Winless in Seattle: What we learned from Niners’ loss

‘It was just frustrating,’ despite a good effort

It started out as a madcap affair in Seattle on Sunday, loaded with tips and picks, tightropes and trickery.

It ended up a sad sack disappointment for San Francisco, which blew a big lead to an inferior opponent, came storming back and then stalled on the goal line in the closing seconds to succumb to the Seahawks, 30-23.

Quite a finish. Quite an effort. But that one’s gonna leave a mark.

The Niners came into the game riding a three-game winning streak with visions of a holiday playoff run dancing in their heads. But turnovers and mistakes undid the red and gold this December afternoon, returning the team to even money on the season (6-6) and facing a hard road to the postseason.

“It was just frustrating,” said head coach Kyle Shanahan, in a gross understatement. “It was a situation that I thought could go either way.”

So did we. But you can’t knock the Niners for effort … or entertainment.

In a throwback to the heyday of this fierce West Coast rivalry, Seattle and San Francisco put on an absolute show. From the first score of the day, a 73-yard fake punt scamper by the Seahawks, to the sideline magic of George Kittle, who showed remarkable agility and body control on an amazing 48-yard catch and run late in the first half, it was a thriller.

The 49ers’ defensive line was extra aggressive all afternoon, pounding Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson on the regular and standing up for a remarkable fourth quarter goal-line stand. Seattle never game up, riding Wilson’s moxie to come back again and again.

But in a tight ballgame against a hard-nosed opponent, you can’t be generous with the football. Jimmy Garoppolo threw two key interceptions for the 49ers, and they lost another possession to a fumble. Add in 10 penalties for 86 yards, a missed extra point, 16 unanswered points and you start to get the picture. San Francisco had its chance for a big win on the road, but they dropped the ball.

With that said, and another key road game coming up next week in Cincinnati for the Niners, let’s take stock of what we learned from Sunday’s disappointing performance in Seattle.

Feed George Kittle

The Niners’ star tight end missed three games earlier this season, and his central role in the team’s offense appeared to have diminished since he returned. Sure, he was still pancaking defenders in the running game and making some big catches to move the chain, but we haven’t seen that breakout game for Kittle of late. That was until the first half Sunday, when he caught five passes for 121 yards and two touchdowns, including the aforementioned tightrope performance. He ended the day with nine catches for 181 yards and those two scores.

It’s clear Shanahan has embraced a run-first mentality again this season, riding the suprising legs of running back Elijah Mitchell and the versatility of wideout Deebo Samuel in the backfield and the passing game. But, if the 49ers have any chance to reach the postseason, they need Kittle to reemerge as the primary option. He’s the best player on the field. Feed him the ball.

A terse Shanahan wasn’t ready to discuss it after the game, being in an understandably dour mood. ““We always try to get Kittle the ball.” Okay, coach. Got it.

Injuries matter

Maurice Hurst (defensive line), Samuel (wide receiver), Colton McKivitz (offensive line), Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw, Marcell Harris (linebackers). That was the pregame injury list for the Niners, and they couldn’t overcome it. The NFL is a brutal game, as evidenced by the opening kickoff in Seattle which ended with Niners’ running back Trenton Cannon leaving the field in an ambulance. And, in December, good teams pride themselves on their depth, adopting the motto, “Next man up.” But in this case, it’s hard to play without your most dynamic offensive player (Samuel) and the quarterback of your defense (Warner). In my season preview column, I predicted the Niners’ medical trainer would be the team’s MVP if they had a good season. Now’s the time to earn that trophy. Get these guys healthy, or San Francisco will struggle.

Jimmy G is regressing

After spending most of the season managing the ball and minimizing turnovers, Garoppolo has thrown three picks in the past two weeks, causing some clear concern on the San Francisco sideline with Shanahan and his staff. Sadly, the promise of backup quarterback Trey Lance coming to the rescue doesn’t seem very plausible. In what little time the first-round pick received early this season, it was clear he wasn’t near ready. So, it’s going to be Jimmy G down the stretch. And we know he can do it. But for whatever reason, his field vision remains suspect at times, and the ball has been sailing on him. He needs to get back to accuracy as his North Star.

Garoppolo and Shanahan could be seen having some tense discussions on the sidelines, and coach wasn’t pleased with his quarterback’s performance afterward. When asked about Garoppolo’s performance, coach was brief: “He did some good things. Those two picks, though, weren’t good plays. He’s gotta be better with the ball.”

Sloppy special teams

The Niners gave up a touchdown on a fake field. They missed an extra point. They fumbled a kickoff return. It all added up to the difference in a close game. Time to tighten up the special teams unit. As Shanahan put it: “We’ve got to play a helluva lot better.”

Bosa’s the boss

Whatever happens with the Niners this season, we can all say we’ve witnessed greatness on the defensive line. Nick Bosa might have the biggest engine I’ve ever seen on a football field. He brings it every down, with a tremendous combination of speed and power. He’s a tackle’s toughest assignment and a quarterback’s recurring nightmare. If he can stay healthy, he’ll be wearing a gold jacket someday. That’s a big if, given how hard he plays.

asaracevic@sfexaminer.com