After a rough beginning to the season and an injury to overcome, Week 6 could be important for SF 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo moving forward.
He was clearly rusty and off his game during the Week 1 loss to Arizona, a pseudo preseason game that really could have been won by either team, before looking better in his one half against the New York Jets in Week 2.
But Garoppolo played most of that half on a clearly wounded leg, yet he limped his way to a 14-16, 131 yard, two-touchdown performance that allowed backup Nick Mullens to come in for the second half and coast his way to the 31-13 victory.
After missing another blowout over the Giants, speculation began over whether his ankle injury was not as severe as originally thought, and if the SF 49ers might be able to play Garoppolo in their Sunday Night Football clash against the Philadelphia Eagles.
They did not and the game was a slog that ended with Mullens getting benched in favor of his backup, C.J. Beathard, who nearly powered the Niners back into the game while a clearly frustrated Mullens — whose pick-six just before his benching was effectively the difference in the game — looked on.
And so the team found itself 2-2 and the embers caught fire again: the SF 49ers needed to start Jimmy Garoppolo against the Dolphins in Week 5, a game that suddenly had “must-win” written all over it.
The Miami Dolphins. In Week 5.
And start Garoppolo did, but he never really looked comfortable out there. And whether it was his ankle not being fully healed or his porous offensive line — or likely some combination of both — Garoppolo again found himself coming out of the locker room to head to the bench.
The 49ers franchise quarterback dutifully donned a mask and watched Beathard have about the same level of success that Garoppolo was having en route to a 43-17 loss to the Dolphins at home, where the SF 49ers are now 0-3 on the young season.
If “must-win” was the mantra, then the Niners, now 2-3 and in fourth place in the NFC West, are in real trouble.
Why Week 6 is so crucial for Jimmy Garoppolo, SF 49ers
And so as the SF 49ers prepare for their second Sunday Night Football matchup in three weeks, this time against their surging division rivals, the Los Angeles Rams, questions are swirling all around the team. But the most pressing ones seem to be about Garoppolo, his health, and even his long term place in the organization.
The health element seems solved. Jimmy Garoppolo was a full participant in practice on Thursday, usually a good indicator that said player is heading towards playing on Sunday, and despite his poor performance against the Dolphins, there’s little doubt that of the quarterbacks on the roster, Garoppolo gives the team the best chance to win.
The issue is that the Rams have had pretty good success in stopping their opponents’ passing attacks so far in 2020, allowing just 197.8 yards per game through the air in five games, which is second in the NFL.
Even more wild is the fact that of the 989 total yards they’ve allowed, 321 of those came against the Bills’ Josh Allen, meaning the other four quarterbacks were averaging a mere 167 yards per game against the Rams secondary.
While the raw stats are worrisome, so are the underlying numbers. Football Outsiders ranks the Rams as the third-best pass defense in the NFL with a minus-11.3 percent DVOA, just behind the Kansas City Chiefs (minus-13.5 percent) and the Indianapolis Colts (minus-19.4 percent).
Pro Football Focus paints a similar picture, grading the Rams out at 69.0 in coverage, good for fourth in the league being the Tampa Bay Buccanneers, Cincinnati Bengals, and Colts.
The defensive line is also an issue, leading the league with 20 sacks and posting a 9.7 percent sack rate, according to Football Outsiders, tied with Tampa Bay for third in the league so far.
So the idea of this being an important game for Jimmy Garoppolo feels pretty counterintuitive since it seems more likely that Garoppolo would struggle against the Rams rather than be part of the reason the SF 49ers are victorious.
And yes, running back Raheem Mostert and the rest of the Niners’ rushing attack will be vital to the team’s overall success on Sunday night, but that doesn’t mean Garoppolo will be able to sit back and hand the ball off all night like it’s the NFC Championship game.
Instead, Garoppolo will need to do two things in order to both help his team win and build confidence for himself and the organization moving forward.
First, he’ll need to take advantage of the opportunities he will have when the Rams defense provides them.
There’s no doubt they’ll do everything in their power to overcome their poor start to the season in terms of stopping the run (538 yards allowed on just 113 carries, or 4.71 YPC) by stacking the box and daring Garoppolo to throw.
And so he’ll have to, otherwise, it will be a long night for Mostert and Jerick McKinnon, especially if Rams’ defensive tackle Aaron Donald has one of his usual disruptive games on that side of the ball.
The good news is while the Rams’ passing defense is good on the whole, there are missing pieces in the middle of the field at both linebacker and safety who can be beaten by SF 49ers All-Pro tight end George Kittle and receivers like Deebo Samuel if head coach Kyle Shanahan schemes as effectively as he’s capable of.
So leaning on the running game is OK, Garoppolo just needs to be ready to take advantage of mismatches when they come.
The second thing Garoppolo will need to do is not shoot the team in the foot by making mistakes and turning the ball over. He threw two interceptions against the Dolphins and both were prayers he tossed up in hopes of making something happen.
Even worse, however, was the fact that both came inside 49ers’ territory and each led to short Dolphins’ drives that ended in field goals, pushing a big but overcomeable lead (24-7, but the Niners had the ball) to something that felt wildly out of reach (30-7 at halftime).
If Garoppolo can limit the mistakes, even if he’s not technically a major reason why the SF 49ers are victorious, that will go a long way in ensuring that he begins to build his own confidence and, perhaps more importantly, that the team continues to believe in him.
It’s not an ideal game for Jimmy Garoppolo to get right given the matchup, but he must dig into everything he’s got and be part of the solution and not the problem.
Should he prove himself able to do that, it might mean that the SF 49ers can pull off an upset and get their season heading in a better direction from this point on.