Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
"Oh, Fortuna, blind, heedless goddess, I am strapped to your wheel,” Ignatius belched.
- John Kennedy Toole. A Confederacy of Dunces. 1980.
ESPN’s Monday Night Football crew did its best job to sell a nationally televised game that pit the one-win New York Giants against the two-win San Francisco 49ers.
It’s hard to sell mediocrity, even to a country with a lust for violence and blood.
For all the small, positive steps the 49ers took last night, the team was able to revive the lack of aggression, execution, and communication that have doomed them all season.
Lack of a Pass Rush
For the last three weeks, fans watched defensive coordinator Robert Saleh switch from his bland system and called an aggressive defense. The change of pace has pressured quarterbacks and generated turnovers.
On the 49ers’ second defensive series, Saleh called a tackle-end exchange stunt with defensive end Cassius Marsh coming from the left edge and looping right toward the middle of the line.
We’ve seen Saleh call more of these stunts, and they’ve been effective. Marsh forced Manning’s throw, and it was tipped in the air. It appeared as if the 49ers came down with the ball, but I believe I heard the commentator state a Giants’ linemen had possession.
On the Giants’ next possession, Saleh called the tackle-end stunt again and dropped the secondary into a cover three.
Pro football teams are not morons, and will not continue to fall for the same stunt again and again. This time, Marsh was blocked out of the play, giving Manning plenty of time to find an uncovered Odell Beckham, Jr. standing in the end zone.
The tackle-end stunt is a complement to a pass rush, but it’s not an every down blitz.
Saleh uses the stunt to try and bring artificial aggression to his defense, rather than call a blitz that brings a menacing threat. It’s the same as adding processed American cheese to a school lunch hamburger and calling it a gourmet meal.
The Secondary: A Return of Confusion
After last week’s domination of the Oakland Raiders, I thought the 49ers’ defensive backs had finally figured out the coverages in Saleh’s playbook. The days of the lost cornerback were over!
That thought died a painful death last night.
It was apparent Beckham was going to have a big night, but the question was which man in the 49ers’ secondary was going to allow it.
I’m unclear why it took the Giants’ coaching staff an full half of football to figure out the sacrificial lamb was defensive back Ahkello Witherspoon.
After 49ers’ quarterback Nick Mullens opened the second half with a touchdown drive that chewed up almost seven minutes of the clock, the Giants decided to charm momentum any way possible.
Manning opened with a big play to Beckham, who was wide open over the middle. On third-and-seven, Beckham beat Witherspoon on a go route, but could not come down with the one-handed touchdown catch. Witherspoon felt the need to celebrate by signaling an incomplete pass.
The celebration would be short-lived.
The Giants came back with the same play. The only difference was Beckham caught the ball in the end zone. Once again, Witherspoon was two steps behind.
Of course, Witherspoon turned around and looked for help from his teammates. It seemed as if he should have had safety help over the top, which is entirely possible, but the safety was playing all the way on the short hash mark. There’s no way he could have made it over in time to assist.
Ten weeks have passed in the 2018 season, and the 49ers’ secondary is just as confused as they were back in spring camp.
The Game-Winning Drive: A Comedy of Errors
Cellar-dwelling football teams usually don't deliver an enjoyable football game. Last night, about 57 minutes of the game was worth watching.,
The last three minutes was a showcase of two lousy football teams.
Manning took over to attempt a game-winning drive, and that’s when the 49ers’ coverage lapses and Saleh’s poor play calling really kicked into high gear.
On the second play, Manning found a wide-open Evan Engram for a big gain.
Just before the two-minute warning, 49ers’ cornerback Richard Sherman made a fantastic tackle for loss. For a moment, I thought Sherman’s tackle would reset the defense and halt the Giants in their tracks.
What we saw was the longest two minutes in the history of football. Besides four penalties, Saleh flipped to the forbidden section of the playbook and had Cassius Marsh cover running back Saquon Barkley in open space, not once but twice.
The first time, Saleh sent pressure and had Marsh cover Barkley one-on-one down the sideline. Manning saw the mismatch and threw it up for Barkley, but it fell incomplete.
Two plays later, Manning found Barkley for a big gain. This time, Marsh had ‘“help”’ from middle linebacker Malcolm Smith. Like Crom on his mountain, Barkley laughed the two mortals trying to keep up with him.
Rookie linebacker Fred Warner played an excellent football game. I have his name scattered throughout my game notes with a variety of comments:
• Warner fills/shoots gap; forced ball carrier outside
• Pass-break up – Warner
• Tackle-for loss – Warner
Warner’s patience and discipline have been overlooked this year, and I am hoping he continues to develop this season and during the spring.
Running back Matt Breida deserved the 100 yards rushing and the fantastic touchdown snag early in the game. I was happy to see him play such a solid football game.
All the Feels
My brain and body went through all the emotions this evening. I stood up and shouted, “What a catch!” when Breida capped off the 49ers’ opening drive of the second half. But less than five minutes later, I threw a pair of socks across the room when Witherspoon allowed Beckham’s score.
It was great to see Mullens battle all game and bounce back from two interceptions. He led two long drives last night: The 49ers third possession was eight plays for 75 yards and lasted for 4:38.
The 49ers defense held the Giants to three 3-and-out series, but couldn’t figure out how to stop Manning when it mattered.
I am hopeful the film reveals more to me than what I think I know right now. Usually, that’s the case.
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