SANTA CLARA — Three times on Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers should have come away from a trip into the end zone with a touchdown. Instead, they settled for three field goals.
That’s why, with 1:08 left, Detroit Lions quarterback Matt Stafford had his team within three points, after San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo took his sixth sack of the day.
Once down 30-13, the Lions had scored two unanswered touchdowns, and against a secondary that, apart from Richard Sherman, had struggled to find its mettle, they began driving for a third. Stafford, though, missed three straight passes, and San Francisco — which lost five of its first six games last season by three points or less — came away with a 30-27 win.
“A win is a win,” said cornerback Richard Sherman, “but it feels like a loss.”
The 49ers (1-1) left 12 points on the field because of red zone inefficiency, and Garoppolo — who threw three interceptions last week against Minnesota — contributed to three of his six sacks by holding the ball too long, instead of throwing it away.
“I thought he took too many,” said head coach Kyle Shanahan. “We’ve got to get open. We’ve got to beat man coverage, that’s for sure … on a number of those, I thought we had to get rid of it.”
After a 66-yard touchdown run with 11:21 to go in the game by Matt Breida — who racked up a career-high 138 rushing yards — San Francisco settled for its third field goal on a trip to the red zone, while Detroit scored back-to-back touchdowns.
“After that play, I felt like we stepped off the gas a little bit,” said wide receiver Kendrick Bourne. “We’ve got to stay away from that.”
After early pressures on Stafford, the defensive line went quiet for the second and third quarters.
“Guys were lackadaisical out there,” said defensive lineman DeForest Buckner. “We had them down. We should have kept them down.”
Stafford avoided Buckner and the San Francisco pass rush with his two-second trigger, and picked apart a young secondary, going 18-of-32 for 220 yards in the second half alone to get Detroit close– closer than they should have been, thanks to the 49ers’ continuing issues inside the 20-yard line.
Garoppolo — who finished 18-of-26 for 206 yards (the fewest passing yards in his short 49ers tenure) — was sacked twice on his first trip inside the Lions 20, forcing a 45-yard field goal by Robbie Gould to put San Francisco up, 3-0.
After a leaping, spinning, reaching touchdown by Detroit’s Kenny Golladay around a run-cheating Ahkello Witherspoon, the 49ers offense shuddered to life, albeit for brief spurts.
After missing George Kittle twice, Garoppolo found his tight end for a gain of 17 to open the second quarter.
Shanahan lined running back Alfred Morris up at wide receiver — for a gain of 16 — and later in the same drive employed the mesh-point shovel pass on a misdirection for Matt Breida for eight yards.
To cap off the drive, Shanahan lined Kendrick Bourne up in the backfield, from where he was completely uncovered for an easy four-yard touchdown to give the 49ers a 10-7 lead.
With Elijah Lee starting for the injured Brock Coyle, the defense got an injection of speed and athleticism, as Lee tripped up LaGarrett Blount for a three-yard gain on second down late in the second quarter, and the next play, stayed with a rolling Stafford to strip sack him, serving up a fumble for Cassius Marsh to recover.
Once again, though, the red zone issues reared their ugly head. Eli Harold — traded last month by the 49ers — sacked Garoppolo on third-and-eight at the Detroit 14. San Francisco was forced to kick another Gould field goal — his 49ers-record 28th straight make — from 42 yards out.
In their first two red zone trips, the 49ers saw three sacks, two incomplete passes and two designed rushing plays for two yards.
“Those ones in the red zone, especially, you’d like to give a guy an opportunity, and if he doesn’t beat man, we’ve got to get rid of the ball,” Shanahan said.
San Francisco ended the first half by allowing its fourth sack — Garoppolo’s second on second down — and punting in the shadow of its own end zone.
That punt was followed by a 56-yard, 46-second drive by Stafford, where he picked apart the middle in the absence of suspended linebacker Reuben Foster, completing five of his first seven passes.
Stafford, though, sailed a third-and-two nine-yard slant to Marvin Jones in the back of the end zone, and Detroit settled for a 27-yard field goal. The Lions went into the locker room trailing 13-10, when they could easily have been down by 11.
D.J. Reed opened the second half with what looked to be a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, but he grabbed a would-be tackler’s face mask just inside the 20. The penalty put San Francisco again in the red zone, except this time, Garoppolo hit Garrett Celek for an 11-yard touchdown.
That gave the 49ers a bit of separation, but without speedster Marquise Goodwin, 49ers receivers couldn’t get separation against the four-man Detroit rush. Even Dante Pettis — who opened his game with a 35-yard grab — could only get schemed open, not free as a result of his own (considerable) speed.
“It was just man-to-man,” Pettis said. “They weren’t doing anything crazy, weren’t mixing up coverages, really. I don’t know. They just went down to where the ball went … I think receivers can jump start an offense. You get two catches for 10 yards each, all of the sudden you’re 20 yards down the field. People feed off of that.”
All-Pro Detroit cornerback Darius Slay went down with a concussion midway through the third quarter. On San Francisco’s next series, Breida — sitting on 72 yards — hit the hole over right guard, snaked his way through three tackles, angled left, followed a 20-yard block by Pierre Garcon on cornerback Nevin Lawson, cut back right and found the end zone for his 66-yard score.
“He’s a monster,” Breida said of Garcon. “He’s fearless to go to the middle to catch balls, and he’s not afraid to block. I feel like that is what’s going to one day make him a Hall of Famer. He’s been in this league for a long time, and that’s the reason why. He can do it all.”
That touchdown should have been the nail in the coffin, but then Detroit went 80 yards in five plays, capped with a Marvin Jones score, and nearly scored again on a punt return by Jamal Agnew. A pair of blocks in the back, though, negated that play, with 6:08 left in the game.
After a 21-yard gainer by Stafford to Golloday, Buckner and Ronald Blair teamed up for an eight-yard sack, and Jimmie Ward played close coverage on Jones on an end zone fade. On his next throw, Stafford had time on third-and-goal at the 15, and found Michael Roberts in the soft spot in the zone under Adrian Colbert for a 15-yard touchdown, bringing Detroit to within three.
“We had a lot of energy at the beginning of the game,” Buckner said. “I feel like the energy kind of fell off a little bit, and we needed to build it back up that last defensive stand that we had. I feel like guys kind of woke up during that last drive on defense.”
After an interception-that-wasn’t to Tracy Walker III — negated by Quandre Diggs holding Kittle on the opposite side of the formation — Garoppolo was sacked for the sixth time. The ensuing punt gave the ball to the Lions, But Stafford missed three straight passes, including what would have been a game-breaking 50-yard throw at the opposing 20, overthrowing Golloday.jimmy garoppoloKendrick Bournekyle shanahanMatt BreidaNFLSan Francisco 49ers