The Sunday night matchup between the 49ers and Chargers features two teams that believed they’d be quite a bit better than they are right now.
The 49ers, who are loaded on both sides of the ball, are just 4-4 and trail the surprising first-place Seahawks in the NFC West.
The Chargers (5-3) are a game behind the Chiefs for first place in the AFC West, but their defense has been a problem all season and they have allowed an alarming 206 points. Only one team in the league that has played eight games has allowed more points (Detroit, with 234). The 25.8 points per game the Chargers have yielded rank 30th in the NFL.
Now the Chargers visit a 49ers team that’s flexing its offensive muscles after adding do-everything running back Christian McCaffrey to a group that includes receiver Deebo Samuel and tight end George Kittle.
McCaffrey, who was acquired in a trade from the Panthers, has caught more passes than all but 12 wide receivers since he entered the NFL five years ago. He has more touchdown runs of at least 10 yards than all but one running back in the past two years. He had 149 yards from scrimmage with a TD run and reception while also throwing for a TD in a win over the Rams two weeks ago, before the 49ers’ bye.
“It’s just like so crazy how much firepower we have in this offense now, adding [McCaffrey] to the team along with all the other guys that we have on our team,” Samuel told reporters this week. “It’s going to be crazy. It’s going to be hard to cover everybody out there. It will be real fun.”
“That’s where the game is now, to have those type of chess pieces,” Chargers coach Brandon Staley said of the Niners’ offense. “These guys can line up anywhere and they can do a lot of different things. They can catch the ball, they can run the ball, they can block. You need to have players on your team that can mirror that, and you can use your players as chess pieces to be aggressive.”
McCaffrey called it “exciting and fun to be a part of” this group.
“The other day, I was in the huddle, I was kind of smiling, looking around like there’s some really good players in this huddle,” he said. “Obviously Deebo, you can line him up anywhere and he’s elite anywhere you put him. So, it definitely puts a lot of stress on the defense. I’m lucky and happy to be able to suit up on the same team.”
The 49ers present some problems on defense as well, having allowed the fewest yards per game at 285.9 and just 18.4 points per game, which ranks sixth in the league.
Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert isn’t exactly entering this game on a hot streak. He has gone four consecutive games without throwing for 300 or more yards, and he hasn’t completed a pass longer than 20 yards through the air in the past three games.
It doesn’t help the Chargers that receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams will miss the game with injuries, as will kicker Dustin Hopkins.
Adding to what already looks like a difficult period for the Chargers was their unceremonious cutting of former first-round pick Jerry Tillery, who Staley said was no longer compatible with the team and its plans.
“There’s a point in relationships like this where you’ve got to move on and it’s best for both people to move on,” Staley told reporters. “Competing visions for the role moving forward and it just became clear that it wasn’t going to be a fit anymore. Where we’re headed as a team wasn’t going to be compatible with Jerry and where he’s trying to go.”
Tillery, a 26-year-old defensive lineman and the 28th-overall pick in 2019, played in seven games this season, but did not start, recording one sack and a forced fumble. In 54 games with the team, Tillery recorded 10.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.
“It’s unfortunate,” edge rusher Khalil Mack said of Tillery’s release. “It’s something that I really don’t think I’ve been a part of that in the NFL. It’s a weird situation, but at the same time he’s a talented player, so whatever he chooses to do, he’s going to be able to ball out and do his thing.”