5 lessons SF 49ers learned after losing to Cardinals in Week 1

Chris Banjo #31 of the Arizona Cardinals intercepts a pass intended for Jerick McKinnon #28 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Chris Banjo #31 of the Arizona Cardinals intercepts a pass intended for Jerick McKinnon #28 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) /
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George Kittle, SF 49ers
George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) /

SF 49ers Lesson No. 2: The pass-catchers are top-heavy

Having just spent a plethora of words explaining how Jimmy Garoppolo’s performance should not be completely bailed out by his circumstances, I will now start bailing out Garoppolo through analyzing his circumstances.

The one thing about the SF 49ers that seemed true, at least from 2019 and through the offseason, was that Kyle Shanahan had several capable weapons at every position who could do significant damage. Sure, tight end George Kittle was the enigma whose talent fueled the team. Bt everyone, from the running backs to the backup wide receivers, could contribute if necessary. It was this assurance that gave people calm for a Week 1 matchup with both Deebo Samuel and rookie receiver Brandon Aiyuk, the presumptive starting receivers both out with injuries.

That was not the case at all, and the extent to which the 49ers struggled raises a point worth acknowledging: San Francisco is top-heavy on offense.

The running back group is, perhaps, the most balanced of them all with all three players producing in whatever amount of time they had, and both Jerick McKinnon and Raheem Mostert scoring. But the running game itself can be stopped with a focus by the defense, putting the onus on the pass-catchers to step up.

The tight ends are top-heavy by the very nature of who they have. No matter who can be compared, Kittle is significantly better than any backup tight end. Jordan Reed had some action, but his rust was evident, making it even clearer from the tight ends, Kittle was the only one who demanded attention or at least posed enough of a threat to make playing offense easier.

Then, receivers. Without WRs 1 and 2 (Samuel and Aiyuk), and even with the Cardinals clearly playing to stop the run, the production was abysmal. In the few targets they received, they did nothing of value. Dante Pettis, who got the de-facto start, was a nonfactor with only one target, a deep ball he didn’t attempt to lay out for. Slot receiver Trent Taylor had only two receptions for 7 yards on five targets, and despite being a third-down threat, his one third-down reception didn’t move the sticks because he didn’t extend his route far enough.

And Kendrick Bourne, the other starter, had a modicum of success with  34 yards off two receptions. But his inability to go to the football on San Francisco’s final offensive possession in the biggest play of the game cost the Niners either a touchdown or a pass interference that would have put them in prime position to score.

These players were supposed to prove the Niners had enviable depth on the team, but it was quite the opposite.

The only player the Cardinals feared in the passing attack was Kittle, and they doubled him relentlessly. He finished with no targets in the second half because of that and other play-calling issues. With Kittle neutralized, the offense only sparked when fullback Kyle Juszczyk got the ball.

Otherwise, it was a slow grinding painful performance.

While most of these lessons have a fix, like how Garoppolo can find that comfort zone of aggression, and how some of these can be attributed to the rust, this lesson is a simple fact: The Niners cannot afford to have their wide receivers out very long. Without them, including a rookie who has never played a snap of professional football, there is nothing stopping defenses from selling out against the run and doubling Kittle.

The talent behind them, if existent, did not show up strong.