By Bruce Macgowan
Special to The Examiner
The 49ers have picked the right time to get hot. After 14 games, they look every bit as good as any team in the NFL. In October, after an embarrassing blowout loss at the hands of the visiting Cardinals, this didn’t seem possible.
But getting literally and figuratively punched in the mouth by Arizona was precisely the wake-up call the 49ers needed. So how did they turn their season around? Let’s break it down:
Coaches will tell you that you win games by playing smash mouth defense and that’s what the 49ers have been doing for most of the last two months. In spite of having to play on the road this Thursday night in Nashville, the 49ers are brimming with confidence. The Titans will have a challenging time dealing with a ferocious Niner defense.
Facing the former league MVP Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons this past Sunday, San Francisco’s defense was unfazed. Although Ryan was able to compile 236 yards through the air, he was sacked three times and was repeatedly pressured into throwing desperation passes that fell to the turf incomplete.
The front line also put up a virtual concrete wall, stuffing the Falcons running attack. Atlanta was only able to scratch out a measly 62 yards on the ground. All-purpose running back/receiver Cordarrelle Patterson had a particularly frustrating day. The Falcons’ star could only squeeze out 18 yards on 11 carries while catching just two passes for another five yards.
The Niners’ defensive line overwhelmed the Falcons repeatedly. Nick Bosa, Samson Ebukam and Arden Key each had a sack. Key would have had two had he not been called for a late hit on Ryan when he buried the Falcons’ QB into the turf, landing on top of him. The Falcons scored their only touchdown of the game on the next play.
Meanwhile, linebacker Fred Warner was at the top of the stat sheet, as usual, repeatedly delivering punishment with nine tackles including six solos. Warner is one of the best in the game. He’s durable and he’s always flying around sniffing out plays. And, as is the case with most linebackers, Warner loves to hit people.
Meanwhile, veteran defensive back Jaquiski Tartt, who has been frustrated by injuries throughout his Niners’ career, made a couple of key plays including one where he stonewalled Ryan at the two-yard line on a big third down and goal play in the third quarter. Needing this win dearly to keep the playoff hopes alive, Falcons’ coach Arthur Smith had his team go for a TD three times on 4th and short yardage near the goal line and came up empty handed each time, much to the delight of a roaring Levi’s Stadium crowd.
All hail Jimmy
Those fans that were carping for the Niners to replace Jimmy Garoppolo with 21-year-old prized rookie Trey Lance are now suddenly singing Garoppolo’s praises. It’s hard to believe that this may be a lame duck season for Garoppolo who is playing some of the best football of his career lately. He’s reminding many of the Jimmy G they saw two years ago when he led the 49ers to a Superbowl.
To be sure, Garoppolo has been getting great protection from the offensive line. Given the time needed in Sunday’s game, Garoppolo sliced up the Falcons’ defense by zipping 18 completions through the airlanes on 25 attempts for 235 yards, a TD pass and no interceptions. An even more telling stat? When Garoppolo starts games, the 49ers have a 32-15 record. But when he’s has been out with injuries the team has won only 5 of 23 games.
Of course, it certainly doesn’t hurt that Garoppolo has perhaps the best set of receivers to work with in football. George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiuyk and Jauan Jennings caught 14 passes collectively for over 200 yards, with Jennings pulling in his second TD catch of the year in Sunday’s win.
Usually a team will run the football to grind out yardage, use up time and wear down the other team’s defense. And usually a team will go to its running game early to set up the pass. But with a season ending injury to Raheem Mostert and productive rookie Elijah Mitchell tending to a knee injury and a concussion, Garoppolo was passing early and that helped to set it up for all purpose running back Jeff Wilson Jr. to carry the ball on the ground. Coach Kyle Shanahan designed it that way as the Niners went to the pass early, but then repeatedly gashed Atlanta with Wilson leading their running attack once they moved ahead on the scoreboard.
Wilson also received terrific help, particularly from perennial all-pro Trent Williams as well as rugged fullback Kyle Juszczyk. Those two guys helped to pave the way for Wilson. He darted through openings they created and rushed for a career high 110 yards, including a five-yard TD bolt that pretty much put the game out of reach early in the third quarter. If Mitchell is still unable to go Thursday night, Shanahan and Garoppolo feel confident Wilson can do the job.
But, perhaps more importantly, Garoppolo’s teammates have great confidence in him. He’s fought through some nagging injuries and put up some great numbers in recent weeks, earning plenty of respect from his teammates.
Now winners of six of their last eight games, the 49ers go into the last three weeks of the regular season in pretty good shape. To snag those victories, the Niners have had to overcome some damaging injuries while also coming up with plenty of clutch play.
But there’s an intangible quality this team has that cannot be quantified. The stats won’t show it. Perhaps more than any other team sport, football requires a strong and positive emotional commitment. And it’s a lot easier to stay emotionally confident when you’re winning. The 49ers have been doing a lot of that lately. They’re feeling very good about themselves while moving up the NFL’s playoff ladder.
Bruce Macgowan is a freelance contributor to The Examiner.