CARSON, Calif. -- Four weeks into the season, the San Francisco 49ers have had no trouble identifying one of their biggest issues. In fact, the problem is so obvious that it's one of the most basic tenets of football.
"It’s going to sound trivial and it’s going to sound very elementary, but it comes down to obviously, tackling, which needs to get better," defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. "It’s not very good, obviously."
In reality, the poor tackling that showed up again in Sunday's 29-27 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers is something the Niners have been battling for the better part of the past month. Entering the loss to the Chargers, the 49ers had 43 missed tackles, the most in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. Included in that total was a whopping 17 whiffs in the Week 3 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
After all those miscues, the 49ers spent most of last week not only talking about tackling better but attempting to find ways to do it. Under normal circumstances, the Niners only do their tackling circuit drill at every padded practice, which, because of league rules, are limited to roughly one per week during the regular season.
Last week, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and coach Kyle Shanahan tweaked the schedule to include the tackling circuit in a non-padded workout with the emphasis on what the Niners call "stepping on toes," which is a fancy way of saying it's best to initiate contact when closer to the ball carrier, and driving through him.
"It's bad angles, lunging, diving, not running through people," cornerback Richard Sherman said. "All things that can be fixed in a second. It can be fixed in game if guys just took a few more steps. But I think guys are getting fixed and the coaching staff is doing everything in practice to make sure guys are practicing better."
That back-to-basics approach seemed to pay off in the early going of Sunday's loss. At halftime, the Chargers were averaging just 2.6 yards per carry on 10 attempts and were picking up yards through the air but not necessarily on run after the catch. By the time Sunday's game was over, however, that number jumped to 4.7 yards on 27 attempts and the tackling woes came back to bite the Niners at some of the most inopportune moments.
While there were multiple examples of costly missed tackles Sunday, there was one that seemed to epitomize the Niners' struggles. Clinging to a 27-26 lead with 10 minutes to go, the Niners had the Chargers in a second-and-3 at San Francisco's 38. Chargers running back Melvin Gordon took a hand off off the left side, darted through the hole where he was met by Niners cornerback Greg Mabin.
Had Mabin brought Gordon down, it would have been a first down but the Chargers still wouldn't have necessarily been in field goal range, particularly given their kicking woes. Instead, Mabin appeared to attempt to strip the ball from Gordon, who fought off Mabin, made another defender miss a tackle, made Mabin miss again and picked up 34 yards to the Niners' 4.
Three plays later, the Chargers settled for kicker Caleb Sturgis' 21-yard field goal but those three points were the game-winners. Linebacker Reuben Foster, who earlier in the week said the missed tackles were "uncalled for" and he didn't take them lightly, was clearly exasperated after another game of missed chances.
"We have got to work on tackling," linebacker Reuben Foster said. "That’s what we do and we’ve got to really harp on that."
Harping on the missed tackles will undoubtedly be a theme again for the Niners this week, though at least this time they have the first few drives of Sunday's game to point to and understand that they're capable of doing it well.
Now it's just a matter of finding a way to replicate what went well in the first quarter-plus against the Chargers.
"Of course it’s disappointing," Shanahan said. "I’ll watch the tapes and get a better idea of that. I don’t see all of them. From what I saw, I was pretty happy with it in the first half. I thought we were swarming the ball, hitting well and wrapping guys. I did see a number of times where we bounced off him a few times and he got some longer runs than he should have there in the second half so we’ll address it again and keep trying to get better."