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49ers Three Big Things: Evaluating Nick Bosa, what to do with Brandon Aiyuk, and a repeat of 1994?

49ers Three Big Things: Evaluating Nick Bosa, what to do with Brandon Aiyuk, and a repeat of 1994?

With the 49ers facing a short week ahead of Thursday night football, but with plenty to discuss following an impressive, if disjointed, win over the rival Rams on Sunday, it feels prudent to do a Three Big Things on the red and gold.

So let’s get it all out there before the Giants come to town for the Niners’ 2023 home opener:

Corrupted spreadsheets

The football analytics website Pro Football Focus assigns grades in various categories to every player, every week.

Do you Want to quickly guess who had the best grade on the 49ers’ defense in Week 2?

If you guessed Fred Warner (eight tackles, sack), Javon Hargrave (five hurries), or Dre Greenlaw (nine tackles, two assisted), you’d be wrong.

No, PFF’s top-graded defensive player in Week 2 was Nick Bosa, scoring a 93.0 rating — the Niners’ best score by eons.

Did the grader watch the same game as us?

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From my vantage point, Bosa wasn’t bad on Sunday, but he made very little overt impact on the game. PFF has him graded for three quarterback hits and two hurries, I recall only one hit, and it came in garbage time. Bosa had one tackle in the game over 63 snaps.

I like PFF. I agreed with many of its offensive grades on Monday morning. The site is often a useful tool to understand and contextualize a game.

This is not one of those times.

According to 49erswebzone.com, that was Bosa’s best-graded game as a pass rusher in his career. And here I thought the whole point of rushing the passer was actually to pressure the guy throwing the football. I must be a rube.

Monday morning, even a buzzing Kyle Shanahan threw some shade Bosa’s way, saying that the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year is still “getting back into football shape, getting back into his groove.”

According to PFF, he’s already there.

For all the gains the quantitative revolution has made in sports, spirit vs. the letter of the law debates like this hold it back. (Much like Bosa Sunday.)

And maybe that’s for the best.

Shouldering (and ankling) an injury

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Going into a short week, with a game against the Giants on Tuesday, the 49ers are facing their first injury woes of the season, with Brandon Aiyuk battling a shoulder ailment that overtly hampered him in Los Angeles.

That’s a big deal for the 49ers, whose depth this season pales compared to past seasons. (Luckily, the team’s top-end talent is as good as ever.)

The New York Giants, who come to town Thursday, face a similar injury challenge. One that is arguably more significant than Aiyuk’s.

Giants running back Saquon Barkley injured his ankle late in New York’s comeback win over the Cardinals Sunday, forcing him to be carried off the field.

The Giants are more concerned about the long-term ramifications of the ankle injury — it’s almost certain he is set to miss time.

Barkley is the offensive engine of the Giants, playing 66 of 68 snaps in Arizona. Without him, it’s hard to imagine what the New York offense being able to move the ball — they’ve barely been able to do it with him.

As for Aiyuk, the Niners must be proactive and keep him out of Thursday’s game. Don’t let a one-week injury (a short week at that) spiral into something larger.

If he’s healthy and unaffected, by all means, play him.

But if that shoulder is bothering him at all, make sure he can’t find a uniform for the home opener. The Niners need him in December and January far more than on Thursday.

Bettor believe it

That’s because the Niners have opened as 10.5-point favorites for Thursday Night Football.

And as we learned Sunday, when Sean McVay decided to play betting god and kick a field goal with time expiring to cut the Niners’ margin of victory to seven points (the spread was, with many books, Niners -7.5), those lines are pretty good.

And looking at the 49ers’ schedule, there’s a real chance they will go all 17 games as favorites this season. The last time the team did that, per Pro Football Reference, was, unsurprisingly, 1994.

The Niners being favorites for every game hinges on the team continuing to play well, cover spreads, and avoid injuries.

Three games to note in this vitally important story:

Week 5 vs. Cowboys: The 49ers are at home, but with Dallas looking good early, and the public always looking to back the ‘Boys, this line might be within the 3-point margin of home-field advantage. A big injury could swing it the Cowboys’ way. Guess: SF -4

Week 10 at Jacksonville: The second-toughest road game the Niners will play this season. The Jags might have lost on Sunday, but I expect them to have a strong record heading into this game, which comes after the Niners’ bye. Guess: SF -3.5

Week 13 at Philadelphia: As of right now, the only game for which I can easily imagine the 49ers being underdogs. But the Eagles don’t look so hot to start the season, and the Niners were only 2.5-point ‘dogs in last season’s NFC Championship Game. Guess: SF -1

Again, there’s so much that can happen to derail this possibility, but despite facing a first-place schedule, two weeks in, the Niners looked poised to be Vegas’ favorite team this season.