49ers

Why Cris Collinsworth believes 49ers will be better at end of season

Why Cris Collinsworth believes 49ers will be better at end of season

SANTA CLARA – The 49ers are in a position to improve down the stretch of the season, NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth said.

Collinsworth was at the 49ers’ practice facility on Friday in advance of the team’s first appearance on Sunday Night Football on NBC since October 2015. The 49ers and Green Bay Packers meet at Levi’s Stadium in what is likely to be a key game for playoff seeding in the NFC.

“The versatility of this group when they get healthy and they all get back together and (Jimmy) Garoppolo continues (to improve) and they finally get their tackles back on the field, you can see this team making a great run at the end of the season,” Collinsworth said on The 49ers Insider Podcast.

The 49ers are 9-1 and hold a one-game lead for the top spot in the NFC West and also in the conference standings. Seattle, Green Bay and New Orleans are all 8-2. But the 49ers are not the only team Collinsworth believes will continue to make improvements.

“The warning would be that the Green Bay Packers are kind of like that, too,” he said. “They’re growing into this offense as well, and they are healthier than the 49ers are at this point in the season, so it’s going to be a great matchup.”

The 49ers could be bolstered on Sunday by the return of tight end George Kittle, who has missed two games with left knee and ankle injuries. Kittle is an important part of the 49ers’ offense as a pass-catcher and a blocker in the run game.

Collinsworth believes there is no question Kittle is the best tight end in the league and he compares him to former New England tight end Rob Gronkowski for his ability to impact a game on many different levels.

“It’s almost insulting to your intelligence to talk about anybody else being the best tight end in football,” Collinsworth said. “There are better receivers out there at the tight end position, but you put the combination of what he does after the catch with what he does blocking in this offense, and how significant blocking is to this offense, I just don’t think you can compare.

“I think you have to go to a Gronkowski or somebody like that to get that kind of complete player.”

The 49ers have relied on the passing game in recent weeks as the running game has struggled. Garoppolo is coming off a game in which he threw for 424 yards and four touchdowns in a 36-26 victory over the Arizona Cardinals.

[RELATED: 49ers injury report: Kittle, Sanders questionable vs. Packers]

Collinsworth sees a player whose best football is ahead of him.

“He’s just coming back off a knee injury, which usually we don’t even talk about how anybody’s going to play until Year 2,” Collinsworth said. “Well, now in Year 1, you’re seeing him get a little bit better as the season goes along. And, clearly, two of the last three games, he’s had to carry the load.”

How Kyle Shanahan's bold play call set 49ers up for Super Bowl berth

How Kyle Shanahan's bold play call set 49ers up for Super Bowl berth

SANTA CLARA -- It did not come as a surprise to those in the huddle when 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan dialed up a running play on a third-and-8 situation in the first quarter of a scoreless game.

Those 11 players on the field might have been the only ones who weren't shocked by the decision.

“Our coach is a genius,” 49ers right tackle Mike McGlinchey said.

Shanahan’s call and running back Raheem Mostert’s sprint through the Green Bay Packers defense was a key play in the 49ers’ 37-20 victory in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday at Levi’s Stadium. The victory advances the 49ers to Super Bowl LIV on Sunday, Feb. 2, against the Kansas City Chiefs.

The 49ers cruised to a 27-0 lead at halftime, and it all started with a unique play call given the circumstances.

Shanahan told his offense throughout the week that they could exploit some of the Green Bay Packers’ exotic third-down defenses with third-and-long trap plays out of the shotgun formation. Shanahan believed he could use the aggressive tendencies of Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine against him.

With the ball on the Green Bay 36-yard line, the 49ers could potentially have gone for it on fourth down had Mostert gotten close to the first down. Or the 49ers could have gained some yards to merely give kicker Robbie Gould a closer shot at a field goal.

“It would have depended how close it was, but if not we would have been happy with a field goal,” Shanahan said. “For him to take it to the house was a lot better than anticipated.”

On the play, Packers linebacker Kyler Fackrell lined up over the left guard and was allowed an unblocked path into the backfield. He stumbled, and right guard Mike Person came from the other side to block him, keeping him out of the play.

Outside linebacker Preston Smith got upfield on the left edge but Mostert sped past him after taking the handoff from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

Left guard Laken Tomlinson blocked elite pass-rusher Za’Darius Smith and left tackle Joe Staley sealed off an inside linebacker to open a big hole for Mostert.

Mostert outraced everyone to the end zone for a 36-yard touchdown run – the first of his four touchdown runs on the day. It was even better than how Shanahan drew it up.

“He’s ballsy and he trusts us,” McGlinchey said of Shanahan. “That’s the coolest thing. He does these things in the game plan and he views everybody, all 11 guys on offense, as a weapon. He puts us in matchups where we can succeed. That was something we worked at all week and something we knew we could exploit.”

