49ers Rewind: Is Brandon Aiyuk in Kyle Shanahan’s doghouse?

San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk (11) following an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions in Detroit, Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Duane Burleson)

The San Francisco 49ers started their season with a win for only the second time in five years when they defeated the Detroit Lions 41-33 on Sunday.

In many ways, this victory felt like a defeat due to the loss of Jason Verrett for the season with a torn ACL in his right knee. Raheem Mostert was also lost for the season. The running back announced early Tuesday that he has chosen to have season-ending surgery on his knee.

In addition to the injuries, the Lions were able to mount a spirited comeback attempt that has left a lot of doubt on the defense heading into a week two matchup with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Let’s take a look at a few of the top points of discussion that have come out of Sunday’s victory.

1. The 49ers’ defense nearly gave the game away.

There was a lot that went into the way this game ended, and we shouldn’t forget the San Francisco defense held Detroit to only 17 points over the first 55 minutes of this game.

It’s not unusual for a defense to back off late in a game with a 24-point lead. With the game seemingly in hand, the 49ers began to play soft zone coverage which is designed to keep the ball inbounds and the clock running. Although they would allow the Lions to move the ball down the field for a touchdown to make the score 41-25, the Detroit possession took nearly four minutes off the game clock in the process.

This is where things went sideways for San Francisco. On the ensuing onside kick, George Kittle misplayed the hop and the ball bounced off his facemask and was recovered by Detroit. With less than two minutes left in the game, securing the kick likely ends the game and any worry about a Lions comeback.

Instead, the 49ers’ defense had to go right back onto the field. With the injury to Verrett occurring on the previous possession, nearly all of the starters were taken out of the game at this point. Detroit was again able to exploit the soft zone coverage and pull to within eight points.

The defense would again find itself right back on the field when Deebo Samuel fumbled the ball while nearing a first down that again would have ended the game.

Forced back onto the field once again, San Francisco would continue the same playing soft zone defense and allow the Lions to drive down to the 25-yard line. At that point, 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans would dial up the pressure and the defense would force Goff into three incompletions to seal the victory.

Should this be cause for concern moving forward? Yes and no. The defense as a whole is very good, but losing Verrett will be a blow. The secondary will be ok with rookie Deommodore Lenoir on one side, but the 49ers need Emmanuel Moseley to come back healthy. If this happens, the secondary should be in decent shape.

The philosophy of the current front office in San Francisco is to build from the front back. This will now be put to the test over the final 17 weeks of the regular season.

2. Is Brandon Aiyuk in Kyle Shanahan’s doghouse?

After having a standout rookie season, there were high expectations for Aiyuk in year two. Against Detroit, Aiyuk wouldn’t touch the field until the 49ers’ third offensive possession, their first lasted one play due to a fumbled snap.

Free-agent acquisition Trent Sherfield would be the first wide receiver to pair up with Deebo Samuel. Although Sherfield would play only one more snap than Aiyuk, 27 to 26, he would be targeted three times and make two receptions for 23 yards and a touchdown. Aiyuk would not have a target in the game.

Shanahan was asked on Monday if there was anything other than the injury that he noted following the game that led to Aiyuk’s playing time being less than expected, “No. I just think he’s got a better person behind him this year in training camp,” Shanahan said. “We wanted to split time like that. I thought Aiyuk would get a few more punt returns and I thought he’d get a few more targets, but when guys are rotating that much, 50/50, I don’t really ask much who’s in, I’m good with either one of them getting the ball, whoever is in there at the time. It doesn’t matter to me.”

After re-watching the game, Shanahan’s explanation makes sense. Aiyuk and Sherfield ran roughly the same number of routes, and for the most part, they could be found clearing out the deep coverage for underneath routes by Deebo Samuel or George Kittle.

Another thing to note with Aiyuk, the bulk of his production in 2020 came with both George Kittle and Deebo Samuel out and Nick Mullens throwing him the ball. With Kittle and Samuel healthy, there may not be as many targets this season.

3. Azeez Al-Shaair had a very good game.

The SAM linebacker in the 49ers’ base defense usually is a bit of an afterthought, however, the Lions desire to run the ball and a groin injury to Dre Greenlaw resulted in Azeez Al-Shaair playing 72 of the 49ers 90 defensive snaps on Sunday.

Credited with seven total tackles which would tie him for second with safety Jaquiski Tartt, Al-Shaair would make a number of big plays throughout the game. He would drop Lions running back D’Andre Swift for a loss of eight on Detroit’s second offensive possession of the game, forcing a long field goal attempt that would be no good.

On the Lions’ final possession of the game, Al-Shaair would knock the ball out of the hands of Detroit tight end T.J. Hockenson to force the Lions into a fourth and nine situation that they would not be able to convert.

4. Nick Bosa and Dee Ford are back.

In their first game together since the opening game of the 2020 season, Nick Bosa and Dee Ford would each record a sack but their impact on the game was felt in other areas as well.

On Detroit’s first possession, Bosa would knife inside on a fourth and one play. Bosa’s action forced Lions running back Jamaal Williams to try and cut to the outside. Williams would slip and be stopped short of the first down.

Late in the first half and facing third and eighth, Jared Goff’s throw over the middle would be intercepted and returned for a touchdown by 49er linebacker Dre Greenlaw. It was Dee Ford’s ability to drive the Lions’ right tackle back into Goff that played the pivotal role in forcing the turnover.

With questions in the secondary due to the loss of Jason Verrett for the season, the 49ers’ defense needs Bosa and Ford to play like this the rest of the season to take the pressure off the secondary.

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