49ers ranked No. 1 among NFC playoff contenders, former NFL exec says

49ers ranked No. 1 among NFC playoff contenders, former NFL exec says

The 49ers are the last remaining undefeated team in the NFC. They did what they were supposed to, taking advantage of the early portion of the season schedule, which was considerably less challenging than what the latter stages of it will bring.

San Francisco is one of 10 NFC teams with at least three wins. Then there's also the Lions, sitting just behind that group at 2-1-1.

Surely, as the season wears on, the group contending for the six playoff spots in the conference will thin out a bit. Critical injuries are certain to occur, and some quick starts surely are fool's gold. Still, though, that's a crowded field, and each of those 11 teams has a legitimate chance to qualify for the postseason.

The Athletic's Michael Lombardi previously has served as an executive for numerous NFL teams, including the 49ers, Browns, Eagles, Raiders and Patriots. He has seen a lot of playoff football, and recently he set out to rank the 11 NFC contenders based on the first five weeks of play.

And let's just say, he's a believer in San Francisco.

Lombardi ranked the 49ers first overall among the 11 NFC contenders, while the Eagles, Saints, Packers, Seahawks and Cowboys rounded out the top six. 

"The 49ers have everything I love about a team -- a strong defensive line, with depth that can rush the passer, along with an offense that scores early," Lombardi wrote. "The 49ers also currently rank 2nd in offensive rushes and completions, with 58.3 per game (anything over 51 is excellent) and defensive rushes and completions allowed, with just 38.5 (anything below 46 is great.)"

Everyone is going to have their own version of the rankings, but there's certainly evidence to support Lombardi's assertion. Consider this: The 49ers have outscored their opponents by 70 points so far this season, whereas the Eagles and Cowboys are a combined plus-71. The four NFC North teams area a combined plus-85, and the Saints ... they're a minus-1.

San Francisco will face five of the 10 other NFC contenders throughout the remainder of the regular season, including two matchups with each of the Rams and Seahawks. The first of those meetings with Los Angeles comes this Sunday in Week 6, and Lombardi believes it will be a significant challenge for the 49ers, particularly due to some of the injuries that have occurred.

"This week they’ll be playing without both starting tackles, Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey," he wrote, "and so their overall depth on the O-line will be tested against a good Rams front (albeit one missing Clay Matthews.)"

[RELATED: Kittle questionable for NFC West clash between 49ers, Rams]

Sunday will be the first of many crucial NFC contender matchups for San Francisco over the next 12 weeks. But if they beat the Rams, the bandwagon is only going to get more crowded.

49ers' pass rush returns to 'fun' style of play vs. Drew Brees, Saints

49ers' pass rush returns to 'fun' style of play vs. Drew Brees, Saints

NEW ORLEANS – The 49ers’ pass rush can once again be a factor this week.

The 49ers went into their Week 13 game against the Baltimore Ravens knowing they had to make some dramatic changes with their style of getting after the quarterback.

After all, they could not be so aggressive, as 49ers defensive line coach Kris Kocurek teaches, because of the running ability of Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson.

On Sunday, they can get back to normal against the passing attack of the New Orleans Saints with quarterback Drew Brees.

“Those guys want to get after the quarterback,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said on the 49ers Insider Podcast. “I know the D-line. I know their coach. It was a tough week for them. But they rose to the challenge and played those techniques very well. I thought they did a very good job against Baltimore and stopping the run.

“And now this week, you still got to stop the run. It always starts with that, but you can play a little more of those techniques you’re used to, which I know they have a lot more fun playing and I know we have a lot more fun coaching it, too.”

It certainly will not be easy for the 49ers’ pass rush to get to Brees, who has been sacked just nine times on 249 drop-backs this season. Brees gets the ball out quickly, in order to neutralize the 49ers’ pass rush of Arik Armstead, Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner and Dee Ford.

A week ago, the 49ers played a different style in an attempt to prevent big plays from Baltimore’s quarterback-driven run game. Buckner registered the team’s only sack, and that came for zero yards.

