SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — The San Francisco 49ers looked like the NFL's best team when they raced through the first five weeks when they were never really threatened through five straight wins.
San Francisco (5-3) got a bye week to regroup and now will hope for a repeat of the past two seasons when second-half surges carried the 49ers to the NFC title game.
“I think it is a mixed mood," defensive tackle Arik Armstead said before leaving for the bye week. “My mood is that we have been through worse in this league, 3-4 last year, and 3-5 the year before, and we know where we got toward the end of the year in both of those years. Putting those things into perspective, we have everything we need to be successful team-wise and we have all the players.”
Despite the recent slump, the first half of the season has shown plenty of positives.
Quarterback Brock Purdy appears fully recovered from offseason elbow surgery and is proving his late-season success as a rookie in 2022 wasn't a mirage.
Purdy has once again been one of the league's most efficient quarterbacks with a 105.4 passer rating and league-leading 9.1 yards per attempt, but has shown some flaws. He has been careless with the ball at times and after getting fortunate with drops by the defense early in the season, he has six turnovers the past three games.
The offense as a whole has fared well, averaging 27.3 points per game, but struggled in recent weeks with versatile receiver Deebo Samuel and star left tackle Trent Williams out with injuries.
The defense also took a step back the past two games after a dominant start, but has the pieces needed to make another strong second-half run. The Niners won seven of nine to end the 2021 season and finished last season on a 10-game winning streak.
“The good news is we’ve been here before and we’ve had pretty good results,” defensive end Nick Bosa said. "There’s a lot of silver linings with who we have in this locker room. We just have to play better.”
RB Christian McCaffrey. The offense revolves around McCaffrey, who leads the NFL with 652 yards rushing and 13 total touchdowns. McCaffrey also has 32 catches for 292 yards and has generated an NFL-best 56 first downs. McCaffrey has also scored at least one TD in every game this season, extending his streak to a record-tying 17 in a row in the regular season and playoffs.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Pass rush. The Niners have built their defense from the defensive line, but haven't gotten the results they expected from a group led by 2022 AP Defensive Player of the Year Bosa, big-ticket free agent Javon Hargrave and Armstead.
Second-year player Drake Jackson hasn't stepped up and San Francisco had to reinforce the position by trading for Randy Gregory and Chase Young to improve a unit that is generating sacks on 5.5% of pass plays, down from 7.5% the past two seasons.
WR Brandon Aiyuk. Coming off his first 1,000-yard season a year ago, Aiyuk has been even better this season and is the clear-cut No. 1 option in the passing game. He has 35 catches for 620 yards and two TDs in eight games and ranks second in the NFL among receivers with 3.23 yards per route run — trailing only Miami's Tyreek Hill.
Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks. The defense has regressed this season under Wilks, who was brought in after DeMeco Ryans got the head coaching job in Houston. There was the bad choice to call a blitz with 16 seconds left in the first half against Minnesota that led to a 60-yard TD and too many instances of soft coverage that have allowed QBs to get rid of the ball before the pass rush can do damage.
The Niners are hoping to get Williams (ankle) and Samuel (shoulder) back after missing the past two games. ... LG Aaron Banks (turf toe) is expected to miss a few weeks.
0-37. The Niners remain winless under coach Kyle Shanahan when falling behind by at least eight points in the fourth quarter in the regular season and playoffs. If they do want to win the franchise's sixth Super Bowl, getting better at playing from behind will be a key.
San Francisco begins the second half with a visit to Jacksonville on Nov. 12. After a home game against Tampa Bay, the Niners will have a tricky three-game stretch with both games against Seattle surrounding a trip to Philadelphia for an NFC title game rematch.
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