Why it's time to recognize undefeated 49ers as an elite NFL contender

Why it's time to recognize undefeated 49ers as an elite NFL contender

LOS ANGELES -- This was the day the 49ers turned from being a nice underdog story into a legitimate Super Bowl threat.

Seriously? Seriously.

The 49ers, playing without four key starting players, went into the stadium of the defending NFC champion Los Angeles Rams and turned it into their home -- complete with their own fans bringing the volume.

The 49ers’ defense was relentless and did more than enough to overcome some of the team’s expected offensive shortcomings in an eye-opening 20-7 victory over the Rams at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The 49ers took the field without Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey, their starting offensive tackles. Justin Skule and Daniel Brunskill filled in nicely.

They used a combination of different offensive personnel groupings, including extended runs for reserve tight ends Ross Dwelley and Levine Toilolo to compensate for the loss of do-everything fullback Kyle Juszczyk.

Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon was playing at a high level when he was lost for approximately a month with a foot sprain. But backup Emmanuel Moseley has stepped in, and the pass defense has not missed a beat.

Are the 49ers elite? At this point -- nearly one-third into the season -- there can be only one correct answer.

It is fair to recognize the 49ers as one of the top teams in the NFL through five games. After all, the 49ers (5-0) and the New England Patriots (6-0) are the league’s only unbeaten squads.

But coach Kyle Shanahan, perhaps, is sending a message to his team that he believes the 49ers are capable of much more. When he was asked if “elite” is an apt description of the 49ers, he was not ready to go there.

“No, [I’m] not going to ever used that word. Good trick,” Shanahan said with a laugh.

“But I’m very happy with how we played. We’re 5-0, which is a great thing. But we’re not playing our best ball. We could do a lot of things better than that.”

Even with a dominating defensive performance that limited quarterback Jared Goff and the high-powered Rams offense to a meager 56 yards of net passing, the players on defense believe they can get better. There's also little doubt that the 49ers can tighten things up on offense and special teams, too.

So, can it be said now? Are the 49ers for real?

“We would like to say,” 49ers defensive end Dee Ford said. “But we still understand we got things to work on. The record shows right now, but we got to keep going. We got a lot of good teams ahead. The challenge is going to be stiff every week, and we got to answer it.”

“We’re just getting started," linebacker Fred Warner said. "We’re 5-0, which is great, but we have a long season ahead of us. It’ll take us one week at a time.”

The 49ers now hold a three-game lead in the loss column over the Rams, who fall to 3-3.

The Rams have lost back-to-back games to NFC West opponents, falling in Week 5 at the Seattle Seahawks. The Rams now face an uphill climb to get back in the division race and cannot afford too many more stumbles to remain in the thick of the NFC wild-card race.

There was no denying the importance of this game for the 49ers, especially after the Rams handled them quite easily in their two meetings last season en route to their second straight division title in Sean McVay’s first two seasons as coach.

“L.A. has gotten after us the last couple of years,” defensive lineman Solomon Thomas said. “It was a game for us to come out and show we’re for real.”

[RELATED: Grading 49ers in their win over Rams]

Said rookie defensive end Nick Bosa: “It was definitely emotional, but we definitely expect to win every game we play now. We have that confidence offensively and defensively. It’s only up from here.”

Despite their five-game win streak to open the season and the temptation to get full of themselves, defensive end Arik Armstead said he plans to stick with the same approach that has made the 49ers successful up this point.

“My mindset is to take it week by week,” he said.

How adjusting Fred Warner's workload has unleashed his speed for 49ers

How adjusting Fred Warner's workload has unleashed his speed for 49ers

BRADENTON, Fla. — For the second time in as many months, a member of the 49ers has been named NFC Defensive Player of the Month.

Linebacker Fred Warner took home the title for November after Nick Bosa had the honor for October. During the month, Warner tallied 44 total tackles, three sacks, four tackles for loss, three quarterback hits and two forced fumbles. 

49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh believes altering the linebacker’s responsibilities has given Warner an opportunity to play with more speed. 