Said Jimmy Garoppolo, “It's part of the game plan, and Kyle called it at the perfect time. It was a great set up. It was awesome.”

A week ago, the 49ers ran the ball 47 times in a blowout victory over the Minnesota Vikings in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs. They were even more run-heavy on Sunday, as Garoppolo completed just six of eight passing attempts for 77 yards.

Shanahan’s play call on third down set the tone for the remainder of the half, and the remainder of the game. The Packers never were able to unleash their pass rush – in large part because the 49ers rarely dropped back to pass.

“We were going to hit a run play on a third-and-long, but it had to be the right situation,” Staley said. “They got into the (defensive) front we wanted.”

Said Person, “Nobody is expecting that on third-and-8, so he (Mostert) jets upfield and that’s taking advantage of what they want to do. You give up some penetration on that, and all he needs is a little seam.”

Once Mostert gets into the clear, he almost is impossible to catch because of his breakaway speed. On Sunday, he set the 49ers record for most rushing yards in a game – regular season or postseason. Mostert rushed for 220 yards and four touchdowns in 29 attempts.

[RELATED49ers report card: Grade on offense, defense in NFC title win over Packers]

Shanahan said he figured they were going to run the ball a lot. But he never would have thought there would be such a large disparity. The 49ers attempted 42 run plays and called just nine passes.

“We were hoping to do something like that going in,” Shanahan said. “But you never plan for it to be like that. When you're watching how the guys were running and everything, and then watching how our defense was playing, it made it very easy to stick with, even the third downs and stuff.

"The guys played as aggressive as any team I've been on, and they made it very easy to call plays.”

Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers Super Bowl coverage with special editions of “49ers Central” all week (5:30 p.m. Monday and Wednesday; 8:00 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday; 6:00 p.m. Friday)

Why Richard Sherman's NFC title-sealing interception was so fitting

Why Richard Sherman's NFC title-sealing interception was so fitting

SANTA CLARA -- Richard Sherman plays left cornerback in the 49ers' defensive scheme. He doesn’t shadow receivers, but moved around a bit early in Sunday’s NFC Championship game against the Green Bay Packers. He was tracking Davante Adams for a little while to give the Packers something else to think about, but he eventually locked in on the left.

He still matched up with Adams at times, including a fourth-quarter play where Adams beat him badly on a 65-yard bomb down the sideline.

That was a real rarity. Sherman doesn’t get targeted much, and almost never gets torched like that. But, as usual, the veteran cornerback had the last laugh.

He intercepted another deep volley intended for Adams that sealed a 37-20 victory over the Packers that sent the 49ers to the Super Bowl.

After a raucous postgame celebration where he got a little emotional, Sherman took us all through that play.

“They ran a corner post. We were in quarters coverage,” Sherman said. “I just kept running. I knew it wasn't necessarily my responsibility, but I knew he was going to take the shot there and go for the gusto. Just wanted to track the ball down, give us a chance. I was tracking. I thought it was kind of out of my reach for a while. I was going to go for the bat down. And, as I got my feet under me, I noticed I could get under it and I was able to do it.”

It was a big moment and a quick reversal of fortune for someone who got beat a few plays earlier. But the rebound wasn’t surprising to those who study the 49ers intently.

His fourth postseason interception -- and the second of this playoff run -- filled his teammates with pride. They thought the moment fitting, considering their defensive leader closed out another important game.

“It was awesome,” rookie linebacker Dre Greenlaw said. “He looked like a receiver on that play. I’m glad he made up for it, man. The deep ball got him earlier, but he’s a captain on our team and we know you can’t get Richard too many times.

“We knew they needed to go downfield given the score, and he was right there, made the play and got us the victory. I’m excited to play with a guy of that caliber. He’s a legend. I’ve been watching Richard since I was a young kid. To play with him and learn from him is a blessing. It’s a dream come true.”

The play itself was pretty athletic, considering how far he had to run to get the ball. But nobody was surprised he was able to get there and officially close things out.

“It was amazing,” slot cornerback K’Waun Williams said. “To be out there and have Richard finish this game off was great.”

[RELATED: Grading 49ers offense, defense in NFC title win vs. Packers]

Young defenders listen to Sherman closely, and his words can have as much of an impact as his on-field play. The 49ers stayed focused in the second half despite a commanding 27-point lead thanks to practicing what Sherman preaches.

"Sherm has done a great job of keeping our emotions from getting too high,” rookie edge rusher Nick Bosa said. “It really is a long game and a lot of different things can happen. You can’t get overhyped about one play or one series or even a first half. His biggest message was to keep the foot on the pedal the entire game.”

Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers Super Bowl coverage with special editions of “49ers Central” all week (5:30 p.m. Monday and Wednesday; 8:00 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday; 6:00 p.m. Friday)