SANTA CLARA — Everyone around the team knew it was a big deal when the 49ers traded a second-round pick for Jimmy Garoppolo. But even they couldn’t predict it was such a watershed moment.
Garoppolo has set a new career high for passing yards in each of his three starts under center. He’s gone from a small-sample-size phenomenon to franchise savior in record time.
On Sunday, he added another chapter to the legend of Jimmy G by authoring a last-minute drive to secure a 25-23 win over the Tennessee Titans at Levi’s Stadium.
It was his stiffest test he’s faced since moving west. The guests’ defense is led by Dick LeBeau, one of the NFL’s most notorious proponents of the blitz. He wasn’t shy ratcheting up the pressure against the Niners’ pass protection, which was missing starting right tackle Trent Brown. After the game, head coach Kyle Shanahan said he had never faced so many blitz calls in his career.
But, it didn’t faze Garoppolo. Quite the opposite, actually.
Garoppolo had a 104.2 quarterback rating when pressured, according to Pro Football Focus. For context, the best QB rating in the league — regardless of pressure — is 105.4.
“I love it when they blitz us like that, it makes everything a lot easier,” Garoppolo said. “… When they blitz us like that, it creates holes in the defense. They have guys dropping and doing responsibilities that they’re not used to.”
Shanahan said earlier this season that opponents had an easy formula for shutting down the 49ers offense: Overload the box and send more rushers than the Niners have blockers.
That won’t work anymore with Garoppolo under center. He’s too quick of a thinker, too accurate of a passer.
And he makes his teammates better.
Marquise Goodwin continued to shine as the No. 1 receiver as the Niners improved to 4-10. Goodwin caught 10 of the 13 passes thrown his way for 114 yards. Rookies Kendrick Bourne and Trent Taylor combined for eight catches and 125 yards. Tight ends George Kittle and Garrett Celek found space in the Titans’ strained zones to extend drives and, in Kittle’s case in the fourth, set up the game-winning field goal.
It all starts with Garoppolo, who is a natural leader, according to his teammates.
“Everybody here thinks the world of him,” Kyle Juszczyk said. “He continues to perform, and he’s helped elevate everyone else’s play. So, yes, I think he’s exceeded some expectations.”
By now, even the most reluctant critic has to admit that Garoppolo is a special player and that the 49ers lucked out by dealing a second-round pick for a franchise keystone.
And for the first time this season, fans in Santa Clara were justifiably fired up for the home team.
Can’t stop Robbie
If there’s a criticism for the early returns of the Garoppolo/Shanahan offense, it’s that they’re struggling to get in the end zone when they get in scoring range.
But, the damage of that trend has been limited by kicker Robbie Gould, who accounted for 18 points on Sunday. Like the Chicago game, the offense needed Gould to bail them out several times. Unlike the game against the Bears, Gould hit several from distance. In the fourth quarter alone, he hit from 50-, 48- and 45-yards out. According to Elias, he’s the first kicker to make 15 field goals over three consecutive games in the history of the NFL.
Gould said he relishes the moment he can silence the opposing sideline. And to his credit, he’s made a habit of doing exactly that.
At 36, Gould is the oldest player on the 49ers roster. Before signing with the Niners, he had to make a decision if he wanted to keep playing football at all. Veterans with his experience don’t typically join rebuilding teams. But Gould was drawn to Shanahan and doesn’t regret his decision one bit.
“I can tell you that I made the absolute right decision coming here,” Gould said. “I don’t make decisions for my family and for my career just on a hunch.”
In 2006, Gould was first-team All-Pro by making 28-of-32 field goal attempts. This season, he’s 36-for-38.
D steps up in winning time
After the first half favored the 49ers, the Titans claimed momentum in the third.
The Niners defense couldn’t slow down Marcus Mariota, who led Tennessee to 10 unanswered points out of halftime and a one-point lead.
Instead of folding, the defense made stops when it counted — allowing Gould to make a bigger difference, because field goals don’t do much when your defense is surrendering touchdowns.
The 49ers forced Tennessee into a three-and-out with under seven minutes to play and then held the Titans to a field goal the next time they got the ball.
During that final stand, edge-rusher Eli Harold told the huddle to go hard no matter what. That they’re prepared for these scenarios and they can put the team in a position to win if they just do their jobs.
“Jimmy’s going to find a way no matter what,” Reuben Foster said, explaining why the defense had confidence after they held the Titans to a field goal with a little more than a minute remaining.
The defense bended more than defensive coordinator Robert Saleh would’ve preferred, but it didn’t break when it counted most.
All three phases contributed to the Niners’ latest win, and it’s impossible not to be optimistic about this team’s long-term outlook.
Contact Jacob C. Palmer at email@example.com or on Twitter, @jacobc_palmer.