The Sacramento Bee
The 49ers had an opportunity, and Josh Allen took it away.
There were no answers for Allen or the Bills offense. San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan’s team entered Monday night’s game in Arizona with momentum created by last week’s stirring victory over the Rams. Allen shot down that momentum by playing arguably the best game by a quarterback San Francisco has faced all season.
Allen completed 32 of 40 for 375 yards, with four touchdowns passes and no interceptions as the Buffalo Bills took out the 49ers, 34-24, in a game that wasn’t quite as close as the score indicated. San Francisco fell to 5-7 and will likely have to win its final four remaining games, and get help, in order to sneak through the back door to reach the postseason.
“I felt like this game was a playoff game for us,” Shanahan said.
It was Allen’s third game this season with at least 375 yards, three touchdown passes and at least a 130 passer rating. Drew Brees in 2013 is the only other quarterback in history to have three such games in a season, according to NFL Research.
“He played a freakin’ fantastic game,” cornerback Richard Sherman said.
The 49ers simply didn’t have any answers for Allen despite coming into the game with what they believed was a strong plan. Linebacker Fred Warner said the team had one of its best practice weeks of the season despite being uprooted to Arizona and playing the game at State Farm Stadium, home of the Arizona Cardinals, while Santa Clara County prevented them from practicing or playing at their Levi’s Stadium facility for at least the next two weeks.
49ers defense can’t stop Allen
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh tried mixing up looks in coverage. When the 49ers played zone, Allen picked them apart because the pass rush wasn’t nearly effective enough. When they played man to man, Buffalo’s talented receivers were simply too much for San Francisco’s secondary, which was missing its top three options at slot cornerback, forcing reserve Dontae Johnson to get his first career start at the position.
It led to slot receiver Cole Beasley having a career night with 130 yards and a touchdown. Stefon Diggs added 10 catches and 92 yards. Allen connected on 19 of 22 passes to them both while no 49er had more than four receptions.
“That’s probably the worst part is that we knew exactly what they were running,” linebacker Dre Greenlaw said. “Just from head to toe, and we just came up short. I don’t know. It’s kind of a weird feeling.”
The Bills had 10 possessions but only nine third downs, indicating they were doing a lot of winning on first and second down. And they didn’t punt until the game was decided late in the fourth quarter.
“Honestly, it felt like they were calling the perfect plays for everything that we were dialing up,” Warner said. “So they did just a great job on their end and we were trying different looks, different calls, and we just couldn’t get off the field.”
San Francisco’s three leading tacklers were all defensive backs, Jason Verrett, Johnson and safety Jimmie Ward, which speaks to how effectively the Bills were moving the ball downfield. Allen averaged 9.4 yards per attempt while the Bills went on a 27-10 run through the second and third quarters that effectively decided the game.
Allen was a menace at extending plays, taking advantage of the 49ers’ lack of athleticism on the edges with edges with Nick Bosa and Dee Ford sidelined with their injuries they have kept them out since early September. Defensive end Kerry Hyder has proven to be a reliable pass rusher, but he’s done his best work in traditional drop-back situations. He, along with just about every other member of San Francisco’s defensive line, hasn’t been able to keep pace with mobile quarterbacks in the open field.
Lack of pass rush hinders 49ers
The 49ers, of course, were built around the defensive line during their run to the Super Bowl in 2019. They had arguably the leagues best four-man pass rush, allowing them to keep seven players in coverage. This season, because of injuries and the DeForest Buckner trade, Saleh has been forced to dial up more blitzes, leaving space down the field and stressing the secondary.
Clearly Shanahan’s goal was to replicate last season’s pass rush, but Bosa and Ford have been unavailable due to knee and back injuries.
“That’s what we were built for and going into the season on, but that changed pretty early,” Shanahan said. “I think we’ve done a great job adjusting and plenty of guys have been coming in and out and I think our guys have done an unbelievable job on defense this year … but today wasn’t our best day. We had a huge challenge.”
Offensively, Shanahan said he expected the game to be a shootout in the early going, similar to last year’s December thriller against the Saints. San Francisco won that game, 48-46, as both defenses struggled to make stops. Shanahan saw how the Allen was moving the ball Monday and realized he would need a great performance from Nick Mullens to keep up.
But Mullens couldn’t. He was sporadic throughout and threw two interceptions, though one wasn’t entirely his fault. In the third quarter, he tried to find rookie receiver Brandon Aiyuk over the middle, leading him into a big hit. The ball bounced off his hands and right to Micah Hyde, who returned it deep into San Francisco’s territory to set up a field goal. Tre’Davius White nabbed the second pick off Mullens as he was trying to hit running back Jeff Wilson Jr. at the goal line in the third quarter. White simply wrestled it away.
The 49ers’ three longest drives were their last three, with two going for scores and one resulting in the turnover at the goal line. Mullens had 144 of his 316 yards in the fourth quarter. He completed 26 of 39 passes with three touchdown passes and a 95.7 rating.
His second interception came after he was called for a false start on a quarterback sneak at the goal line. His feet started moving before he took the snap from center Daniel Brunskill, who seemed to struggle getting the snaps off accurately and on time throughout the game.
“He can’t make those turnovers that he had, can’t have that false start that he had there at the inch yard line, but I thought he gave us a chance,” Shanahan said of Mullens. “With the way the whole team played altogether, he did need to play better because I think we had to play perfect in a few areas.”
Samuel shut down
The 49ers, after the defense made a goal line stand to open the game, got back to the Bills’ goal line with the help of a long pass interference call on third down and a few good runs from Raheem Mostert. San Francisco ended up turning the ball over on downs after Buffalo’s defense stiffened for their own goal line stand.
The 49ers’ first points came soon after because running back Zack Moss fumbled a handoff, giving the ball back to the 49ers at the 3-yard line, leading to Aiyuk’s sixth touchdown of the season. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk and tight end Jordan Reed had the other scores that came in the fourth quarter.
But as is the story with most games for San Francisco, they had to be effective at running the ball if Mullens was going to have a shot. The 49ers managed just 86 yards on 21 carries, with Wilson and Mostert having seven runs for 47 yards and nine runs for 42 yards, respectively.
Receiver Deebo Samuel, who had a big game last week, was held without a catch until late in the third quarter. He finished with six catches for 73 yards, but many of them came after the game was out of hand. Aiyuk was the team’s primary target throughout most of the game and he finished with five catches for 95 yards and his score, including a 49-yard deep ball just before Juszczyk’s touchdown.
Shanahan was asked afterward why it took so long to get Samuel involved.
“It was really important to us tonight to establish the run to start the game out to get that going,” Shanahan said. “So we didn’t have a ton of passes in the first half and the ones that we called for him, we didn’t get those coverages and they controlled the ball very well.”
Samuel not getting involved until late was one of many 49ers problems that didn’t have to do with trying to slow Allen. Defensive lineman Kentavius Street gave the Bills a first down with a bad roughing the passer penalty two plays before Allen’s third touchdown pass that made it 24-10.
Sherman was flagged for illegal contact on Diggs during a second quarter play that negated a Warner interception before Allen’s second touchdown pass made it 14-7. Sherman also appeared to blow a coverage a long Bills touchdown in fourth quarter after the lead had been trimmed to 10 in the third.
As Shanahan said, the 49ers needed a near perfect game to beat Allen the way he was playing. And like much of this disappointing season, they simply weren’t good enough.