The 49ers’ offensive game plan on Sunday: dink, dunk ... drama.
On their second possession of overtime, quarterback Blaine Gabbert – whose longest pass of the game to a wideout at that time was 11 yards – hit receiver Torrey Smith on a 71-yard touchdown strike that ended the game as well as his team’s long road drought.
The 49ers hadn’t won away from Levi’s Stadium since Nov. 16, 2014, and it seemed as if their struggles would stretch at least another week when Chicago Bears kicker Robbie Gould lined up for a routine 36-yard field goal with two seconds left in regulation. Gould had made 24 of 27 attempts heading into the game. But he missed a 40-yard attempt in the third quarter and his would-be game-winner sailed wide left, too.
A number of 49ers said they had a strong feeling the veteran kicker would miss. Smith, however, wasn’t one of them.
“No, I’m not going to lie to you,” the speedy wideout said after his touchdown gave the 49ers a 26-20 win. “(To me), it was like, ‘This is the kind of year we’re having.’ But a lot of the guys just knew he was going to miss it. It was weird.”
The 49ers not only hadn’t won on the road this year, they had been atrocious in allowing their opponents more than 35 points per game. The biggest culprit: They were listless to start games, lacking the energy and aggression they usually had at home.
San Francisco coach Jim Tomsula said that was a focus at the beginning of the work week, at the end of Saturday’s team meetings and at breakfast Sunday morning.
“Each person (had to) make a conscious decision: ‘Hey, look, I’m going to have some energy today,’ ” Tomsula said. “’I’m going to have some fire.’ Just waking up and thinking that way. That was the talk at breakfast.”
The positive reinforcement worked. The 49ers arrived with noticeably more spirit and pluck, and moreover they didn’t lose it even after key starters like linebackers NaVorro Bowman, Michael Wilhoite and Aaron Lynch left the game because of injuries. Bowman was checked for a concussion but returned to the game, leading all tacklers with 14 stops.
The defense held Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler to a season-low 64.2 passer rating and took an early interception into the end zone for a touchdown. Cutler’s 202 passing yards were the second lowest for a 49ers opponent all season.
Offensively, meanwhile, there were long stretches in which the 49ers didn’t pick up a first down or even complete a pass. Gabbert’s first two drives went for minus-five yards and he seemed content to throw check-down passes to running back Shaun Draughn rather than test the Bears deep.
But he and the 49ers came up with big plays at critical moments.
After a long Bears drive in the second quarter ended in a Matt Forte touchdown, the 49ers responded with an even longer drive, 16 plays, that ended in Draughn’s first touchdown as a 49er.
The possession was notable for two reasons: The 49ers converted three third-down scenarios after failing to pick up first downs on their previous 17 third downs. Draughn’s one-yard score also was the team’s first rushing touchdown since Carlos Hyde scored in Week 5.
Draughn, however, took a backseat to Gabbert when it came to ground-game heroics. When Chicago took a seven-point lead with 3:53 to play in regulation, the 49ers marched 64 yards in 1:50. Fifty-nine of those yards came on scrambles by Gabbert, including a 44-touchdown run up the middle of the Bears defense that was the longest run of his career and that tied the score with just under two minutes to go.
Gould’s miss put the game into overtime and set up the biggest – and best – pass Gabbert has made as a 49er.
Throughout the game, Vic Fangio’s Bears defense had taken away any deep passes and forced the 49ers to meticulously go down field. Before the game’s final play, for example, Smith had seen only two passes come his way, and he caught one of them for five yards.
But all those short throws to underneath receivers started having an effect on the Bears defenders, too. They began skewing their coverages to throws over the middle. When, on the 49ers’ second possession of overtime, Anquan Boldin cut inside for a crossing route, he took a safety with him, leaving Smith streaking down the sideline.
Gabbert said the Bears “took the bait” and he lofted a high, arching pass that Smith could run under.
“It worked perfectly,” he said. “Torrey did a great job tracking the ball in the air and using his speed to outrun everybody.”