The 49ers were picking up big chunks of yards on each play, scoring on every possession and steadily reclaiming momentum during the second quarter Sunday.
Players looked across the line of scrimmage and saw the New Orleans Saints’ defenders with their hands on their hips and heard them muttering under their breaths. So the 49ers turned up the pressure on their opponents even more, running plays at a clip closer to the frenzied pace at which coach Chip Kelly ran his Oregon and Philadelphia Eagles offenses.
It was fast, aggressive and efficient – everything Kelly’s attack was supposed to be.
“We were really dynamic in the passing game for a while,” said tight end Vance McDonald, whose 65-yard touchdown catch cut New Orleans’ lead to 28-20 and gave the Levi’s Stadium fans hope their team’s losing streak might end at six games.
But just as quickly as they found their speed, the 49ers lost it – again – and it was the Saints who ran away with an easy 41-23 win.
San Francisco’s issues weren’t new, beginning with their inability to perform one of football’s most basic concepts: Stop the run.
The 49ers were trampled for 248 rushing yards, 75 on a touchdown run by Mark Ingram, who isn’t known for his zip but easily got past safety Antoine Bethea in the second quarter. Ingram finished with 158 yards, the seventh consecutive rusher to gain at least 100 against the 49ers. Tim Hightower had 87 rushing yards.
Meanwhile, Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw for 323 yards and three touchdowns. It was the first time since the 49ers’ Week 2 loss to the Carolina Panthers that an opposing rusher went for 100 yards while a quarterback finished with more than 300 through the air.
The Saints also surpassed the league-worst 31.3 points per game San Francisco was allowing entering the contest. The 49ers are on pace to give up 520 points this season, which would trail only the 1981 Baltimore Colts for the most in league history.
Of course, the 49ers knew the Saints, who were averaging nearly 30 points a game, would move the ball and pump up the score. Their best hope was to keep pace, which they seemed to do midway through the game.
But Kelly’s offense has been easy to knock off kilter on the rare occasions it gets up to full speed, and the same thing happened Sunday.
The 49ers were poised to cut even deeper into the Saints’ lead to start the third quarter. But Mike Davis, who had only two carries, fumbled at the New Orleans 1-yard line.
Colin Kaepernick lost another fumble deep in Saints territory in the fourth quarter. A second-quarter drive ended at the Saints’ 24-yard line when the 49ers couldn’t pick up a yard on fourth down.
“That’s three series where we’re down (near) the red zone and we come away with zero points,” Kelly said.
Kaepernick had, by far, the most prolific outing by a 49ers quarterback so far this year, throwing for 398 yards and two touchdowns. But he also threw an interception in his own territory that New Orleans converted into a touchdown.
“I thought I could beat the guy with the throw and saw him the whole way,” Kaepernick said. “Those are things that I look at – what can I correct? What can I be better at to help this team win?”
Kaepernick seemed to get into a better rhythm than he had in previous contests and he completed passes to seven receivers. Still, the Saints entered the game with one of the worst passing defenses in the league.
It’s difficult to envision a win the next two weeks for a 49ers team that has lost seven in a row for the first time since 2007. Next Sunday, the 49ers visit the Arizona Cardinals, who throttled Kaepernick 47-7 last year at University of Phoenix Stadium. Then comes a home game against the 7-1 New England Patriots.
“It’s real frustrating,” outside linebacker Eli Harold said. “We put such emphasis on it and we work our tails off week in and week out in practice. The game plan gets simpler and simpler, but the ball doesn’t bounce our way. It’s unexplainable. It (stinks). You’ve got to swallow it and go onto the next week.”