The 49ers’ defense did something incredible on Sunday: They pushed quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s highly anticipated debut as a starter to secondary status.
That’s because San Francisco’s defense was historically awful in allowing 312 rushing yards to the Buffalo Bills. The unit gave up the second-most rushing yards in franchise history, watched as the fifth running back this season galloped for 100 or more yards against them, and was by far the most conspicuous part of the team’s 45-16 loss.
To find a weaker performance, you’d have to go back to 1958 when Dwight Eisenhower was president and Y.A. Tittle was the 49ers’ starting quarterback. The 49ers gave up 324 rushing yards to the Los Angeles Rams in November that year.
The word “embarrassing” was uttered more than once in the locker room afterward.
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“As a man, that is embarrassing,” inside linebacker Michael Wilhoite said. “And I think everybody in here would feel that way, and I think everybody in here does feel that way.”
Kaepernick’s first start since November got off to a solid start.
He was 8 for 11 for 135 yards in the first half, including a 53-yard touchdown pass to Torrey Smith, the 49ers’ big-play receiver who had been held to three receiving yards in the team’s past two games.
Smith was all alone on the play and the strong wind – gusting to 35 mph – nearly knocked it out of the air. But the receiver paused, snagged the pass and then outran the defense for his longest gain of the season.
“That wind was crazy today,” Smith said. “I was like, ‘Don’t drop this ball.’ It was in the air forever but we were able to make a play out of it.”
But as has been the case this season, the 49ers’ offense sputtered in the second half, and Kaepernick’s final statistics didn’t look all that different than Blaine Gabbert’s have been. He completed only 45 percent of his throws and finished with 187 yards and a 77.8 passer rating. He added another 66 yards on the ground, at one point shaking off a tackle for a would-be safety and gaining 10 yards on the play.
Asked if Kaepernick would remain the starter next week against Tampa Bay, Chip Kelly said, “Yeah, we’ll see.”
The offense also played without running back Carlos Hyde for big chunks after he was taken down hard in the third quarter and went to the sideline with a shoulder injury. With the 49ers down four points that quarter and the offense needing one yard to pick up a first down, Kelly twice called for inside runs by backup Mike Davis. He was stuffed for no gain on both and the 49ers turned the ball over on downs. The Bills scored a touchdown on the ensuing drive.
Kelly said Hyde was unavailable at that point in the game.
“I don’t know exactly what long-term prognosis he has,” he said of Hyde. Of the play call: “It’s a bread-and-butter play that we run but we just didn’t execute.”
It’s become clear that no quarterback is going to lead the 49ers to victory until the defense improves one of most elementary facets of the game: stopping the run.
With 10 days to prepare for Sunday’s game, defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil simplified his scheme and rearranged the lineup, giving Quinton Dial the start at nose tackle instead of Mike Purcell, and placing former first-round picks Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner next to Dial.
It didn’t work against a Bills offense that leans heavily on its running back.
At one point, the situation bordered on comical. Facing third and 20 at their own 26-yard line just before halftime, the Bills handed the ball to LeSean McCoy – essentially capitulating they would punt – then watched as McCoy scrambled out of ankle tackles and outran the San Francisco secondary for 22 yards and a first down.
Buffalo ended the half with a field goal and McCoy, who once played for and was traded away by Kelly, finished with 140 yards and three touchdowns. As a team, the Bills had more rushing yards than they’d had since 1992.
Kelly was asked why the 49ers have had so many lapses on defense.
“That’s a really good question,” he said. “I don’t know.”