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49ers vs. Packers Q&A: Jimmy Garoppolo’s injury not San Francisco’s only problem

David Fucillo of SB Nation’s San Francisco 49ers blog Niners Nation answers our questions about Jimmy Garoppolo’s season-ending injury, the state of San Francisco’s defense, and what he expects from 49ers versus Packers.

San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs
KANSAS CITY, MO - SEPTEMBER 23: Jimmy Garoppolo #10 of the San Francisco 49ers is carted off the field after an injury during the fourth quarter of the game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium on September 23rd, 2018 in Kansas City, Missouri.
Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

On Monday, the Green Bay Packers play their final game before the bye against the San Francisco 49ers. David Fucillo of Niners Nation was kind enough to answer some of our questions about the 49ers and provide insight into their strengths and weaknesses.

APC: As Week 6’s Monday Night Football game, the league and ESPN certainly expected 49ers versus Packers to offer more excitement than it does on paper. Would this game still look like a marquee matchup if not for Jimmy Garoppolo’s season-ending knee injury, or have other issues limited San Francisco thus far in the season?

If the NFL could flex Monday Night Football games, I have little doubt the NFL would have moved this game a week ahead of them moving the 49ers-Rams Sunday Night Football matchup. C.J. Beathard is a capable backup quarterback, but he’s not Jimmy Garoppolo. I wouldn’t be surprised if he put up decent numbers against the Packers, and this might even be a competitive game, but without Jimmy Garoppolo, it’s just not the same.

A healthy Jimmy Garoppolo gave the 49ers an outside shot at the playoffs, but they were still a fringe contender to a certain degree. Their offensive line has been a work in progress, although it is showing signs of coming together of late. The receiver corps has been short-handed with leading receiver Marquise Goodwin injured a sizable chunk of the year. And losing running back Jerick McKinnon to an ACL tear during training camp led to a change in the weekly gameplan. They are putting together good work on the ground, but McKinnon was going to offer a big tool in the short passing game.

The defense has had its share of issues as well. It’s discussed below, but a tl;dr: the pass rush is below average, and the secondary is very much a work in progress.

APC: The 49ers defense nears the midway point of Year 2 under coordinator Robert Saleh. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the unit at this point, and do you have any reason to believe Kyle Shanahan might make a change at defensive coordinator this offseason?

The 49ers defense has been inconsistent this season, and it’s hard to place blame entirely on one particular thing. For example, the tackling has been atrocious much of the season, which could go on the coaches or could simply be poor execution by the players. The team is among the league leaders in fewest explosive plays given up, but they rank third worst in points allowed. Too many turnovers by the offense is a problem, in that regard, but the 49ers defense has only forced 3 turnovers -- last in the NFL.

The biggest strength right now is the run defense. Football Outsiders ranks them No. 10 in rushing defense DVOA vs. No. 23 in pass defense. They are also tied for sixth in yards per carry allowed at 3.7. They are currently fifth best in yards per play allowed. Part of that comes from a strong run defense, but part of that also comes from playing behind and teams grinding out the clock.

The two biggest weaknesses right now are lack of a consistent pass rush, and a young secondary finding its way. The team did not add any notable edge rushers in the offseason and chose to not pick up Elvis Dumervil’s contract option. He had been their best pass rusher last year, but given his age, this suggests the team wanted to see what it had and then potentially invest in a strong group of pass rushers in the 2019 NFL Draft. The team has gotten some solid pressure from its defensive interior, which one would expect having spent three first round picks in three years on defensive linemen. However, it has been an inconsistent group, not helped by the lack of any real edge rush talent.

The pass defense is further not helped by a young and inconsistent secondary. Veteran Richard Sherman is back from his torn Achilles, and has been among the least attacked cornerbacks in the league. One would think he is back to his pre-injury form, but there is a very real chance defenses realize they can pick on Ahkello Witherspoon and Jimmie Ward with some regularity. Witherspoon is in his second year and expectations were high after a solid first year. They might have been too high as the second-year cornerback has struggled regularly. He has been benched and returned to the lineup as he takes his lumps.

And so we come back to the $10,000 question: is Robert Saleh going to be looking for a new job this winter? I tentatively don’t think so. If I had to guess, I could see the 49ers adding a premium edge rusher in the offseason, whether it be a pick high in the draft or via free agency. It would in turn make 2019 make or break for Saleh. Of course, with 11 games remaining, plenty could change. If the defense goes in the tank, then yes, I could see him getting fired.

APC: If you were game planning against the 49ers, how would you attack them on offense? On defense?

The Packers offense is best suited attacking through the air. Even with Aaron Rodgers dealing with his knee injury, he should find success through the air. I would suspect the Packers will attack Ahkello Witherspoon and/or Jimmie Ward and/or Greg Mabin with some regularity. It’s been the easiest part of the field to go after. I’m guessing Richard Sherman will get his share of work against Davante Adams, but for the time being, whomever Witherspoon is covering is the guy Rodgers will be targeting.

On the other side of the ball, the key will be getting pressure on C.J. Beathard. Even if they don’t result in quarterback hurries, Beathard’s pocket presence is shaky at best. Football Outsiders ranks the Packers pass rush third, so I have to think they’ll look to bring plenty of pressure. The 49ers lost to Arizona due to five turnovers, two of which were strip sacks. One strip sack was not totally on Beathard, but one was decidedly on him for not stepping up into the open pocket. If the Packers can get consistent pressure, Beathard will struggle.

We’d like to thank Fooch and Niners Nation for answering our questions. Be sure to check out our Q&A sessions over there, as well as their fantastic coverage of all things 49ers. As always, keep your internet machines tuned to Acme Packing Company this Monday for our comprehensive game-day coverage of 49ers versus Packers.