SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Running full-speed through the heart of the 49ers offensive line, Cardinals safety Budda Baker was left unblocked as he barreled toward quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo five yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Seeing Baker coming in hot, Garoppolo absorbed the blow and delivered a strike to running back Jeff Wilson Jr., who left his defender on the ground as he sprinted into the end zone for a 25-yard overtime touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.
“I felt the pressure and just put it out there for Jeff to make a play on it,’ Garoppolo said. “I just heard the crowd going. I didn’t even see him catch it.”
Standing in the pocket and completing passes while under duress has become commonplace for Garoppolo this season. Teams have started to sell out to stop San Francisco’s running game and force Garoppolo to beat defenses with his arm, but it’s Garoppolo’s willingness to take hits that could help the 49ers navigate the toughest stretch of their 2019 schedule.
“I think you either have that or don’t have that,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said. “I think it takes very special guys to hang in there with the toughness that you’ve got to have, and still be able to make decisions … That’s why I don’t think there’s 32 on the planet, I think there’s less than that.”
Through 11 weeks of the regular season, the 49ers are the second-highest scoring team in the NFL (29.5 points per game), and boast the third-best rushing game in the league, averaging 149 yards per game on the ground. Over the last two weeks, however, San Francisco has seen its opponents stifle that rushing attack.
After the Seattle Seahawks held the 49ers to just 87 rushing yards in Week 10 by putting eight players in the box to ensure every running gap was covered, Arizona employed the same concept the following Sunday.
Applying heavy pressure by sending defensive backs and linebackers — often allowed to pin their ears back and get into the 49ers backfield — the Cardinals held San Francisco to just 37 rushing yards — a season low.
“Everybody is basically lining up and telling us ‘We’re not going to let y’all run,’” Wilson told the Examiner. “Obviously, you have to come back, and Kyle [Shanahan] and those guys, they’re doing a great job of adjusting.”
With more players near the line of scrimmage posing a threat as potential pass rushers, calling plays with hot-reads or quick progressions has become necessary for Garoppolo.
On top of the hit courtesy of Baker, Garoppolo was hit four additional times and sacked twice by the Cardinals defense. That, however, is what San Francisco has needed Garoppolo to do: Take the hits that other quarterbacks might not be willing to, and deliver well-timed, accurate balls down field.
“I think it’s just you’ve got to be willing to do it,” Garoppolo said. “I think as a quarterback, your toughness isn’t really exemplified by hitting people and things like that. But can you hang in the pocket, give the guy an extra second in his route.”
Over the course of the next month, the 49ers will need Garoppolo to stick with this plan as they’ll hit the toughest three-game stretch in NFL history, taking on the Green Bay Packers, Baltimore Ravens and New Orleans Saints — all 8-2.
According to ESPN Stats and Info, no team in league history has played three-straight teams with a .800-plus winning percentage in the Super Bowl era. Up first: The Packers this Sunday.
“They’re fast,” Garoppolo said. “The D-Line gets after it, usually four, maybe five guys, but they’re pretty talented across the board. There’s really no weak links in the defense. They’ll make you earn everything all the way down the field.”
Armed with linebackers Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith, who have recorded 10 and 8.5 sacks this season, respectively, Green Bay is entirely capable of getting after the quarterback with pressure coming off the edge.
What bodes well for San Francisco, however, is that Green Bay is currently the eighth-worst team in the NFL defending the run, giving up 126.9 yards on the ground per game. Against the pass, the Packers aren’t much better, as they’ve allowed the 10th-most yards per game through the air as well (257.8).
In his last three games, Garoppolo has thrown for 933 yards — his best three-game stretch since arriving in San Francisco in 2017 — when his team needed it most. They’ll likely need more of it in the coming weeks, even if he has to endure the hits, as the 49ers push for their first playoff berth since 2013.
“If he didn’t take a shot, I wouldn’t have gotten the ball or scored that touchdown,” Wilson said. “If that wasn’t a brave guy standing in there with guys right in his face, I don’t know if we would have won that game.”