The 49ers arrived at MetLife Stadium on Sunday knowing many of their best players wouldn't be wearing pads.
Last Sunday, the 49ers lost six players, including Nick Bosa, Jimmy Garoppolo and Solomon Thomas to leg injuries in the win over the New York Jets. All told, the 49ers were missing nine of their best players Sunday.
But the 49ers responded appropriately, rolling the hapless New York Giants 36-9 to head back to the Bay Area at 2-1.
Coach Kyle Shanahan admitted that the aftermath of the Jets game was a dark place for his team.
“Last Sunday night, when we got to our hotel in West Virginia, even though we had the real tough game that day, we always want to enjoy a win," Shanahan told NBC Sports' Peter King after the win. "They had the bowling alley rented out for us, and we got to spend some time with the players. It was a little harder on Monday. That’s when you wake up the next day and it hits you a little bit more. Monday was a little bit of a depressing day. But then the quicker you get to the game plan, the better. The coaches gotta move on first. We felt good once we got a plan together. The players got to golf, or just relax at the hotel. They needed a couple days too. They were a little emotional over the injuries for a couple of days. “Then when the players came in Wednesday, it was just nice because they were totally different than how they were Monday. It was just cool when we got to practice on Wednesday. Our guys were over it by then and then each practice they gained more confidence. You start to see some of the guys we have on our team. The depth. The attitude. I better try and figure out the right way to say this. But it almost ends where anytime you turn on the TV, everyone’s talking about injuries and how you got no chance with all the guys we’re missing. Our guys -- and it was true, we did have some injuries and the guys didn’t feel great about going back to play there again -- you try to put all that in perspective with the guys."
But around the middle of the week, with his team recovering at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, the 49ers locked in knowing they had to keep the team afloat until those that are expected to come back, like Garoppolo, George Kittle, Raheem Mostert, Deebo Samuel and Richard Sherman, could return. “I was like, hey, this NFL’s a tough league," Shanahan recalled. "If we don’t change our mindset on this, we’re gonna get embarrassed. You start that on Wednesday and you try and just address it, address the elephant in the room so you can get over it. We started talking about how many guys we lost last year. We lost a ton of guys last year too. The hard thing was, we lost two really good ones in Nick Bosa and Solly [Solomon Thomas, both to ACL injuries]. But a lot of the other guys we lost, we are gonna get back.
"We need to make sure that we manned up and had a great week of practice. I thought Wednesday was the best practice we’ve had all year. By the time we got back to New Jersey on Saturday night at our meetings and stuff, our team felt good."
The 49ers scuffled through the early part of Sunday's Week 3 tilt with the Giants but still held a 16-9 lead. Eventually, even without some of their best players, the 49ers' depth and Shanahan's scheme overwhelmed the Giants. “In the game, our team just stuck with it and we kept persevering, and it was 16-9 [late in the third quarter] and finally we just wore ‘em down took over," Shanahan said. "It was really tough in the first half because our team knew how big of a game plan we had going to Jordan Reed, and to lose him early, with George Kittle not playing, that was a big deal. But then Ross Dwelley comes in and really helps us when we need tight end help, and it was really cool to see. “It was a good learning experience for everyone. I just learned ... our team likes football. People kinda counted us out, and that’s how we felt a lot last year. It wasn’t till we were about 7-0 I feel like people started taking us seriously. In football, you never stay the same; you’re always a different team. You go through things together. But our depth and our love of the game -- I think those things really helped us through a tough time.”
The 49ers got contributions from a number of players in the win over the Giants. Rookie receiver Brandon Aiyuk scored his first career touchdown. Jerick McKinnon, who missed the last two seasons with knee injuries, found the end zone for the third consecutive game. New defensive linemen Dion Jordan and Ziggy Ansah came in and immediately provided quality reps in relief of Bosa and Thomas.
Quarterback Nick Mullens was poised, throwing for 343 yards and one touchdown in the win.
The 49ers now head home to face the 0-2-1 Philadelphia Eagles before seeing the 1-2 Miami Dolphins. Their depth should be enough to beat those opponents with Garoppolo, Kittle, Samuel and Sherman expected to return soon.
After that, the road gets a little harder with the Los Angeles Rams, New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints providing a mid-season gauntlet for the defending NFC champions.
The 49ers proved they have the depth to win without their best. A win against the Giants was necessary. Joe Judge's team is among the worst in the NFL.
The real tests are coming, and the 49ers have to get healthy if they plan to get through that tough stretch with a playoff pulse.
Depth and grit, which the 49ers have in spades, can only take a team so far.