What the 49ers need to fix with challenging schedule ahead

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Although the San Francisco 49ers' loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Nov. 11 and win this past Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals revealed some warts, there have been issues bubbling under the surface for most of the season.

But the results have been so good the Niners' 9-1 record has masked those problems. To some extent, taking a closer look at their weaknesses is an exercise in picking nits.

This isn't about trying to discredit all the good the 49ers have done. Rather, it's an effort to pinpoint areas the team could improve and wonder if these weaknesses could be significant enough to derail their Super Bowl dreams.

With that in mind, here's a look at things that have popped up through the first 10 games with input from Niners players and coaches, ESPN NFL analyst Greg Cosell and Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young.

Turnovers

The 49ers have taken big steps forward when it comes to generating takeaways. The bad news is things haven't improved much when it comes to taking care of the ball.

Through 10 games, the Niners have 17 giveaways, which is tied for eighth-worst in the NFL. That includes five in the red zone, which is more than all but one team. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has taken the brunt of the blame, throwing 10 interceptions, tied for seventh-most in the league.

Garoppolo has a bit of gunslinger in him and a knack for throwing a pass or two (or more) each week that is either intercepted or should be. He has also struggled to secure the ball on the rare occasions he has been sacked, coughing up two fumbles in the loss to Seattle.

More often than not, the Niners' defense has been able to shut down opponents after the offense turns it over, which is why San Francisco is among the best in the league in points-off-turnover margin, but it was alarming to see the Seahawks score 21 points off three takeaways. Good teams find ways to cash in on an opponent's mistakes and the Niners have plenty of strong opponents remaining.

"It's nothing crazy, just got to go do your job, execute and move on play after play and just do that throughout the entire game," Garoppolo said.

Offensive variance

The 49ers are a run-first team, ranking second in the league in rushing attempts per game. For the most part, they've had success with it but teams are stacking the box more in an effort to force Garoppolo and a largely unproven receiving corps to beat them. Garoppolo has mixed results in those circumstances and the Niners have seen other issues pop up around him, especially when the running game isn't firing on all cylinders.

Most notably, the receiver group has struggled with consistency, not only in producing numbers but in simply catching the ball. The wide receivers rank 27th in receptions (102) and yards (1,358) and 28th in drops per target (4.4 percent). Although the offensive line has been solid protecting Garoppolo most of the season, there have been some leaks recently.

All of that has led to an offense that sticks to run-centric game plans with short, quick-hit passes mixed in. Garoppolo has attempted 21 passes traveling 20-plus yards downfield this season, fewest in the NFL.

As the quality of opponent ramps up, the Niners need to prove they can mix it up a bit and keep defenses on their heels.

"If people can expose the offense not being able to be expansive and gets them in a tight ballgame where they're not able to score a bunch of points, [it could be a problem]," Young said.

Run defense

When it comes to the defense, you have to dig hard to find much that's gone wrong. There have been some issues on run defense. San Francisco is 26th in the league in allowing 4.72 yards per carry. Since Week 4, that number has jumped to 5.27, which is 30th.

"There are some new things that we've been getting, run-game wise, that guys aren't used to seeing," defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. "As the year goes, as we learn, as we see the way teams are attacking us, we'll get better and better in the run game. So I'm not hitting the panic button on it, but obviously it is an area of emphasis to make sure that we are still stout against the run."

It hasn't mattered much because the Niners have jumped out to such big leads that teams have abandoned the run in the second half. But the sooner Saleh's fixes come, the better, as dynamic rushing attacks such as Baltimore's await.

Injuries

Ah, yes, the one thing on the list over which the 49ers have no control: The Niners have been banged up this season but the good news is most of those injuries haven't been season ending.

Losing linebacker Kwon Alexander to a torn pectoral was a huge blow and defensive lineman Ronald Blair's torn ACL was also a big loss. Aside from those injuries, most of the Niners' ailments have been short term. Those are issues that have popped up for key players such as tight end George Kittle (knee, ankle), left tackle Joe Staley (finger) and receiver Emmanuel Sanders (ribs).

Kittle has missed two games and Sanders has been playing hurt. They're clearly the team's best receiving options and Kittle is the most indispensable player on the roster.

"Having Kittle really takes the edge off," Cosell said. "When you have that guy, it changes some things for you offensively."

If the Niners can return to healthy form and avoid further serious injuries over the season's final month, it would go a long way toward a deep postseason run.