Shanahan goes full Del Rio in 49ers debut, but without the talented roster


Shanahan goes full Del Rio in 49ers debut, but without the talented roster

It did not take Kyle Shanahan long to figure out what kind of coach he will need to be in San Francisco – at least not in the short term.
Faced with the conundrum of the Carolina Panthers’ defense, which has broken far better teams than the San Francisco 49ers, Shanahan used his debut as head coach to try to hit a few gutshot straights and make fourth down a non-traditional event.
Four times in the first half of a game the 49ers lost in uninspired fashion, 23-3, Shanahan was confronted with fourth downs, and after two punts which gave them boring old field position, he decided, first down 7-0 and then 10-0, that the players, and the half-filled stadium, needed a reason to reinvest themselves in the chase.
So he went full Jack Del Rio, only without the Raider coach’s roster inventory. The first time, he wagered field position on a fourth-and-four at the Panthers’ 44 with seven minutes left the second quarter. The second time, with only 44 seconds left in the half, he went again from the Carolina 45.
Both times failed. Both times the Panthers got routine field goals out of the gambles to provide a cushion the locals never threatened.
And, even though the small sample size might suggest otherwise, he should continue to do so. He is building a team from the storm cellar up, and punts are far less educational (and exciting) than playing riverboat poker.
“Both,” he said when asked if he was trying to be aggressive or because he was playing for field position. “The two times in the second half, we didn’t really have a choice, but the first one, were down one, just out of field goal range, and you have a choice between punting it and pinning them back or going for it, and I thought we had a chance to get it.”
As it was, quarterback Brian Hoyer got sacked by Thomas Davis, killed the drive and propelled a drive that led to Graham Gano’s first of three field goals.
On the second, fullback Kyle Juszczyk was stacked by tackle Star Lotulelei and end Wes Horton, prompting a last-minute march by the Panthers to a second Gano field goal and a 13-0 halftime lead.
That is 13-0, as in insurmountable. That is to say that the game was in most ways a disappointment for him, his players and a crowd generously counted at 70,718. The offense gained only 217 yards in a mere 54 plays, a passable average of 4.0 per play but threatened to score only once, late in the game (and that drive died on a fourth-and-one from the Carolina 1, when as Shanahan said, “We didn’t really have a choice.”)
Running back Carlos Hyde looked tolerable but not dynamic, and neither quarterback Brian Hoyer nor his receivers caused much panic in the Carolina secondary. Of the three units, the defense was by far the most inspiring.
Or, as Shanahan put it, “We played a very good team, and we weren’t at our best. I definitely expected us to be further along.”
But he knows just as well that Rome wasn’t built in two hours and 55 minutes (at least they read the league directive on playing faster games; last year they averaged 3:09, with similarly turgid results).
They also committed two turnovers which led to Carolina touchdowns, and 10 penalties, including three false starts, three illegal formations and one defensive offside. In short, between an offense that would need a tuneup to sputter, inattention to detail and Shanahan’s gambler’s instincts, the 49ers looked like exactly what they are – a team with seven wins in the past two years starting from scratch. 
Which is not Shanahan’s sin, or general manager John Lynch’s, either. They are what we thought they were, to quote the bard Dennis Green, and making them not be what we thought is going to take a long time, and a hard climb.
But you knew that going in. They knew it going in. It doesn’t make it any tastier, but everybody’s got to eat.
“Yeah, it was disappointing,” Shanahan said when asked if this was any way to make a first impression. “But whether it’s the first time, last time or any other time I have the rest of my career, it was disappointing. Any tyime you lose and lose that way, it's frustrating and disappointing. I’ll feel that all day today and all night, and our players will too, and then we've got to watch the tape tomorrow and figure out a way to get better.”
That would be starting Sunday in Seattle against a Seahawk team which lost 17-9 in Green Bay with an equally inert offense. The Seahawks are a much different seabird at home, and have much more of a resume of bounceback games under Pete Carroll than Shanahan could possibly have, but Seattle is not San Francisco’s worry. San Francisco is.
The 49ers are playing against themselves for the time being, trying to figure out who and what they are and the best way to get to who, what and where they want to go. Sunday, they showed predictably little except for a little more swashbucklery in do-or-die situations.
And until further notice, that’s exactly what this team needs – practice in those situations, because though they might not come along often, they need to be played when they do. Kyle Shanahan has many metrics upon which he will be measured, but the number of times he asks his team to show its mettle on fourth down should be near the front – at least until they become good enough collectively to be a little more careful.

