49ers learn life is difficult without George Kittle, Emmanuel Sanders

49ers learn life is difficult without George Kittle, Emmanuel Sanders

SANTA CLARA -- Star 49ers tight end George Kittle spent most of his Monday night in a Levi’s Stadium luxury suite. That’s less than ideal when facing the rival Seahawks, but it was expected due to knee and ankle injuries that might sideline him for a bit.

Relative newcomer Emmanuel Sanders became QB Jimmy Garoppolo's primary target, a title he didn’t hold for long. The former Broncos receiver suffered a rib injury in the second quarter and tried to gut it out, but was ultimately pulled from this game.

That spelled trouble for a 49ers team trying to stay unbeaten and certainly impacted their first loss of the season.

“They’re our two best playmakers, so it definitely takes a toll,” 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said Monday night after a 27-24 overtime loss. “We knew that coming in with George. Emmanuel was out there battling and dealt with what happened to his ribs. He tried to stay in a few series longer, but eventually had to come out. Other guys came in and guys stepped it up at times. We just didn’t have the consistency out there.”

Consistency was the main problem on this night. Deebo Samuel made some big plays on a career high eight catches for 112 yards. Kendrick Bourne caught his second touchdown in as may weeks and tight end Ross Dwelley had a few nice grabs filling in for Kittle.

Consistency, as Shanahan points out, was sorely lacking. Insecure hands were a killer. The 49ers had seven dropped passes on Monday, per the 49ers radio broadcast, a way-too-freaking high number for offensive success.

“We just have to make the catches that are coming our way,” Samuel said. “We have to make a better effort at bringing those balls down.”

Bourne had a ball hit off his hands and get intercepted, which sticks with him more than the rest.

“I’m one of those guys who beats up on themselves,” Bourne said. “Having good teammates who tell you to keep your head up is key. It’s tough. I mean, the guy gets an interception off of it. That’s what really eats at me more than the drop. Even the second drop almost became a pick. I get down on myself because those things can happen.”

Samuel clearly is coming into his own as a playmaker and viable receiving option, proving aggressive and physical in the pattern.

“With Kittle out and Emmanuel going out, Deebo was the guy everyone was feeling the most out there,” Shanahan said. “He stepped up and made some pretty big plays today. He just has to keep working on his game.”

The 49ers passing game wasn’t able to assert itself enough, however, with top receiving options out and the run game averaging a paltry 3.2 yards per carry.

“I think I could throw the ball better; we could catch it better,” quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said. “I think it’s just a little bit of everything. There’s not one specific thing that sticks out, but it’s a bit of a reality check for us.

“… The receivers were battling. We had some injuries happen and people were being mixed and matched in different spots, but I thought overall those guys played well. We’ve just got to make plays when your number is called.”

Receiving options on the field most of Monday night might have their numbers called a bunch in the near future. There’s no guarantee Kittle will be back to play Arizona on Sunday. Sanders is schedule to have an MRI on his ailing ribs Tuesday, when we should know more about the extent of his injury.

[RELATED: Grading 49ers' offense, defense in 27-24 loss to Seahawks]

Losing both playmakers for another game would be a huge blow. After all, Sanders and Kittle have averaged 14 targets combined in the two games with both of them involved. The ball has to go somewhere, and Garoppolo has to trust his guys will do something positive with their targets.

“[Monday’s loss] is very frustrating,” Samuel said. “We have to come down with the balls that are coming our way. We also have to block up front. We just have to play better as a whole, especially on third downs.”

Richard Sherman vividly explains why 49ers don't shadow wide receivers

Richard Sherman vividly explains why 49ers don't shadow wide receivers

SANTA CLARA -- Though Richard Sherman is a graduate of Stanford University, one of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning on planet earth, his Thursday afternoon analysis of defensive strategy came straight outta Compton.

The subject was man-to-man coverage and Sherman’s avowed comfort at left cornerback.

The insinuation was that an opposing team could, theoretically, neutralize Sherman, surely the 49ers' best cornerback and perhaps tops in the NFL, by sending its best receiver to the opposite side of the field.

That the Green Bay Packers, for example, might frequently deploy No. 1 receiver Davante Adams to the right side of the San Francisco defense when the teams meet Sunday to decide the NFL representative in Super Bowl LIV.

It would not be illogical, in this instance, to have Sherman “shadow” Adams. Many defensive coordinators have made that request of their top cover corner.

Sherman proceeded to eviscerate that plan by using what folks in his hometown refer to as common sense.

“We have the No. 1 pass defense in this league,” the Compton native said while standing at the podium in the interview auditorium, “and we haven’t done it.”

The statistics absolutely support Sherman’s claim and his dismissiveness toward making a change that might convey a measure of desperation by the 49ers.

With Sherman almost exclusively on the left side, San Francisco in the regular season was the NFL’s top pass defense, allowing an average of 169.2 yards per game – the lowest average allowed by any team since 2009, when the Jets limited passers to an average of 153.7.

Moreover, the 49ers led the league in net yards per attempt at 4.8 and tied with the Patriots for fewest first downs allowed via pass, averaging 9.4 per game.

These numbers are among the factors that have made defensive coordinator Robert Saleh a candidate to become a head coach. They undoubtedly influence Sherman’s belief in Saleh, and as long as the numbers confirm no change is needed there will be request to follow Adams on Sunday or any other receiver on any other team.

