The 49ers scrambled on the front nine to a 4-5 record. Eight games remain for an inevitable playoff push.
Inevitable? Yes. And they better make it an immediate one.
The 49ers’ schedule sets up for a prompt move into wild-card contention. That assumes they build off Monday night’s 31-10, physically imposing rout of the Los Angeles Rams.
Next comes a visit to the Jacksonville Jaguars, who are 2-7 but do have more home wins this season (two) than the 49ers (one). A loss would quickly humble the 49ers, once again.
Before digging into that matchup, take a gander at the 49ers’ horizon: Nov. 28 vs. the Vikings (4-5), Dec. 5 at the Seahawks (3-6), Dec. 12 at the Bengals (5-4) and Dec. 19 vs. the Falcons (4-5).
“We don’t want to lose anymore,” tight end George Kittle said. “We’re in a good position. We still have a chance to be in control of our season, so we don’t want to lose again, and the team came out this week and had a good week of practice.”
Here are the five ways the 49ers must overcome the Jaguars:
1. Don’t underestimate them
A month ago, the Jaguars were saddled with their 20th consecutive loss and first-year coach Urban Meyer was apologizing for his bar-room layover in Ohio.
Since then, they’ve won their ensuing two home games, 23-20 over the Miami Dolphins and 9-6 against the AFC East-leading Buffalo Bills.
This leads into the fact the 49ers have never won in Jacksonville, nor in seven other current NFL stadiums. (The 49ers lost in 1999 and 2005 visits, and beat the host Jaguars in London in 2013.)
“You can’t go out there thinking, ‘Oh, I’m in Florida. Cool. Great weather,’ “ safety Jimmie Ward said. “Nah, we’d lay an egg if we go down there taking that team lightly.
“I don’t think that’s what me or my teammates have on the agenda. We’re going to go down there and handle business on this trip.”
There’s an inherent danger, regardless of records and streaks, of going cross country on a short week (after a Monday night game) for a 10 a.m. kickoff. There is no body-clock adjustment with a West Virginia or Ohio layover, and don’t dismiss the weather factor: 78-percent humidity (75 degrees).
2. Avoid identity theft
What made the 49ers’ 44-carry ground game so different Monday than past run-oriented triumphs is that the offense converted so well on third-down passes. So, it’s not all run, all the time.
“Our identity always has been as a run-heavy offense and use that as play-action,” Williams said. “Anytime we can keep chains moving, average 3 or 4 yards a carry, that’s us, that’s 49ers football.”
The Jaguars’ run defense is allowing 3.89 yards per carry, the NFL’s fifth-lowest mark and the franchise’s lowest since 2015.
Jeff Wilson Jr. likely will draw his first start of the season, after a modest debut Monday (10 carries, 27 yards) in which he also split time as a fullback. Wilson ran for 112 yards and three touchdowns the last time the 49ers played an East Coast game without a layover — a 2020 win at New England.
Elijah Mitchell’s surgery Tuesday for a fractured finger likely will sideline the 49ers’ leading rusher. That puts fellow rookie Trey Sermon on call, though he hasn’t had a carry the past four games and only 30 all year. Why is that? “He had an opportunity when there were injuries, but those guys have come back and we still have those guys ahead of him,” Shanahan said.
Other options: all-around catalyst Deebo Samuel, fullback (and third-down option) Kyle Juszczyk, and, if an emergency, special-teams ace Trenton Cannon.
3. Stop the run
Jaguars’ leading rusher James Robinson (knee, heal) did not practice Wednesday and was limited Thursday, but assuming he plays, the 49ers must be ready to stop him, especially near the goal line (six touchdowns). D.J. Jones, Arik Armstead, Kentavius Street and Kevin Givens must be a wall.
Former 49er Carlos Hyde, who’s been limited by a shoulder injury, is the Jaguars’ backup (56 carries, 211 yards, no touchdowns).
If the 49ers can clog the running lanes and repeat Monday night’s sure tackling, then they’ll force No. 1 draft pick Trevor Lawrence to air it out. Lawrence is completing just 58 percent of his throws, with eight touchdown passes and nine interceptions. He has only five touchdown passes the past eight games.
And when it comes to the 49ers’ pass defense, it’s worth noting that the Jaguars have drawn only three pass-interference penalties against their opponents. D.J Chark fractured his ankle in Week 3, and leading the Jaguars’ receiving efforts is Cal product Marvin Jones (38 catches on 66 targets, 434 yards, three touchdowns).
4. Better pass rusher?
In 2019, the 49ers were drafting No. 2 overall, and “when we’re up there, we’re always looking for pass rushers,” Shanahan recalled. “We felt pretty strong about the top two ones in the draft.”
Those would be Nick Bosa, the 49ers’ choice and eventual NFL rookie of the year, and Josh Allen, the Jaguars’ selection at No. 7.
With 5 ½ sacks this season, Allen has 18 ½ sacks through 35 career games. the second-best start in Jaguars’ history (Yannick Ngakoue, 20; 2016-17). Bosa’s eight sacks this season give him 17 in 27 career games, having missed 14 games last season with a knee injury.
Allen has the tougher task this game, matching up with left tackle Trent Williams, who is having as dominant of a year as 49ers general manager John Lynch said he’s seen. In the Jaguars’ home upset of the Bills two weeks ago, Allen had a sack, an interception, a fumble recovery and a career-high eight tackles. His encore: 10 quarterback pressures in Sunday’s 23-17 loss at Indianapolis.
“He’s a heck of a player, man. He really is,” Jimmy Garoppolo said of Allen. “They’ve got a lot of speed on that defense from sideline to sideline, but just Josh, he’s impressive.”
Added Shanahan about that 2019 draft: “We were real high on Josh, but we were a little higher on Nick.”
5. Garoppolo in a groove
Garoppolo is on a three-game spree with passer ratings over 100 in each. He’s been impressively efficient, and in the 49ers’ two wins, he hasn’t committed a turnover.
Along this stretch, he hasn’t looked over his shoulder at possibly being subbed by rookie Trey Lance, who is fully healthy but hasn’t played since a knee sprain in his starting debut last month at Arizona.
Making Garoppolo’s job easier: more shotgun snaps, and having the healthy triumvirate of Samuel, George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk.
Garoppolo is 16-4 in 49ers’ road starts, including a 3-0 mark this season at Detroit, Philadelphia and Chicago.
He contributed to his first home win this season by clutching up on third down, converting a trio to Kittle that kept alive (and completed) an 18-play opening drive. Even more synchronicity surfaced on Garoppolo’s fourth-and-6, 40-yard touchdown pass to Samuel.
“There’s a rhythm and timing to everything and that’s why you’re working on the same concepts from OTAs on, so you have the ability to hit someone out of the break like that,” offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel said.
“With Jimmy and Deebo, they’re very comfortable with that play, specifically,” McDaniel added. “That was execution at its finest in a pivotal moment. That’s a lot of hours between them and our offense in general. That’s what it looks like when it’s done right.”