushing offense. Mind you, the 49ers are currently doing this without their Pro Bowl lineman, Joe Staley.
Matt Breida is on pace to break 1,000 yards rushing. A feat that has not be accomplished since future gold jacket member Frank Gore rushed for just over 1,100 yards. Shanahan has largely split the running duties between Breida and Raheem Mostert. Mostert, another undrafted running back, is on pace to rush for over 900 yards on the season. If Shanahan keeps scheming for these two at this pace, we will see the most dominant dual back performance since 1985 when Roger Craig and Wendell Tyler rushed for 1,050 and 867 yards, respectively.
Should Breida and Mostert both rush for over 1,000 yards, well that would be a franchise first.
The 49ers just win
Good teams find ways to win bad games. After four games, the 49ers have certainly had a few bad games, or at least bad moments. Look no further than the five-turnover victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 3. In what should have been a blowout for the Steelers, the 49ers found a way to win.
The defense has won games. The offense has won games. Shanahan and general manager John Lynch have built a team and a culture that wins.
After two years of trial and turbulence, the Niners have found a way to win games. Those trials, and character building moments, have San Francisco sitting atop the NFC with the only undefeated record in the conference.