“I love it how people are like, ‘Oh, my gawd, these guys need to do this,’ ” Sherman said in his usual audacious tone. “Well, I’m going to let you know something: You go to your job and tell your boss what you’re going to do and what you’re not going to do and see how long you last.

“Saleh calls the defense. If Saleh comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, you follow this guy everywhere he goes,' then that’s what I’m going to do. If he doesn’t, guess what? I’m going to do what he told me to do. That’s how coaching and player relationships work.

“And it just so happens, we have the No. 1 pass defense in the league,” he reiterated before sprinkling bits of sarcasm with his truth. “Whoa! Oh, my gawd! It’s crazy. Crazy that you’re not following anybody but, somehow, you’ve got the No. 1 pass defense in the league. It’s almost like our strategy works. It’s almost like you’re in idiot for doing it any other way. It’s almost like you’re dumb if you do it another way. It’s almost like people who have been saying, ‘Oh, do it this way’ for so long, but they don’t have the No. 1 defense.”

For Sherman, and for Saleh, it’s about doing what has worked. What succeeds. What wins. Is there a risk to staying true to their tendencies? Perhaps. If Adams avoids Sherman and torches Emmanuel Moseley and Ahkello Witherspoon – and the latter has been vulnerable – and Green Bay prevails, there will be second-guessing. Because there always is.

Don’t expect it from Sherman, who posed a rhetorical scenario that essentially has a great left tackle shadowing a great pass rusher, no matter where he goes. This does not happen, nor can it ever be expected.

Until it does, Sherman has one criterion for any strategy involving his placement.

[RELATED: 49ers focused on Rodgers' patented move]

“Does it help us win the game? Is it going to help the defense? Is it going to help us limit their explosive (plays)? Then I’ll do it,” he said. “If it’s not. If it doesn’t make a difference, if it’s ... then that’s what I’m going to do.”

It’s not that he never has shadowed a receiver. He has done it against Atlanta’s Julio Jones, against Cincinnati’s A.J. Green. But as a rule, no.

So when the topic was floated this time, Sherman was armed and ready, and filled the room with facts.

How 49ers plan to stop Aaron Rodgers' potent 'wrist flick from hell'

How 49ers plan to stop Aaron Rodgers' potent 'wrist flick from hell'

SANTA CLARA -- Type “Aaron Rodgers” and “Hail Mary” into a search engine and the suggested terms drop down in an impressive list. Google offers to combine what you’ve typed with: “vs. Giants,” “vs. Cardinals,” and “vs. Lions.”

There probably are a few more in the Internet’s memory bank. The Green Bay Packers quarterback has a knack for doing the improbable. The 49ers will be cognizant of that Sunday in the NFC Championship Game at Levi’s Stadium.

When pressed for a memory watching Rodgers over the years, 49ers defensive lineman DeForest Buckner brought up that Lions game from 2015. Rodgers zigged and zagged around prospective tacklers as time expired and effortlessly sent a mile high -- and equally far -- Hail Mary to complete an improbable comeback.

The 49ers have a term for that.

"It’s just funny, because we used to call it ‘the wrist flick from hell,’” Buckner said Thursday. “He would start avoiding rushers and everything and then you see that wrist flick and you think, ‘Oh, Lord.’ You know what I mean? You see him do that and you know someone’s going to come down with it. He’s just a special player.”

Last year’s defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina coined the term while the 49ers were watching film. It’s both accurate and apt, considering Rodgers can do things most signal-callers can’t.

The 49ers defensive line is aware of that and has to respect the possibility when rushing such a talented, athletic quarterback. Rodgers isn’t necessarily quick like Kyler Murray or as willing to break the pocket as Russell Wilson, but he can move and create space and avoid negative plays just the same.

That aspect of his game, Buckner said, must be respected a feared a little bit.

“He can extend plays. He’s good getting outside the pocket and knowing where the rush is at if he stays in the pocket,” Buckner said. “He can get out of the way and make guys miss. He can break free and make you pay the way Russell Wilson does. We just need to take it one play at a time and go with the same mindset the last time we played him and the same mindset we had last week. Our guys took it personal and told themselves that they weren’t going to be blocked.”

[RELATED: What Packers' Davante Adams learned from watching 49ers' Jerry Rice]

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins isn’t Rodgers-like, but he can play. An excellent 49ers defensive line featuring Buckner, Dee Ford, Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead relentlessly hounded Cousins to the tune of six sacks and 23 total pressures in last Saturday's NFC Divisional Playoff.

The 49ers sacked Rodgers seven times and had 25 pressures in a Week 12 matchup with the Packers, and will have to be equally effective and create some scoreboard separation to avoid falling victim to the “wrist flick from hell.”

Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers playoff coverage with special editions of “49ers Central” all week (6 p.m. Thursday and 8 p.m. Friday)

Also tune in at 2:30 p.m. Sunday for “49ers Pregame Live,” with Laura Britt, Jeff Garcia, Donte Whitner, Ian Williams and Grant Liffmann previewing the NFC Championship Game against the Packers. That same crew will have all the postgame reaction on “49ers Postgame Live,” starting at approximately 6:30 p.m.