Nick Wagoner, ESPN Staff Writer 16d

What the 49ers need to bridge the gap with NFC West foes

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- There are a lot of ways to score eight points in an NFL football game. A touchdown and a two-point conversion. Two field goals and a safety. If you want to get really crazy, four safeties.

Unfortunately for the San Francisco 49ers, they have been unable to use any of those methods to bridge the gap between them and their NFC West division rivals in the first four weeks of the season. Including Sunday's 18-15 overtime loss to the Arizona Cardinals, the Niners have now lost three games in a row, all to NFC West teams, by a total of eight points. If the Niners had scored an additional 11 points in those three games and spread them out just right, they could easily be sitting with a 3-1 record at the end of the first quarter of the season.

That the Niners are 0-4 at this point probably doesn't come as much of a surprise to those paying attention to the roster turnover needed after last year's 2-14 debacle. For those who might only look at the standings and not see how these games have played out, there's actually been plenty of reason for optimism. The 49ers haven't been an easy out for any of their first four opponents and have the look of a team that's going to get better as the season goes on.

“I’m loving the fight [of this team]," running back Carlos Hyde said. "If I’m comparing this year to last year, the fight is there. We keep fighting. We’re close. This is the third straight game where we could have walked away with a win. We’re going to get it. If guys keep that fight, we’re going to get it. It’s just a matter of time. And once we get it, I think nobody is going to be able to stop us.”

The 49ers' latest loss included many of the same mistakes that ailed them in the first three, costly penalties and dropped passes chief among them. While coach Kyle Shanahan clearly disagreed with a handful of calls that went against his team Sunday, the Niners finished with a whopping 13 penalties for 113 yards. According to ESPN Stats & Information, they also had four drops, giving them 12 for the season, the most in the league.

Sure, getting those mistakes fixed would be a quick and easy way for the Niners to make up the difference that separates them from the rest of the West. But those types of errors are often also the hallmark of teams playing with a talent deficit, something the 49ers still have after the first offseason of an extensive rebuild.

"When you do have opportunities, you can’t make stuff up," Shanahan said. "You have to get better and you have to find out why you aren’t finishing or making those plays in the moment of truth. To me, all you can do is get better so that you are more consistent in making those.”

Although the record doesn't show it, this Niners team is indeed better than the one from a year ago. There are some good, young pieces in place with guys like defensive linemen DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas, receiver Trent Taylor and right tackle Trent Brown among those making their presence felt in Sunday's loss. Linebacker Reuben Foster, a potential game-changer, returns soon from a high ankle sprain.

But the fact remains that more are needed, particularly at some of the game's most important positions. Quarterback clearly tops the list but a No. 1 edge rusher to complement Buckner and Thomas, a top cornerback to take some of the heat off Rashard Robinson and/or a game-breaking receiver to become Shanahan's new version of Julio Jones would all be welcome additions.

No matter how much cap space or how many draft picks the Niners had last offseason, they simply couldn't address all of their many needs in one offseason. They did what they could to put a foundation in place but they still need more cornerstones.

All of which is to say that maybe these close losses in the first four weeks aren't so bad. No, this isn't about moral victories. This is about a team that has a clear direction but still needs the personnel. Losing close games now just shows that the 49ers, while not necessarily close to contention, at least aren't far off from their NFC West brethren.

Playing with a slim margin for error as the Niners are right now, is no way to get through an NFL season. The easiest way to overcome that is to put enough talent in place to make up for those mistakes.

So while the 49ers can and will win some games this season -- and they should so as to at least prevent chronic losing from seeping into the culture they're attempting to build -- maintaining the ability to have a top draft pick is paramount in the quest to add the type of difference makers that can turn a game on its head.

In a division that's proved to be not far from the Niners' grasp so far in 2017, at least one more player capable of making the play that swings a game is still needed. For an example, the Niners needed only to look across the field at Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald making a difficult contested catch for a game-winning 19-yard touchdown on Sunday. Fitzgerald had been held in check for most of the game but delivered the biggest play when the Cardinals needed him most.

Finding their own Fitzgerald, whether in receiver, quarterback or some other form, won't be easy but it's the next step as the Niners find their way through a difficult rebuild.

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