The 49ers gave up some rushing yards, but made adjustments in the second half to limit Baltimore to just three points in the final 30 minutes.

[RELATED: How will 49ers deploy running backs?]

“When you do that, you definitely have to change-up your fronts and play run-first at all times,” Shanahan said. “You got to almost play in a four-point stance and just control people instead of teeing off on guys and trying to go through them. I know last week was a frustrating week.”

The 49ers own the league's top-ranked passing defense, allowing just 134.2 yards passing per game. The 49ers rank second in the NFL with 45 sacks.

49ers Mailbag: How will Kyle Shanahan deploy running backs vs. Saints?

49ers Mailbag: How will Kyle Shanahan deploy running backs vs. Saints?

NEW ORLEANS – It’s a good problem for the 49ers to figure out who among their running backs they are going to feature.

Leading rusher Matt Breida is scheduled to return to action on Sunday against the New Orleans Saints after missing three games with an ankle sprain. Raheem Mostert is coming off a 146-yard day, the best game from a 49ers running back in three years. But what kind of role will he play on Sunday?

That question leads off this edition of the 49ers Mailbag:

Coach Kyle Shanahan and his staff put a lot of discussion into how they are going to use their backs. Shanahan talks to his entire offensive staff, as well as quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, about which plays are best fits for which players.

Then, Shanahan’s in-game decisions are also influenced by which running back is having the most success.

“None of them are bad at anything, so whatever we end up going with, all of them have a chance, whatever play it is,” Shanahan said on 49ers Game Plan, which airs Saturday at 7 p.m. on NBC Bay Area and 9 p.m. on NBC Sports Bay Area.

“We definitely try to decide which one we prefer during the week. We go into the game with a plan, but then we always stick with what’s hot.”

Tevin Coleman has been getting the starting assignments. It remains to be seen if that will continue, but Breida and Mostert should get their opportunities, too. 

I don’t know about using Daniel Brunskill for any trick plays, but it might not be a bad idea to mix him in for a series here and there to ease Joe Staley back into the action.

Staley has missed nine games this season, and Brunskill has shown to be a very effective player. It could be something along the lines of how the 49ers got Ahkello Witherspoon back into his starting role. At first, they had Witherspoon and Emmanuel Moseley sharing the playing time before Witherspoon was all the way back.

Richard Sherman will play despite hobbled last week with a knee injury. He appeared to be moving well during 49ers practices this week in Florida.

The only 49ers starter who will not play on Sunday is strong safety Jaquiski Tartt, who may miss multiple games with fractured ribs. Marcell Harris will start at strong safety. But everybody else is good to go, including Breida, Staley and Dee Ford.

My hunch is that if the 49ers do not place the franchise tag on Arik Armstead, he will end up signing a lucrative multi-year contract with another team as an unrestricted free agent. The 49ers' top priorities to sign to multi-year extensions are defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and tight end George Kittle.

[RELATED: Kittle on pace for best PFF season]

Neither Jalen Hurd nor Trent Taylor will play this season. Hurd will miss his entire rookie season due to a stress reaction in his back, while Taylor is out for the season from complications after undergoing surgery on a Jones fracture in his right foot.

The 49ers elevated defensive lineman Kentavius Street to practice this week. The 49ers might use their final injured reserve/designated to return spot on cornerback Jason Verrett, who has been out with a knee injury. He could return to practice as early as Wednesday.

The odds are very slim that Marquise Goodwin will be back on the team next season. He is scheduled to make $4.5 million in salary and bonuses in 2020, and that is not a price the 49ers are going to pay for what he gives them.

The 49ers are not giving up on Dante Pettis, though. They want him to put in the work during the offseason to have a big bounce-back season.

Pettis experienced the same kind of second season as Ahkello Witherspoon. Both players experienced success to ends their rookie seasons and thought they had it figured out.

[RELATED: How to watch 49ers-Saints]

Witherspoon struggled in Year 2, and realized what he had to do in order to perform at a high level. He came back focused for a strong third season.

The 49ers hope Pettis will make the same kinds of adjustments to his work ethic and mindset to become a reliable receiver in 2020.