Dieter Kurtenbach: Can 49ers' Jimmy Garoppolo do the toughest thing in football?
AP

Dieter Kurtenbach: Can 49ers' Jimmy Garoppolo do the toughest thing in football?

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It's commonly alleged that NFL quarterback is the most demanding job in football.

It certainly must feel that way to Jimmy Garoppolo right now.

The 49ers have asked plenty of Garoppolo as of late, as opposing defenses are daring him to beat them and being downright brazen about it.

And even more might be coming his way in the coming weeks.

The 49ers are battered and bruised as they head into a Week 12 matchup with the Green Bay Packers Sunday night. It's the NFL - every team is dealing with injuries - so no one is or should feel sorry for San Francisco, but the 49ers are searching for answers with linchpins of their team out of commission.

The 49ers' 8-0 start to the season was built on dominant defensive play and a just-try-to-stop-this run game.

But now, at an impressive but increasingly mortal 9-1, that defense doesn't look nearly as dominant as it once did and the Niners' run game has been a detriment, not a strength, in the last three games.

It's the worst time for the 49ers have to find or re-invent themselves, too.

San Francisco's next three games (vs. Green Bay, at Baltimore, at New Orleans) comprise a historic slate. Per ESPN, no team in NFL history has played three teams this good this late in the season. The three-game run after that gantlet doesn't get much easier, either - resurgent Atlanta, the Rams, and what could well be a winner-take-all Week 17 showdown with the Seahawks in Seattle - loom.

There are plenty in the 49ers' locker room that need to up their games in the weeks to come, no doubt, but in the NFL, when there's slack, more often than not, the quarterback is expected to pick it up.

And there's slack to be had at the moment.

Kwon Alexander's season-ending pectoral injury has forced the 49ers' defense - which was historically good in the early part of the season - to adjust nearly everything they do. Alexander's appreciable versatility as a weak-side linebacker, paired with the Niners' elite pass rush, allowed San Francisco's defense to be exotic and aggressive. Those characteristics haven't carried forward without Alexander - at least not at the level previously displayed - and the added loss of pass rusher Dee Ford, who sprained his hamstring last week, only amplifies the precariousness of the 49ers' situation as they take on two all-time great quarterbacks (Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees) and one of the most dynamic playmakers the league has ever seen (MVP candidate Lamar Jackson).

Yes, after trusting Ford and Alexander, and adjusting to rely on them for the first two months of the season, the 49ers would be foolhardy to presume their defense is strong enough to be the backbone of a win in Sunday's game.

That, of course, puts more onus on the 49ers' offense, which is having an identity entity crisis of its own at the moment. The absence of tight end George Kittle is cementing the All-Pro's irreplaceable value to the team. Sans Kittle, the Niners can't move the ball on the ground - Kittle is arguably the best run-blocking tight end in the game - and the aerial attack has been choppy.

Kittle is Garoppolo's safety blanket. Even missing the last two games and a good chunk of the Halloween game in Arizona due to injury, the tight end leads the team in targets.

In his absence, Garoppolo has tried to go to other targets, but they have either dropped the ball or are now injured.

It remains to be seen if Kittle (knee, ankle injuries), Emmanuel Sanders (rib cartilage injury), and Deebo Samuel (shoulder stinger) - the three best pass-catchers on the team - can play Sunday. Even if Sanders can go, it's hard to see him staying on the field for a full game's worth of snaps with his injury.

Possibly down his Nos. 1, 2, and 3 options, Garoppolo might have to make do with four healthy receivers for Sunday's playoff-like game - Kendrick Bourne, Dante Pettis, Marquise Goodwin, and Richie James - and a run game that isn't reliable at the moment.

It's a lot to put on the shoulders of someone who has yet to throw 700 passes in the NFL - even though he's 28, he's still considered a young, learning quarterback by the 49ers staff - and yet such is his lot.

If the formula from last Sunday's game plays out again this Sunday - and it's more than plausible that's the case - Garoppolo will be asked to do the hardest thing a quarterback can do, arguably the toughest thing to do in football:

To be both prolific and accurate.

Good quarterbacks can be accurate, but not take risks and make big plays with their arms.

Good quarterbacks can make throws into windows no one saw, pushing the ball downfield, but also into danger.

But the great quarterbacks find a way to challenge defenses deep, to pick up those big chunk plays, without turning the ball over.

For instance: Aaron Rodgers has 42 touchdowns to four interceptions in the last two seasons. That's greatness.

It'll take a long time for Garoppolo to be on Rodgers' level, but he has shown he has the ability to be great before - no one questions the arm or the toughness of No. 10. But, unlike in Sunday's game, when he threw for 400 yards but threw two interceptions that would have buried the Niners against a superior team - can he put it all together, even if just for an evening? Can he post a 300-plus yard game without turning the ball over?

It's a big ask - he's done it twice in his NFL career. But it's a big game, the first of many to come.

Of course, the 49ers would prefer to keep Garoppolo sheltered - to not put the burden of wins and losses on his shoulder as if he were Russell Wilson - but they might not have that option. In a way, the playoffs have started, for San Francisco.

Ready or not, we're about to see if Jimmy G can make the leap.

Visit The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) at www.mercurynews.com

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