What rookie CB Ahkello Witherspoon did to earn role in 49ers' defense


What rookie CB Ahkello Witherspoon did to earn role in 49ers' defense

SANTA CLARA – Rookie cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon did not win the right to suit up for the 49ers’ first four games. Behind the scenes, he made it his mission to earn a contributing role.

“He really started to get better with his coordination with his feet from the bump-and-run coverage and from playing ‘off.’ There’s always a light that goes on,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “And we felt that for a couple weeks from Ahkello. Once he did that, he definitely earned the right to be out there.”

The plan was for Witherspoon to rotate into the action and share time with starters Rashard Robinson and Dontae Johnson. But he played just six snaps on Oct. 8 against Indianapolis before sustaining a concussion. Witherspoon returned to action last week and played 34 of the 49ers’ 74 snaps last week at Washington. He showed enough to coninue getting significant playing time.

“He’s earned the right to play,” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “He works his tail off in practice. He’s so deliberate in his approach. Whether it was scout team, whether it was team reps, whether it was walk-through, it didn’t matter.”

Witherspoon, the 49ers’ third-round draft pick at No. 66 overall, had a pedestrian training camp. Taking his lumps in August showed him what he needed to do to get into real games in October.

“I really turned up my focus, my intent every day in practice,” Witherspoon said. “What I did in camp wasn’t good enough to be a starting corner in this league, and that’s what I learned.

“I really focused on being aware of what it takes. That’s something I implemented these last four weeks -- that every day focus and competing on every single ball, and taking the mindset that no ball’s caught on me. I think that’s really helped my game, and helped these coaches trust me, as well.”

Witherspoon expected Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins to attack him. But of the 25 plays he was in coverage last week, Witherspoon saw only three passes come his way. He surrendered two receptions for 33 yards, according to Pro Football Focus.

“Just being a rookie, I thought it was going to come, where they were going to be taking that one shot,” Witherspoon said. “I kept waiting for it to happen, but it didn’t happen. Going up against a smart quarterback, I know he saw me out there.

“There were a few times he looked my way in coverage. I wasn’t perfect in coverage, but I think he was looking. And I thought I did a good job.”

Witherspoon (6 foot 3, 195 pounds) is comfortable lining up on either side of the field, which he did during his college career at Colorado. He said he has not put on much weight but he has added more muscle, which has allowed him a better chance to compete physically against bigger NFL receivers.

Witherspoon fully expects to be challenged on Sunday when he is expected to see considerable playing time against the Dallas Cowboys at Levi’s Stadium. Witherspoon figures Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott will be paying particularly close attention any time Dez Bryant lines up on his side of the field.

“They’re going to be looking at the ‘rook,’ ” Witherspoon said.

Said Shanahan, “They’re going to try to do that with all our DBs, so I don’t think it even matters who’s out there. They’re going to attack when we’re in single safety, which we are the majority of the time. They’re going to go outside and keep going out there until you stop them.”

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Watch Kyle Shanahan's full sit-down interview with Matt Maiocco on "49ers Game Plan," which is scheduled to air Saturday at 9 p.m. on NBC Bay Area (Ch. 3).

49ers wide receiver Pierre Garçon handed hefty fine


49ers wide receiver Pierre Garçon handed hefty fine

The NFL fined 49ers wide receiver Pierre Garçon $24,309 for unnecessary roughness in last week’s game against Washington.

Garçon, who was not penalized on the play, lowered his helmet and struck Washington safety Montae Nicholson at the end of an 8-yard pass reception in the second quarter.

In 2013, the NFL passed a rule that bans the ball carrier from initiating contact with the crown of his helmet in the open field.

Nicholson’s helmet flew off and he remained on the ground for a couple of minutes. He was evaluated for a possible concussion and shoulder injury. However, Nicholson was cleared and he returned to action.

After the play, Garçon and Washington safety D.J. Swearinger exchanged words, and Swearinger took a swipe at Garçon’s facemask. Swearinger was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct.

The NFL fined Swearinger $9,115 for unnecessary roughness.