SANTA CLARA, Calif. — As deeply as the 2018 San Francisco 49ers season has cratered — injuries, turnovers, a general atmosphere of frustration and impotence — they continue to find new and exciting ways to drill down even further.
On Sunday, against the NFL’s only remaining undefeated team in the Los Angeles Rams, it was a strip-pick in the third quarter at the expense of C.J. Beathard and George Kittle, running back Matt Breida going down with injury — again — on the second play of the game, a snap to nobody and a strip sack fumble caught midair. It was four sacks by Aaron Donald. It was four turnovers.
San Francisco continued to put the d-e-d in ‘confounded,’ and though some of the dressing was new, the fundamental flaws were the same: The 49ers played like a team headlined by backups (which they are), with all the attendant lack of polish, a lack of offensive line cohesion and an offense largely bereft of playmakers. In in a 39-10 loss marked by two interceptions, two fumbles lost, a safety, a blocked punt and seven sacks, the 49ers looked exactly as they should have been expected to look, without the coverup that is Jimmy Garoppolo and Jerick McKinnon.
“It was a bad effort. We just didn’t get it done,” said tackle Joe Staley. “We just didn’t give C.J. time. He was under duress the whole game. We’ve got to do a better job opening up the run game. Not holding onto the ball has become unfortunately a theme the last couple weeks. A lot of stuff to work on.”
San Francisco has now turned the ball over 14 times in its last four games, while getting just one takeaway from a defense that generated just four pressures against the Rams. On the season, the 49ers have 18 giveaways for a -15 margin — the worst in the NFL On Sunday, two of those turnovers came from Beathard, and two came from running backs.
“We put that on us,” Staley said. “You always strive for a clean game, and obviously today was not a clean game at all.”
The 49ers, without big-money quarterback Garoppolo — who returned to the team facility this week after successful ACL surgery — or starting running back McKinnon (preseason ACL) have been unable to find any offensive rhythm, save for short spurts. They didn’t have it again on Sunday, save for the final drive of the first half, which produced San Francisco’s only score.
“I feel like we’re the reason we’re losing these games,” Breida said.
Rams quarterback Jared Goff, a Novato native who grew up a rabid 49ers fan, had a superlative Levi’s Stadium debut in 2017 — completing 22 of 28 passes for 292 yards and three touchdowns. He didn’t have to have those kinds of numbers against his childhood team on Sunday, but he didn’t need to. Goff was an efficient 18-of-24 for 202 yards and two touchdowns, as his defense consistently gave him short fields.
Los Angeles scored 24 points on the four San Francisco turnovers, including drives of 27 (field goal), 21 (touchdown), 60 (touchdown) and 27 yards (touchdown).
“Hold on to the ball,” said Kittle. “That’s about it. That’s on all of us. That’s a mindset by a team. If you don’t get the ball on defense and you turn it over on offense, you can’t do anything.”
Three plays after Breida went down, Beathard was sacked by Samson Ebukam, sending the ball flying. Trevon Young recovered it mid-air. The Rams shot themselves in the foot — with a third-down screen pass dropped by Todd Gurley — but got the first points of the contest on a 35-yard field goal.
Raheem Mostert gained all 48 of San Francisco’s yards on the next drive, but linebacker Cory Littleton hounded the San Francisco offense, stemming Kyle Juszczyk off his route up the seam for an incomplete pass, sticking Mostert for no gain and then shooting the B gap vacated by Mike McGlinchey to drop Beathard for a sack, forcing a punt.
Goff — who won his second game in a row at Levi’s — threw a near pick with just over a minute left in the first quarter, sailing a third-and-three pass over Gerald Everett and right into the chest of Jaquiski Tartt. Tart, though, dropped what would have been a sure 50-yard pick-six. San Francisco — which had just one pick in six games — saw a scoring chance literally slip through its fingers. It would have been just the second San Francisco interception on the season.
When Breida returned to the game with a minute left in the first quarter, after aggravating an ankle injury from earlier this season, he was greeted by Aaron Donald, who ripped his first carry away from him on the 22-yard line for a forced and recovered fumble.
“I just have to have better ball security,” Breida said. “I have to protect the ball better. I blame no one but myself for that.”
Donald had that strip, plus four sacks on the day, and terrorized the 49ers offensive line.
After the Donald strip led to a seven-yard touchdown run by Gurley (his first of two) to start the second quarter, the comedy of errors continued. Beathard tried to change a play at the line, and center Weston Richburg snapped the ball as Beathard looked away. Beathard fell on the fumble to recover it, but two plays later, Donald bullied Richburg into Beathard for a sack. On the next play after that, Littleton blocked a punt out of the back of the end zone for a safety.
The 49ers’ defense stiffened up, though, halting a Rams drive with a last-man-standing tackle by defensive lineman DeForest Buckner to stop Gurley, and Ronald Blair III sniffing out a one-touch pass from Goff to Gerald Everett in the backfield to force a 37-yard field goal. Los Angeles was held to its season-low in yardage (331), but still outscored an opponent by 29 points or more for the sixth time in the last two seasons — the most in the NFL.
“At the end of the day, we lost” Buckner said. “We lost the turnover battle, and we lost another game. We’ve got to do a better job, trying to find better opportunities for our offense by taking the ball away.”
An inexplicable headfirst slide for 13 yards by Beathard began another collapse, as the San Francisco quarterback followed that up with a pick at the Rams’ 35 with 6:17 to go before half, trying to find Marquise Goodwin. It was one of just five targets of Goodwin on the day (all but two came in the fourth quarter), as 49ers receivers caught only four passes.
San Francisco managed to score at the very end of the first half only thanks to the strength of Kittle. The 49ers tight end, who ranked first in the NFL with 305 yards after catch before the game, hauled in a 23-yard pass, stiff-arming one defensive back while carrying another on his back, to get San Francisco in the red zone. He then made a leaping grab just inside the goal line for a nine-yard touchdown, as he was pushed out the front of the end zone by Michael Brockers. The play was reviewed, and Kittle was ruled in.
With 11 minutes to go in the third quarter, Ahkello Witherspoon and Adrian Colbert both went up to contest a ball to Cooks down the far sideline. The two got tangled in mid-air, and Colbert came down hard on his right leg. He was carted off the field, but returned to the bench with seven minutes to go, walking without a limp, but was not much of a factor. He said he experienced a lot of pain after the initial play, but it quickly faded after he got into the locker room, and would not specify where in the leg he felt pain.
San Francisco — sans the inactive Richard Sherman (calf) and Jimmie Ward (hamstring) — could do little to stop Goff and the Rams in the second half, as they scored on three of their six drives, with the sixth ending in a victory formation run by backup Sean Mannion.
“It’s always embarrassing when you lose like that,” head clack KYLe Shanahan said. “We’ve got pride, and we’re also confident in what we do,. We’re not proud of our record right now.”