McDonald: 49ers are the apple of the football world’s eye. What issues could bite them against the Rams?

Basking in a sea of praise, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan realizes there’s plenty of corrections that need to take place

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — I ran into one of the Faithful the other day who is concerned about the 49ers for reasons that have nothing to do with the team itself.

Neil, the fan, felt that the media was being far too nice.

“Everyone is gushing over them, and it makes me uncomfortable,” he admitted.

I explained that it was difficult to find many negative things to say about a 30-7 road loss in Pittsburgh. Given that the 49ers were 2-4 under coach Kyle Shanahan in Week 1, taking apart a supposed AFC contender and finishing with no injuries was cause for celebration and optimism.

Fortunately, Shanahan is standing by with a bucket of ice cold water for anyone who thinks the 49ers have “arrived” with one-seventeenth of all precincts reporting. The NFL season is long, and the Los Angeles Rams are up next Sunday at SoFi Stadium.

Former 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh used an imaginary character named Freddy P. Soft to guard against overconfidence. Freddy, Harbaugh reasoned, would ruin the team by exaggerating the positive aspects of the team dynamic.

Shanahan goes straight to the video to make his point because Freddy followed Harbaugh to Michigan.

“I mean, usually it’s off the tape, and the tape to me wasn’t totally what everyone thinks,” Shanahan explained. “It wasn’t our best effort. There are a lot of things that could have gone differently. Quite a few.”

Pittsburgh edge rusher T.J. Watt had three sacks, and right tackle Colton McKivitz and right guard Spencer Burford both showed promise. A 95-yard Pittsburgh touchdown drive at the end of the first half after the 49ers failed to run out the clock. By failing to get the ball away in the second half, quarterback Brock Purdy took an unnecessary sack.

So, if the 49ers were feeling too good about themselves, Shanahan had plenty of tape to bring them back down to earth. The veterans on the 49ers are familiar with the procedure.

“The games and practices are like that,” said running back Christian McCaffrey. “There’s a lot of accountability—both good and bad.”

Despite having a monster game against Pittsburgh, linebacker Fred Warner has been in repair mode all week.

“There’s always things to clean up as a veteran and a guy who’s been in it for a long time,” Warner said. “You always look at what you did well, what you need to improve on, and then you move on.”

“I think everybody in here is pretty mature and knows that division games are pretty important,” said edge rusher Nick Bosa.

So, what is truly worth being concerned about?

Several points of concern:

Shanahan’s paranoia about substitutions

The 49ers coach will never forget the opener two seasons ago, when they allowed a 41-17 lead with less than two minutes remaining to dwindle to the point where Detroit was in position to tie. Shanahan is still in disbelief that the 49ers won 41-33.

Which explains why, after McCaffrey’s 65-yard scoring run on the first possession of the third quarter, players like McCaffrey, Bosa, Warner, George Kittle, and others were on the field in the second half with the game under control against Pittsburgh.

“Trust me, we want those guys out of there, and we want to go put them in bubble wrap and wait for them next week,” Shanahan said. “But once you start going there, bad things happen all the time.” So, while we wish we could have gone sooner, we didn’t.”

Following the Rams, the 49ers host the New York Giants in their home opener on Thursday night. So, if at all possible, keeping starters out of the game in Los Angeles would be beneficial.

Purdy’s arrogance

The 49ers quarterback isn’t thinking about the Haason Reddick sack that ruined his elbow. He hung in too long on a couple of plays with Watt screaming off the edge, then scrambled 17 yards for a first down on third-and-11 with the 49ers leading 30-7 and 7:50 remaining.

Purdy sounded Thursday as if he’d do it all over again if presented with the same scenario.

“It wasn’t something like, ‘Don’t scramble, check it down,” Purdy explained. “That wasn’t the case. We want to win, and we’ll do whatever it takes, and hopefully, when the right situation arises, I’ll do the same.”

We’ve learned a lot about Purdy from his performance last season, his injury recovery, and how good he looked in Week 1. We don’t know if he can play all 17 games. The 49ers are eager to find out.

If Purdy is injured, Sam Darnold could be a capable backup. But something tells me that what happened to the 49ers last season — losing the starter and improving with the backup, then losing the backup and improving even more with a third-stringer — will never happen again in our lifetimes.

A right-side cave-in

Watt dominated McKivitz, and fellow Steeler Larry Ogunjobi impressed against Burford.

It just so happens that both are excellent players who had good days. Without naming names, run-game coordinator Chris Foerster stated that the offensive line as a whole needed to improve.

McKivitz was frequently put one-on-one with Watt, indicating that the 49ers believed he was capable. They’re not going to give up just because they had a bad day against a great opponent. It’s far too early to consider Matt Pryor or Jaylon Moore at right tackle or Jon Feliciano at right guard.

Depth of cornerback

Matthew Stafford (24 of 38 for 334 yards) is back and healthy as one of the NFL’s top pure passers, if his performance against Seattle in Week 1 is any indication. While throwing to Puka Nacua (10 catches for 119 yards) and Tutu Atwell (six catches for 119 yards), he looked fine without Cooper Kupp.

While Shanahan didn’t say it, cornerback Ambry Thomas was benched after being victimized late in the first half against Pittsburgh, scuttling the plan to play Deommdore Lenoir at nickel. In the second half, Lenoir was back outside, with Isaiah Oliver at nickel.

Stafford, if he can get rid of the ball quickly enough against the 49ers’ rush, could flood the secondary with passes while avoiding Charvarius Ward, the 49ers’ closest thing to a shutdown corner on the roster.

Hopefully, by pointing out these potential issues, Neil will be less concerned.

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