By C.J. Peterson
Special to S.F. Examiner
In their first game since losing starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to a season-ending knee injury, the San Francisco 49ers nearly left Southern California with a massive upset victory over the Los Angeles Chargers.
Led by C.J. Beathard, who took showcased his toughness and durability, the 49ers had an offensive pulse, despite missing their $137-million QB. That, and four other takeaways from San Francisco’s 29-27 loss:
Beathard showed a lot of heart
In 2017, over the course of seven in-game appearances, Beathard was sacked 19 times, earning him a reputation as a player with incredible resolve and physical resiliency.
That same grit resurfaced in the Beathard’s first start of the 2018 season, as he was able to keep the 49ers competitive in a contested road game while taking eight hits from Chargers defenders in the process.
“[Beathard] gave us a chance to win today,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said. “He played really tough and made some big plays for us.”
With 298 yards through the air and a pair of touchdowns, Beathard posted the best single-game performance of his career, edging a 294-yard, two-touchdown day in Week 10 of the 2017 season against the New York Giants.
Beathard also threw two interceptions, including the game-sealing pick on San Francisco’s 23-yard line late in the in the fourth quarter, but both were the result of bobbled passes by 49ers receivers.
However, by far the most impressive aspect of Beathard’s performance was the fact that the former third-round pick was fearless when sliding around in the pocket and running over the middle of the field, which resulted in a bona fide beating courtesy of the Chargers defense.
It impressed former Iowa teammate and current 49ers tight end George Kittle.
“He’s a badass,” Kittle said. “He’s C.J. [Beathard] has more grit than anyone I know.”
The Kittle connection could be promising
Beathard’s highlight play of the game came with just over three minutes to go in the third quarter.
On the second play of San Francisco’s eighth drive of the game, Beathard hit Kittle in stride on a seam route down the right sideline for an 82-yard touchdown.
“It’s something that we’ve been practicing all year and we finally got it called,” said Kittle. “C.J. found me, I got a good cut on the safety and it was a good run from there.”
The Beathard-Kittle connection was something that worked for the 49ers offense for the majority of the day. Catching six balls for 125 yards and one touchdown, Kittle would finish the game as the 49ers leading pass-catcher.
The quarterback and tight end’s chemistry was most pronounced on third down, as Beathard was able to find Kittle on twice for third-down conversions to keep a 21-play first-half drive going.
Part of what gives Kittle and Beathard the ability to be so dynamic is the fact that the pair played together collegiately from 2013-16.
With the continuity and familiarity present between the two Hawkeye alums, the 49ers may have a reliable tandem on their hands moving forward.
Defense comes out strong, fades late
The San Francisco defense came out with an abundance of energy against Los Angeles.
On the third play of the game, 49ers safety Antone Exum Jr. snagged a pick-six off of Los Angeles quarterback Philip Rivers — San Francisco’s first pick of the season — to give San Francisco an early 7-0 lead.
After forcing a punt on the Chargers next drive, San Francisco’s offense would score a touchdown of their own to take a 14-0 lead with 3:51 remaining in the first quarter.
That defensive intensity didn’t last long as the Chargers had pulled even at 17 all by halftime.
“I think it was similar to the offense,” said Shanahan. “We’ve got to be a lot more consistent. It can’t be hit or miss and I think it’s been hit or miss.”
A big reason for the 49ers’ inability to maintain that initial level of play was their regression to missing tackles once again.
Heading into Week 4, San Francisco had the highest number of missed tackles (43) in the NFL, after whiffing on 16 against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 3.
“Of course, it’s disappointing,” Shanahan said. “I’ve got to watch tape to get a better idea … I thought we were wrapping guys up, but we bounced off a few times in the second half.”
By game’s end, the 49ers defense had given up 368 total yards of offense, including 104 rushing yards to Chargers running back Melvin Gordon.
With their offense already compromised by the loss of Garoppolo, the 49ers will need their defense to tighten up in order to remain competitive. In the remaining 12 games on their schedule, San Francisco will face the top-ranked Los Angeles Rams’ offense twice, the seventh-ranked Raiders’ offense and the 12th-ranked Denver offense.
They’ll also have to take on Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, so finding some stability defensively will be essential.
Joe Staley is hurt
As if losing an expensive offensive asset in Garoppolo wasn’t bad enough, the 49ers may be without starting left tackle Joe Staley.
The three-time All-Pro left tackle left in the first half with what the 49ers are calling, a knee injury, and did not return. While Shanahan was unable to give further updates on Staley after the game, NBC Sports Bay Area 49ers Insider Matt Maiocco reported that Staley did not appear to injure his ACL based on “preliminary tests.”
In his place, the 49ers sent out five-year veteran Garry Gilliam, who finished the game at left tackle.
In addition to Staley, rookie right tackle Mike McGlinchey also injured his knee during the game, but was able to return later in the second half.
“I was real happy McGlinchey toughed it out there,” Shanahan said. “It obviously wasn’t as bad as Staley’s but I know it was hard for him to go in that second half.”
Shanahan also stated that it was “scary” not having either tackle out on the field at one point in the first half.
As a result of both players’ absence, Shanahan’s offense was forced to settle for a field goal and punt on the final two drives of the first half.
Moving forward, if Staley is not healthy enough to play in next week against the visiting Arizona Cardinals, the likely play is to start Gilliam.
Staley will undergo an MRI on the injured knee to check the severity of his injury, according to Maiocco.
Injuries pile up
Along with Staley and McGlinchey, the 49ers suffered a slew of injuries to starters that ravished their starters on Sunday. With a sigh of disappointment, Shanahan rattled off a list of players who were injured during the game.
The list was as follows: Rookie wide receiver Dante Pettis (knee), starting center Weston Richburg (knee), starting running back Matt Breida (shoulder), defensive end Solomon Thomas (shoulder) and starting wide receiver Marquise Goodwin (hamstring).
Of the wave of injuries, the most concerning is Pettis, who was carter off of the field after appearing to twist his knee while being tackled on a punt return in the first quarter.
As a second-round pick, Pettis was expected to have a substantial role in San Francisco’s offense after having a strong training camp and preseason. Catching three passes for 96 yards, the Washington product has been slowly getting integrated into the 49ers system.
According to Maiocco, Pettis — like Staley — will undergo an MRI to determine what exact structural damage was done to the right knee.
In Breida and Richburg’s case, both players were able to return shortly after sustaining their respective injuries and finish the game, while Goodwin and Thomas did not return.
The 49ers can’t seem to escape a game without — at the very least — a moderately concerning injury, and depth is starting to become a major concern for this team in several areas along the roster.