Happy game day one and all.
The Arizona Cardinals are taking on the San Francisco 49ers on Monday Night Football, and we talked with the folks over at Niners Nation to help us get ready.
1. How has Christian McCaffrey fit in through the first three games of his San Francisco 49ers career?
By all metrics, like a glove! Discounting his very first game as a Niner, which he suited up for only 48 hours after being traded to the team, his impact on the field has been absolutely massive. The highlight obviously came against the Rams when his command of the playbook and all three phases of offense (running, catching, and throwing a TD) left no doubt about his value.
However, I think last week’s performance on Sunday Night Football will be more indicative of his future use. The appeal of CMC’s move to San Francisco relies on its usage not hitting sky high levels like it did in Carolina. As one of several dangerous pieces on a schematically sound offense, his health and burst should remain better preserved over a long, brutal season.
Taking the Chargers‘ game, this effect should work two-fold. He and Elijah Mitchell, who returned from an MCL sprain suffered in Week 1, each had 20 touches. A 50/50ish split for these guys should have Niners’ fans excited. They each have their role in the Shanahan offense and can take pressure off one another. Mitchell played through an avalanche of injuries in 2021, so McCaffrey’s presence should ideally keep both off the IR. Two impact running backs are better than none!
If there’s one more dimension to note when it comes to McCaffrey’s fit, it’s off the field. He’s already meshed into the well-known friend group of Jimmy G, George Kittle, and Kyle Juszczyk. If you happened to see the video of Garoppolo swarmed by Golden State cheerleaders at a recent game, you might’ve noticed CMC hanging with the fellas… Or not.
2. The 49ers held onto Jimmy Garoppolo and it seems to have paid off, what was your opinion of the situation before the Trey Lance injury?
I know there were plenty of Niners’ fans who found the situation untenable from the jump and interpreted it as a slight or mistrust of Lance’s ability. These types attempted to gather any scrap of evidence from bad body language to stray quotes to back up their theory that Shanahan and Lynch only did this because they weren’t ready to hand the keys over to the highly drafted rookie. I should make sure to clarify this was happening from both sides of the debate, too. Pro-Lancers and Jimmy-Stans both wanted this narrative to be true to back up their crackpot detective work.
Frankly, I think football is much like life in that the simplest answer is often the truth. The Niners never wanted to give up Jimmy G for nothing. His shoulder surgery and rehab tanked his trade market for a majority of the offseason and, by the time he could even throw a football, the QB Carousel had come to a halt. The choice would be to release him for no return, besides some cap savings, or attempt to hold onto him as trade bait for a team with an ill-timed QB injury/as a backup on a cheaper deal.
If you’re the Niners and Jimmy G, the second option made the most sense for everyone. San Francisco managed to get an overqualified backup on a team-friendly deal with the option to move him for assets, injury insurance for Lance, and, at the very least, a compensatory draft pick when he leaves as a free agent in 2023, all in one fell swoop. As for Jimmy, there were no open starting jobs available in the league, so why uproot your life when you already know the system, teammates, and staff where you are only to take less money as a backup somewhere new?
Given the circumstances, everything just fit together well and, considering the horrible injury to Lance, looks even smarter in retrospect.
3. Nick Bosa has been fantastic, but how has the loss of Arik Armstead changed the 49ers defense so far and do the 49ers need him back to make a run in the playoffs?
The loss of both Armstead and Javon Kinlaw has definitely left a dent in the Niners’ defense. Last season, when they similarly lost Kinlaw and had a hole to fill at DT, DC DeMeco Ryans made the decision to kick Armstead inside and it changed the entire trajectory of the team. The Niners had real difficulty stopping the run before the move, and afterwards they began to look more and more like a brick wall. Furthermore, his ability as a pass rusher has always been undervalued, but the pressure he can generate from the inside has been pivotal to the D-line’s success.
Thankfully, I do believe the Niners have amassed enough talent in the trenches that they should be able to make a playoff run with or without Armstead. For example, the D has pitched back-to-back second half shutouts and allowed under 100 yards combined in that same time. However, and this goes without saying, the ceiling on what the Niners’ D and, by extension, the team can accomplish reaches much higher if #91 suits up.
4. A lot of Arizona Cardinals fans were disappointed to see Brandon Aiyuk end up in San Francisco, he seems to be progressing well, what has he done to continue his development and where do you see his ceiling?
Looking back on Aiyuk-Doghouse-gate from last season almost seems silly now, given how productive he’s been once he re-established himself within the offense. He’s currently riding a four game streak of notching 6+ catches and 80+ yards, which puts him in league with Terrell Owens, who accomplished that feat in 2001.
By parsing what Shanahan said at the time, it became clear his issue stemmed from a Sophomore Slump brought on by a lack of effort. The coach specifically pointed to GPS trackers the Niners deploy in practice to measure speed and other metrics. The uptick in those underlying areas coincided with his growing role in the offense, and he’s taken on more responsibility ever since. Also, he’s asserted himself as a ferocious run blocker, a requirement on the Niners, and something the WRs clearly take a great deal of pride in after erasing their man from the game.
As for his ceiling, it’s hard to say. He’s already the best route runner on the team and has enough speed to be a threat at any level of the field. On the current roster, I’d bet the highest he can reach is a WR2+ or on the verge of WR1 on a different team. However, that’s more a byproduct of how Shanahan runs his offense (unless there’s Julio Jones). Aiyuk has also struggled with mental errors like drops or fumbles that keep him from hitting that next level. If he can clean those up, the sky’s the limit.
5. DraftKings Sportsbook has the San Francisco 49ers team total at 26.5, which they have only hit three times this season and would be five points above their seasons average… What side are you taking?
I’m willing to take the over, mostly because I hate the under and this feels like the kind of week where the Niners could really start to gel. They had some red zone issues against the Chargers that kept them from easily eclipsing 26.5 points, which should balance out just by the law of averages. Also, looking at the Cardinals recent defensive performances, they represent a good matchup for this team. They struggle against tight ends, allow a ton of YAC, and rank near the bottom of the league in red zone defense. With all that in mind, the Niners will definitely score 26.6 points.