SANTA CLARA (AP) — Jimmy Garoppolo has started his tenure with San Francisco better than any quarterback has done with a new team.
The player who brought hope to the 49ers after three-plus years of struggles in San Francisco will be in for his toughest test yet this week.
Garoppolo and the 49ers (4-10) host the playoff-bound Jacksonville Jaguars (10-4) on Sunday, facing their punishing defense that leads the NFL in fewest points allowed, most sacks and lowest yards per play against.
“I look forward to it a lot, for our whole team,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “I do believe that they have as much qualities as anyone that it takes to win a Super Bowl; a top defense, a very good running game, a good offense, good special teams. When you see a team like that on tape that you believe has that ability, it’s a good thing, it’s a good challenge for your team to go against them and see where you’re at.”
The Niners have done quite well since making Garoppolo the starter earlier this month in Chicago. He joined Hall of Famer Y.A. Tittle as the only 49ers quarterbacks to win his first three starts with the franchise and is the first quarterback to do that with any team while throwing for at least 1,000 yards in those games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
That performance is not lost on the Jaguars, who can clinch their first division title since 1999 with a win.
“He is a really good NFL quarterback,” coach Doug Marrone said. “We know that. That’s on film. That’s on tape. That’s not something we have to fabricate or make him seem better than he is. He’s as good as it gets right now for what’s going on around the league.”
While Garoppolo has played as well as any quarterback the past three weeks, the Jaguars have been tops in the league on defense all year with a unit modeled after the one that has been so dominant for years in Seattle.
Jacksonville leads the NFL in several defensive categories thanks in part to a quartet of Pro Bowlers in defensive end Calais Campbell, defensive tackle Malik Jackson, cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye.
“A lot of teams are adapting to this and so you see it all over the league now. Seattle started it and now teams are adapting it,” Garoppolo said. “I think the players that they have make it unique. They have very talented players on every level of the defense. It’s going to be a good challenge for us.”
Here are some other things to watch:
RED-ZONE WOES: Perhaps the only area where Garoppolo has struggled has been in finishing drives. The 49ers have scored on 18 of 28 non-kneeldown drives since he took over as starter earlier this month. Only three of those scores were touchdowns. San Francisco has scored TDs on just three of 10 red-zone trips in those games, the fourth-worst rate in the league during that span.
“It’s probably one of the toughest areas in football offensively to execute,” Garoppolo said. “Everything has to go perfect down there.”
BORTLES’ BOOST: The Jaguars have gotten pretty strong play from their quarterback of late as well. Blake Bortles is the first Jacksonville quarterback to have three straight games with at least two TD passes and no interceptions. Bortles is averaging 301 yards passing during that span and leads the NFL with a 128.6 passer rating in December.
“Any time you have a defense play the way they do and any time you have the number one running game in the NFL, that makes a lot of things easier on a quarterback,” Shanahan said. “Not to take anything away from him, but he’s doing exactly what he needs to do and he’s making plays doing it.”
GOOD FOR GOODWIN: The biggest beneficiary of Garoppolo’s arrival has probably been receiver Marquise Goodwin, who has 24 catches for 319 yards the past three weeks. Goodwin has topped the 100-yard mark the past two weeks and can become the first San Francisco player to do it three in a row since Jerry Rice had a four-game streak in 1995. The prolific numbers come as little surprise to Marrone, who coached Goodwin during his first two seasons in Buffalo in 2013-14.
“I loved him,” Marrone said. “He’s the fastest player I’ve ever seen on a field. And I’ve been around some fast players.”
TRAVELING BLUES: The Jaguars clinched their first playoff berth since 2007 last week but have gone even longer without winning on the West Coast. Jacksonville has lost eight straight games in the Pacific Time Zone and most of them haven’t been close. The Jaguars have been outscored by 20.9 points per game in that span since their last win out west on Jan. 2, 2005, at Oakland.