Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
The San Francisco 49ers were riding a high after demolishing the Oakland Raiders in the final “Battle of the Bay.” Playing in primetime for the second time in as many games, that high came crashing down Monday night when they lost at home to the lowly New York Giants, 27-23. Quarterback Nick Mullens returned to Earth after an incredible debut, the pass rush couldn’t manage to bring down QB Eli Manning and the secondary was truly outclassed by the Giants’ wide receivers. So, standing at 2-8, where does that leave the rebuild?
It is thought that championship rosters are generally built from the inside out, and by that logic, the 49ers are in a good position offensively. The offensive line allowed only five pressures on Mullens’ 43 dropbacks and paved the way for running back Matt Breida to rack up 101 yards on only 17 carries in the run game. Left guard Laken Tomlinson has proven to be a key acquisition by Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch. The change of scenery has completely changed the trajectory of Tomlinson’s career. Left tackle Joe Staley and rookie right tackle Mike McGlinchey both put together a good game as they held defensive end Olivier Vernon and the rest of the Giants pass rush to zero sacks. Overall, it was another solid performance from a group that was assumed to be a weakness at the beginning of the season.
This season, the offense is clearly running through two second year players: tight end George Kittle and running back Matt Breida. Kittle continued his primetime coming out party by posting 9 catches for 83 yards including multiple catches on third downs. He now has more catches and yards than wide receivers Pierre Garcon and Marquise Goodwin combined. Meanwhile, Breida is playing like a RB1 when healthy. He added 3 catches for 31 yards and a touchdown reception to his great game on the ground. The emergence of these two sophomore players must excite Kyle Shanahan and the rest of the coaching staff. When QB Jimmy Garoppolo and RB Jerick McKinnon return from ACL tears, Shanahan’s play calling savvy will be fun to watch.
Mullens had the near-impossible task of following up his first career start. He finished the game with 250 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. The two interceptions were indicative of Mullens’ lack of arm strength and a receiving corps that lacks refinement. His first came on an out route to WR Kendrick Bourne that was thrown late and Giants CB Janoris Jenkins outhustled Bourne to the football. The second was ball thrown behind Goodwin after he stopped and started his crossing route. Despite the interceptions, Mullens did execute the game plan and show toughness with a pair of two-minute drives. For the second straight week, he drove the team down the field to end the first half with a field goal. And on the last drive of the game, he completed passes to Goodwin, Bourne and Trent Taylor to put the team in a position to win. If Mullens can continue to build on his early successes, he will go into next season as Garoppolo’s backup.
On the other side of the ball, rookie linebacker Fred Warner played his best game as a pro. With fellow LB Reuben Foster sidelined by a shoulder issue, Warner played like a man possessed in both run and pass defense. He spearheaded a team-wide effort to bottle up Giants’ stellar rookie RB Saquon Barkley as he was only able to rush for 3.4 yards per carry. Warner also managed to cover star WR Odell Beckham Jr. in underneath routes multiple times. Unfortunately, the secondary was not as successful at containing Beckham and the rest of the Giants’ receiving corps. While QB Eli Manning passed for only 188 yards, the 49ers bailed him out with busted coverages at key moments and by committing penalties that resulted in first downs. Second-year cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon had an up and down night, rookie CB D.J. Reed was beaten by WR Sterling Shepard for the game winning touchdown and CB Richard Sherman was flagged for a questionable defensive pass interference call in the red zone.
Against the Raiders, the pass rush appeared to take a giant leap forward with 8 sacks. The Giants entered Monday night with a much-maligned offensive line group that had allowed 31 sacks and all signs pointed to a repeat performance from the 49ers. However, only defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and LB Dekoda Watson were able to log sacks. Edge rusher is clearly the biggest need for a front seven that is already loaded with early round picks. Their inability to get after Manning was a big reason for the secondary’s struggles. Manning appeared to have all night to sit back and wait for Beckham to find a soft spot in the zone for the first of his two touchdown catches. Defensive linemen Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas have not played to their draft pedigree as they were able to muster only two pressures between them.
The 49ers were penalized 10 times for 97 yards, a huge backslide after committing only 8 penalties for 82 yards in their last two games combined. That said, many of the other fundamentals have improved. Tackling, which had been atrocious at the beginning of the season, has been noticeably better. Keeping Saquon Barkley under wraps is not a task that many teams have accomplished this year, but defensive coordinator Robert Saleh schemed to make his as ineffective as possible. Kyle Shanahan managed the clock well at the end of the game even though he had to burn their final timeout after a false start penalty. He appears to get more and more comfortable from week to week. Overall, this is still a team with a bright future that needs to learn how to win.
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