“We’ve taken a lot off his plate so he can just go line up and play,” Saleh said Thursday. “Putting more of the onus on making sure that guys lineup and go play. We were playing some of those read-option teams, the Arizona teams, we’re asking him to make a lot of checks and see if he can get us in the perfect defense. 

“While he’s busy trying to do that, he’s not able to focus on his job. Even though he was getting everyone lined up and everything was perfect, it’s just not fair for him. So, to take a little bit off his plate so he can go ahead and go play, I think that’s really been the difference.”

Saleh is not alone in praising Warner. Veteran cornerback Richard Sherman also has been impressed with the young linebacker's work ethic and growth in his second season. The fact that Warner didn’t play inside until he was with the 49ers makes his accomplishments even more significant. 

“The inside linebacker already has so much on his plate,” Sherman said. “Being able to take some of that off—there was one game I think he had six calls in one play. Where if this guy moves here, he has to readjust the line. He has to tell the DBs this, he has to tell this guy this and sometimes that just doesn’t allow him to play fast.

“He’s getting everybody else lined up to play fast but he can’t play fast. He has to think about all these calls, all these adjustments. Maybe you put a little more strain on the rest of the guys. You spread out the strain and it allows him to play fast and for us to be a better defense.”

[RELATED: 49ers now have logjam at running back with Breida's return]

Now in his second year, Warner sees things developing on the field more quickly. No matter the workload given to him by Saleh, the BYU product has been able to adjust.  

“I think as the year has gone on, he has kind of started to realize what’s too much, what’s too little,” Warner said. “I agree completely. Ever since kind of the midway point of the season, I think he has lined it up for me to just go out and play fast.”  

49ers' Richard Sherman, Dee Ford speak out on Tim Ryan's comments


49ers' Richard Sherman, Dee Ford speak out on Tim Ryan's comments

BRADENTON , Fla. -- Following radio broadcaster Tim Ryan's one-game suspension for his comments regarding Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, several 49ers players spoke out, believing there was no malicious intent behind what the analyst said. 

Known as being outspoken on most topics, Richard Sherman did not mince words about what Ryan said. He even mentioned that the commentator had personally apologized to several players while at the team hotel after the announcement of his suspension. 

“I know Tim personally, and I listened to the dialogue and saw it, read it,” Sherman said. “Honestly, I wasn’t as outraged as everybody else. I understand how it can be taken in a certain context and be offensive to some. 

“But if you’re saying, ‘Hey, this is a brown ball, they are wearing dark colors, and he has a brown arm,’ honestly sometimes we were having trouble seeing it on film. He’s making a play fake and sometimes he’s swinging his arm really fast and you’re like, does he have the ball? And you look up and [Mark] Ingram is running it.

“So it was technically a valid point but the way he said it, you can always phrase things better. I’ve had a relationship with him since I’ve gotten here and he’s never been anything other than a great guy and a professional and a guy who takes his job seriously.” 

Edge rusher Dee Ford expressed similar sentiments about Ryan’s comments, and confirmed that the two had spoken since the incident. 

“He walked up to me earlier and before he even said anything I told him. ‘I got your back.’” Ford said. “I already knew the story. The words kind of got taken out of context, and of course, now he knows he could have used better judgment with his words. But we got his back. I knew what he was trying to say. 

“This era we live in, it is just what it is, but I know him personally. I speak to him a lot. He loves to watch the D-line and there’s not one -- type of bone -- you know what bone I’m talking about, in his body. So I got his back, so put that to bed really fast.”  

49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh also spoke about Ryan’s nature, not believing that there was negative intent behind his comments. 

[RELATED: How Payton, Saints are preparing for imposing 49ers defense]

“I’ve always, as a human being, tried to judge people on how I interact with them,” Saleh said. “And I love the man. He’s a very genuine human being and he knows he made a mistake and he’s just trying to move this on as quickly as possible.” 

Dennis Brown will be on the call with Greg Papa during Ryan’s absence for Sunday’s matchup against the Saints in the Superdome.