The San Francisco 49ers aren't the same team they were last season, yet they're still good enough to eventually capture a second straight postseason appearance.
The 49ers turned into a well-oiled machine during the 2019 campaign. Head coach Kyle Shanahan orchestrated the NFL's best offensive scheme. The running game churned through opposing defenses despite unexpected injuries at running back. Tight end George Kittle demolished any and all defenders without fear of being slowed. San Francisco's impressive defensive front came at opposing quarterbacks in waves. Cornerback Richard Sherman returned to All-Pro status.
Everything seemingly fell into place until Super Bowl LIV when a 10-point fourth-quarter lead evaporated at the hands of Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs.
The current incarnation of the 49ers roster isn't the same stacked squad that earned a 13-3 regular-season record in 2019. Currently, San Francisco sits at 3-3 after Sunday's 24-16 victory over the rival Los Angeles Rams.
"The criticism was fair," defensive end Arik Armstead told reporters after a 2-3 start. "We weren't playing at a high level. But we were more upset and disappointed in ourselves."
The latest outcome showed a scrappy team led by the same mastermind even if the pieces aren't exactly the same. Growth occurs through change. No NFL franchise remains static on a year-by-year basis. It's impossible to achieve thanks to free agency, the salary cap and other organizations' wanton desires to poach from the league's best squads.
General manager John Lynch had difficult decisions to make, specifically along the defensive line. Did he choose correctly? Well, DeForest Buckner is playing at an All-Pro level for the Indianapolis Colts, while Arik Armstead hasn't performed as well after last year's breakout performance. In fact, the once-dominant 49ers front didn't sack Jared Goff once in San Francisco's one-sided victory.
Others have risen to the occasion, which shows how well-coached the team is and the amount of quality depth it possesses.
Along the defensive line, Buckner wasn't the only loss. Nick Bosa is currently recovering from a season-ending torn ACL. Solomon Thomas is on injured reserve with the same issue. Ziggy Ansah barely played before a torn biceps took him out of action. Dee Ford continues to battle neck and back problems, as well.
So, the 49ers must rely on players like Kerry Hyder Jr., who currently leads the team with 3.5 sacks, D.J. Jones and this year's initial first-round pick, Javon Kinlaw. The 23-year-old rookie defensive tackle can't immediately replace Buckner's contributions, but he has flashed fantastic potential and disruptive capabilities.
Really, the differences in the secondary make San Francisco's defense potent despite its losses. Going into this offseason, the idea of finding a bookend to Sherman appeared to be a priority, until it wasn't. The 49ers didn't make any significant moves to address the position despite inconsistencies from those tasked with playing up to Sherman's standard.
The 32-year-old defensive back is currently dealing with a calf injury that forced him onto injured reserve. In his absence, Jason Verrett has emerged as the comeback king. Technically, the moniker belongs to Washington Football Team quarterback Alex Smith, but Verrett has been exceptional since entering the lineup this season. After years of dealing with injuries, the 29-year-old cornerback looks like the same fluid athlete in coverage he once was.
"His three years of injuries included dark, dark, dark moments," NBC's Michele Tafoya said about the 2014 first-round pick during Sunday night's telecast. "He said he's been in places mentally he doesn't want to return to. 'I kept asking why this is happening to me,' Verrett said. Once he got over the recovery [from multiple leg injuries], he thought he'd lose a step, but his explosion is back, and he continues to gain confidence. He sees Pro Bowls in his future."
The thought of seeing Verrett in a Pro Bowl isn't far-fetched. He always had the ability. He simply needs to stay healthy. If Sunday's performance is any indication, the veteran cover corner will draw even more attention and fewer targets in the coming weeks because he has shutdown capabilities, as NFL Next Gen Stats noted:
With 2:33 left in the third quarter of Sunday's game, Verrett quite possibly saved the 49ers' season with an interception in the end zone that kept the Rams from making the contest a one-score proposition.
Opposite Verrett, Emmanuel Moseley returned to the lineup after being cleared from the concussion protocol earlier this week and played well. He and Verrett are a capable corner duo for a unit surrendering only 212.7 pass yards per contest through six weeks of play.
Offensively, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will receive plenty of credit for an efficient performance as he continues to heal from a high ankle sprain. After all, he completed 69.7 percent of his passes for 268 passes and three touchdowns. He got into a rhythm and built his confidence after a rough outing the previous weekend.
The quarterback had plenty of help, though.
First, Shanahan's play-calling remains adroit. In order to get Garoppolo in rhythm while simultaneously playing to the strengths of the unit's skill performers, the play-caller relied on the quick game to create chunk plays.
Garoppolo delivered within the framework of the scheme, but his receivers put in plenty of work after the catch.
Furthermore, the 49ers offensive front continues to steamroll opponents no matter who is taking handoffs. The Trent Williams addition has been spectacular. Despite missing all of last season, he is still one of the most physically intimidating players on the field. The decision to run behind him and left guard Laken Tomlinson helps create massive lanes for the running backs.
"I thought the O-line had a hell of a game," Shanahan told reporters. "Thought they cleared a bunch of good lanes. They protected very well."
In Sunday's contest, Raheem Mostert left the contest with an ankle injury and didn't return. JaMycal Hasty stepped in and carried the ball nine times for 37 yards. The 49ers were down to their third center, Hroniss Grasu, and the big boys up front still found ways to keep all-world defensive lineman Aaron Donald relatively quiet.
The 49ers have suffered loss after loss from a personnel standpoint. Yet the group keeps chugging along like a determined steam engine.
The next stretch of track will be difficult to handle, though.
Over the next six games—with a Week 11 bye slammed in between—the 49ers will face the New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints, Rams and Buffalo Bills. If San Francisco can split those games, it'll reach a manageable group of contests with the Washington Football Team, Dallas Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals before closing out the regular season with a second contest against the Seahawks.
Obviously, the current makeup of Shanahan's squad isn't what it once was. However, the new-look 49ers are very much alive and well in the playoff hunt, and they'll be a difficult out for any opponent in the coming weeks.