Down four points with three minutes to play Sunday, the Falcons made the curious choice to kick a field goal on fourth down while at the edge of the 49ers’ end zone instead of going for the touchdown and the lead.
The decision seemed to be a challenge to 49ers quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who was making his first start in more than two seasons: We don’t believe you and your offense can pick up the first down that would effectively end the game.
And why not think that way? In three years with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Gabbert had developed a reputation for being over-drafted, for being skittish in the pocket and for not being a leader. The 49ers’ offense, meanwhile, ranked 32nd in the NFL entering the game.
On Sunday, however, Gabbert played like a changed man. Not only did the 49ers pick up the necessary first down at game’s end, Gabbert did it himself with a bootleg around the right side of his offensive line, a pickup that all but sealed San Francisco’s 17-16 win and ended a two-game skid.
“It was just a play that we had been working on all week, kind of that we were going to go to in crunch time,” Gabbert said. “Our offensive line did a tremendous job selling the power to the left, and it was a run-pass option, but once I knew we had the defensive end sealed, it was me on a (defensive back). I was just going to go for the first down regardless.”
Also curious was 49ers coach Jim Tomsula’s refusal afterward to commit to Gabbert for the team’s next game in Seattle.
“Gabbert was our starter today,” he said. “And I don’t have a comment past that.”
Gabbert was our starter today. And I don’t have a comment past that.
49ers coach Jim Tomsula
That suggested Tomsula could go back to Colin Kaepernick, who he said needed a break when he decided to replace him with Gabbert on Monday. Kaepernick briefly entered the game in the fourth quarter after Gabbert took a shot to the helmet from a blitzing linebacker.
Still, it’s difficult to see Tomsula abandoning Gabbert after one game, especially the way he operated the offense against the Falcons.
Despite player changes, Gabbert in command
Despite a new stable of running backs, the absence of No. 1 receiver Anquan Boldin, a tight ends corps that no longer included Vernon Davis, and a different face at right guard on nearly every series, Gabbert was in command from the outset. Most of all, he gave San Francisco’s offense a smoothness it has rarely shown this season, including on play-action passes.
An early example fooled the Falcons’ defense so badly that there were two 49ers tight ends, Garrett Celek and Vance McDonald, wide open in the end zone. Gabbert’s one-yard pass went to Celek, as did an 11-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter. He finished with 185 passing yards and a 76.2 passer rating that would have been higher had wide receiver Jerome Simpson not bobbled a would-be reception that was intercepted.
“Confidence, determination and then great leadership,” fullback Bruce Miller said of Gabbert. “You can feel it in the huddle with all of our guys.”
The most persistent criticism when Gabbert was in Jacksonville was that he couldn’t get comfortable in the pocket and was rattled by phantom pass rushers. That wasn’t an issue Sunday.
With Atlanta determined not to give away deep passes, Gabbert said he simply decided to throw short. He hit running back Shaun Draughn, who was starting his first game in five NFL seasons, four times for 38 yards and completed four passes to tight ends.
Confidence, determination and then great leadership. You can feel it in the huddle with all of our guys.
49ers fullback Bruce Miller on quarterback Blaine Gabbert
Asked about his comfort inside the pocket, Gabbert said: “I think just knowing that check-downs aren’t a bad thing. ... I told the O-line that I was going to stick in there and take some shots to the chin but get the ball out. And our running backs did a great job on check-downs, and our receivers did a great job getting open quickly.”
Gabbert absorbed one vicious hit when linebacker Philip Wheeler barreled through the middle of the line and crashed, helmet-to-helmet, with him. Gabbert was slow to get up, triggering the game’s concussion spotter to send him to the sideline. But he returned two plays later and made it through the game without being sacked, a first for the 49ers this season.
Gabbert also seemed to get roughed up when he ran out of bounds on the Falcons’ side. And he got an earful from some on the sideline as he jogged back onto the field.
“I ran out of bounds – I think it was on the third-and-10 on their sideline – and I got a shoulder from somebody,” he said with a smile. “It was in the heat of the moment, and some words were exchanged. I couldn’t tell you who it was. I’ve got to go back and look at the film. But that’s really about it.”