Are the undefeated San Francisco 49ers for real?
San Francisco 49ers look to stay undefeated against the Panthers on Sunday, live on Sky Sports Action at 8.05pm; watch Bengals vs Rams on Action from 4pm and RedZone on Mix from 5pm
By David Currie
Last Updated: 27/10/19 8:24pm
Are the San Francisco 49ers for real? A quick look at their 6-0 record for the season suggests pretty emphatically that they are.
But, dig a little deeper, and only one of San Fran's six opponents so far has a winning record - the rest combine for a fairly woeful 7-25 combined.
Even Super Bowl finalists from eight months ago, the Los Angeles Rams, who the 49ers impressively battered 20-7 in somewhat of a statement win in Week Six, only boast a 4-3 record and, at the time of their meeting, were in the midst of a three-game skid.
Making San Francisco even harder to evaluate, or even trust, as a contender is the fact that this team has finished third or fourth in the NFC West in each of the past five seasons, never once compiling a winning record over that span.
The arrival of offensive guru Kyle Shanahan as head coach in 2017 was said to bring about a turnaround and, though a 6-10 record in his first year was good enough again only for the West wooden spoon, there were signs this was a team on the up.
The 49ers, off to a disastrous 0-8 start that season, traded for who they hoped would be their quarterback of the future, Jimmy Garoppolo - long-time back up to Tom Brady at the New England Patriots - and the improvement was immediate.
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'Jimmy G' won every single one of his first five starts, leading the 49ers to a 5-0 finish to the season and making them the trendy offseason pick prior to the 2018 season.
That optimism swiftly evaporated, however, when Garoppolo went down with a season-ending knee injury in Week Three and San Francisco subsequently flamed out to a 4-12 finish.
Strangely enough, though, their success this season has been a direct result of their struggles of last. This was a good football team, ready to challenge, with a lot of pieces already in place, but their lowly finish as a result of losing their QB allowed them to add another difference-maker in the draft.
And not just any difference-maker. Nick Bosa - the best defensive player in the 2019 Draft, arguably the best player, period - fell into their lap at No 2 after the Arizona Cardinals plumped for Kyler Murray with the first overall pick.
Robert Saleh, San Francisco's defensive coordinator, who has catapulted his unit into second spot in both scoring defense (10.7 points per game allowed) and total defense (233.5 yards per game), could not hide his enthusiasm on draft day.
"Oh man, are you kidding me?" Saleh told NFL.com. "Getting him [Bosa] was a blessing.
"I was hugging people. Steve Rubio, one of our scouts, was with me, and we were pumped up. We were like kids in a candy store.
"I had to keep my composure, but when we left the room, I was ready to go."
Bosa has proven an immediate difference-maker. Through six games, the rookie defensive end has 16 total tackles, 10 quarterback hits, four sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. According to Next Gen Stats, he also leads the NFL in pressure rate (19.2 per cent), from a minimum of 50 pass rushes.
But it's not just Bosa getting after the quarterback. The 49ers boast one of the more fearsome and ferocious defensive fronts in the NFL for years.
Paired with Bosa on the edge is Dee Ford, the big-money offseason acquisition from the Kansas City Chiefs, who currently leads the team with 4.5 sacks this season and is coming off a 13-strong season last year.
And that's not all; DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas all too are first-round draft picks. The result has been that San Francisco's defense ranks first in the NFL in sack rate (10.8 per cent) and second in overall pressure rate (34.1 per cent).
Crucially, the pressure up front has allowed for turnovers in the secondary too. "We cover, y'all rush," as Richard Sherman so eloquently put it when Mic'd Up for 31-3 Monday Night Football dismantling of the Cleveland Browns in Week Four.
There wasn't much covering going on last year. San Francisco set an NFL record-low total for turnovers, with just seven on the season, only two of which were interceptions - another record-low mark.
But, with the added defensive pressure upfront, the 49ers are either forcing errant throws from opposition quarterbacks or forcing the ball loose as they go hunting. It means that through six games, they've already trumped those 2018 tallies with 13 total turnovers, of which seven are picks.
While the defense has been spectacular, the offense has been only solid, albeit led by a robust run game.
The unheralded backfield trio of Matt Breida, Tevin Coleman and Raheem Mostert currently leads all teams in rush yards per game (160.8), scrimmage YPG (205.2) and touches (38.2).
But, in the passing game, Jimmy G is yet to really discover his late 2017 season form following his return from injury. Through six games, he has thrown six interceptions to seven touchdowns and is only just topping 200 passing yards per game (219).
That said, San Francisco are short of weapons at receiver. Tight end George Kittle is a stud and their go-to target in the passing game, but the rest of the receiving corps are relatively raw or unreliable.
It's what prompted the 49ers to make a move before Tuesday's trade deadline, bringing in 10-season NFL veteran wideout Emmanuel Sanders from the Denver Broncos earlier this week. Sanders has more career receptions (565) than the rest of the wide receivers on the 49ers roster combined (541).
While many may still not be convinced by San Francisco's sudden turnaround from 4-12 chumps to 6-0 contenders, the Sanders move certainly shows that general manager John Lynch and his front office are.
In the NFL, unless you're New England, your Super Bowl window is small. The 49ers know that this is their best - possibly their only - opportunity to challenge, so they're going all in.
Also, it's significant that they brought Sanders in ahead of this Sunday's meeting with the Carolina Panthers - live on Sky Sports Action from 8.05pm - a team who were rumoured to be sniffing around the receiver themselves.
The meeting with Carolina (4-2) - who have won their last four straight - is the start of a much tougher stretch for San Francisco, who will be hoping they've added the final piece of the puzzle just in time.
Following the Panthers, comes two divisional matchups with the suddenly streaking Cardinals (3-3-1), either side of the typically feisty encounter with the Seattle Seahawks (5-2). Then it's another tricky three-game stretch against rivals for NFC supremacy, the Green Bay Packers (6-1) and New Orleans Saints (6-1), with Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens (5-2) sandwiched in between.
Are the 49ers for real? We'll find out soon enough.
Watch the NFL live on Sky Sports Action from 4pm on Sunday beginning with Bengals vs Rams; Panthers at 49ers kick-off is at 8.05pm.