Kawakami: What the 49ers proved by winning without their ‘A’ game

Kyle Shanahan tossed out a clear postgame statement with some emphasis on Sunday afternoon, which proved he meant it and also that there might be additional teaching moments involved.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” Shanahan told reporters in Inglewood, Calif., with a slight shake of his head. “We did last week, too.”

And yes, he had a point: On Sunday at SoFi Stadium, Brock Purdy had the worst regular-season game of his career, both statistically and stylistically; Nick Bosa didn’t record a sack; the 49ers’ defense was flat-footed and surprisingly vulnerable for at least half of the game; Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle combined for just six catches and 73 receiving yards. The 49ers trailed the theoretically sad-sack Rams until the final seconds of the first half. The 49ers’ leading scorer was … their rookie kicker.

It was a “B” game from the 49ers, at best. Maybe more like a “C+” game. Against a division rival. In Week 2. Crisis time in 49ersland, right?

Well … not exactly. Though there were several very clunky parts to the 49ers’ 30-23 victory over the Rams on Sunday, and while it was not comparable to their masterclass performance in Pittsburgh in Week 1, at some point, so what? No NFL team churns out “A+” outings every week. The goal in the early season is to stack up victories, test yourselves, identify and fix weaknesses and just keep going from week to week.

And what happened on Sunday in SoFi might’ve established something of a baseline for the 49ers. Despite their slowest start and with major and minor awkwardness throughout, they can squeeze out a game on the road against a much less talented but very familiar opponent.

Will the 49ers have to play better than this to get back to the Super Bowl? Yes, definitely. But so will everybody else. That’s always very important to point out. Everybody else has these kinds of games and these kinds of weaknesses early on. The 49ers happen to be 2-0, with both victories coming on the road, and they have all of their home games left. The only other team in the league that can say that is Miami.

And if this is about the worst it can get for the 49ers (pending injuries, of course), it’s not that complicated to follow the formula: Don’t turn the ball over, put pressure on the opponent’s QB, be physical and count on the stars to be the difference in the end, the way Deebo Samuel, Fred Warner and Christian McCaffrey were simply better than everybody else in the second half on Sunday.

This should work just fine in their home opener on Thursday night against the Giants, who rallied back in Arizona to win but appear to have lost star running back Saquon Barkley indefinitely to an ankle injury. It should work the game after that, when the 49ers host Arizona. And just like that, the 49ers should be 4-0 as they head into a gigantic Levi’s Stadium game on Oct. 8 against the Cowboys, maybe the most impressive team in the league through two weeks.

And that’s when the 49ers need to be at their best again. The good thing for them is that their “C” game is survivable and their very best might be better than just about anyone else’s. At plus-30, the 49ers trail only the Cowboys, who are at plus-60, in point differential after two weeks. (Though the Browns, currently at plus-21, have a definite shot to pass the 49ers if they beat the Steelers on Monday night.)

Shanahan is right, though. They have a long way to go. Fifteen regular-season games, to be precise, with plenty of time to get everybody on track. The 49ers wouldn’t want to be peaking in mid-September, anyway. So let’s take a look at some things they can work on.

Steve Wilks’ style blending with the proven 49ers’ defensive system

After the game, Shanahan suggested that the 49ers’ soft-zone defensive plan in the first half, which was torched by Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford, was built on the presumption that the 49ers’ defensive line would get to the quarterback as regularly as it did last week in Pittsburgh. But that did not happen, and the 49ers were in backpedal mode for two quarters.

Bosa didn’t get his first hit on Stafford until late in the game. The big inside tandem of Javon Hargrave and Arik Armstead didn’t generate consistent pocket push. Drake Jackson didn’t duplicate last week’s three-sack game. And the 49ers’ secondary seemed a step slow and much too content just to drop back and let Rams receivers catch mid-range passes.

So Wilks adjusted in the second half by dialing up many more blitzes to shake up Stafford a bit. One or two of the blitzes were unsuccessful (for instance, Charvarius Ward’s absolute whiff on a clean shot at Stafford), but many of them were game-wreckers, starting with Warner’s clean sack late in the third quarter that halted a Rams drive.

The first half felt a little bit like Wilks running the old stuff, but not as well as DeMeco Ryans or Robert Saleh used to. The second half, though, felt like Wilks getting a measure of the way he can add to this scheme when the 49ers really need it.

Purdy wasn’t very dynamic

The misses were big, obvious and undeniable on Sunday. Purdy had three plays with receivers open deep and he overthrew each of them. They weren’t all his first read, and not all of them were layups. But they were deep shots that could’ve turned this game into a blowout. They were the kinds of long throws that Purdy mainly hit last season. And they’re the kinds of passes that, in recent years, Jimmy Garoppolo fatefully missed in the biggest games.

But even through all that, if this game was evidence of Purdy’s lowest level — and there’s a chance it is — the 49ers can win a lot of games like this. They can win playoff games like this. Purdy completed 17 of his 25 pass attempts (68 percent) for 206 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions, averaged 8.2 yards per attempt and had a passer rating of 93.1.

That’s the lowest passer rating of any regular-season game that he’s started. But it’s also a pretty decent rating, really. It’s the stat line of a QB who moved his team, was pretty efficient and didn’t turn it over. Also, Purdy added a TD on a QB sneak, which is another thing Purdy seems quite comfortable doing.

Purdy has now played the majority of snaps in 10 NFL games and hasn’t had a passer rating lower than the 87.4 he put up in the playoff victory over Dallas. And in these 10 games, he has never had more interceptions than TD passes.

Oh, also might as well get the analytics community mad at me one more time: The 49ers are 10-0 when Purdy plays a majority of the snaps. That does mean something.



Brock Purdy gave his critics some fuel, but it’s all about how he responds

Still holding their breaths on kicks?

Jake Moody got his first shot at NFL regular-season kickoff duties on Sunday and sent his second one wildly left and out of bounds, setting the Rams up at the 40-yard line and a quick TD drive to tie it, 10-10.

But Moody was better with the kickoffs after that (though none of them went too deep into the end zone), made all his extra points and all three of his field-goal tries, including a booming 57-yard field goal in the third quarter that was the second-longest in 49ers history behind David Akers’ 63-yarder in 2012.

Yes, it was in perfect conditions on artificial turf. Yes, the 49ers don’t know how Moody will kick outside and on grass at Levi’s, where he looked pretty shaky in the preseason. But just the fact that Shanahan called for the 57-yarder in a tie game late in the third quarter was a sign that he’s feeling pretty good about his rookie kicker.

Settling down the right side of the offensive line

Not surprisingly, the Rams sent future Hall of Famer Aaron Donald over to Colton McKivitz’s side frequently on Sunday, trying to take the same express lane that T.J. Watt used for three sacks in Week 1.

But this time, McKivitz and right guard Spencer Buford held up just fine, albeit with plenty of help from tight ends, running backs and a healthy dose of Jauan Jennings crashing in. The Rams only sacked Purdy once, and it was by linebacker Byron Young, not Donald (who was not credited with a tackle on Sunday).

I think the biggest shock about Watt’s monster day last week is that Shanahan has faced similar mismatches in the past and figured out how to scheme around them. He’s done it with Donald many times. Was McKivitz just so bad that no scheme could cover up for him? I think McKivitz will have problems throughout this season against certain matchups. I think the 49ers know this. But on Sunday, McKivitz was good enough to survive, and Shanahan was much better at figuring out how to make sure he does.

“The TK Show”: Go to Tim Kawakami’s podcast page on Apple, Spotify and The Athletic app.



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(Photo of Fred Warner sacking Matthew Stafford: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

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