The 49ers on Sunday played what at times looked like a fifth preseason game.
Early in the fourth quarter, for example, they seemed poised for a touchdown that at least would have given a dull game a bit of late drama. But when Brian Hoyer turned to his right to hand the ball to Carlos Hyde on the Carolina Panthers 3-yard line, he found no one there. Hyde had run to the quarterback’s left.
Hoyer had to keep the ball on the broken play and ended up losing five yards. The 49ers couldn’t score on the next two snaps, either, and squandered their best chance for a touchdown in their 23-3 loss.
“Anytime you lose and lose that way, it’s frustrating and disappointing,” Kyle Shanahan said of the mistake-filled game. “I’ll feel that all day today and all night and I’m sure our players will too. We’ve got to watch the tape tomorrow morning and figure out a way to get better.”
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The defeat was the first for a first-time 49ers head coach in an opener since Steve Mariucci’s squad fell 13-6 to Tampa Bay in 1997.
Even one-and-done Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly enjoyed blowout wins in their debuts, although the euphoria from those victories quickly dissolved into hopeless, losing seasons.
Sunday’s game had a bit of the opposite feel.
San Francisco’s rebuilt defense was significantly better than it was a year ago, especially in a Week 2 loss to Carolina in which it gave up 529 yards. On Sunday the 49ers lost starting linebacker Reuben Foster to an ankle injury midway through the fourth quarter and had to deal with five turnovers from their own offense – a fumble, an interception and three failed fourth-down conversions.
Still, the unit allowed 287 yards, including 116 on the ground.
“I don’t think the defensive side looked like last year,” linebacker NaVorro Bowman said. “… I don’t think they ran the ball at all until it was trash time. Cam (Newton) had, what, one touchdown throw?”
On offense Hyde averaged 6.3 yards a carry in the first half, and Shanahan’s vaunted run-pass combination seemed to be in full effect when Hoyer launched a down-field pass to his favorite deep target, Marquise Goodwin, in the opening quarter. The two consistently connected on that exact play throughout the summer, including in the third preseason game against Minnesota. Sunday’s attempt?
“Everyone saw what happened,” Goodwin said. “It went right through my hands.”
In other ways, the 49ers seemed to still be stuck in preseason mode.
They had 10 penalties for 74 yards against Carolina, including several in which the 49ers either were misaligned or moved early. They had to burn a timeout on one of their fourth-down attempts because the play clock was winding down.
“I thought they had reset (the play clock),” said Hoyer, who finished with 193 passing yards and a 70.3 passer rating. “I just was absent minded and thought we had enough time. That’s on me. It’s something that I don’t usually let happen.”
San Francisco’s offensive line, especially its interior blockers, also were overmatched by the Panthers’ talented defensive linemen, an ominous sign with the 49ers heading to Seattle in Week 2. Hoyer was sacked four times, including on San Francisco’s second series when Wes Horton beat left guard Zane Beadles and forced a fumble.
The Panthers took over on their opponent’s 42-yard line and three plays later scored a touchdown when free safety Jaquiski Tartt, filling in for Jimmie Ward, failed to knock receiver Russell Shepard out of bounds after a long catch and Shepard coasted the rest of the way into the end zone.
“I definitely expect us to be farther along,” said Shanahan, who was particularly disappointed with the penalties. “I think that every week. It’s not something new. It’s something we’ve been doing since the first day we got here.”
“It’s hard enough to win in this league, but you can’t beat yourself,” he said. “That’s something we’ve got to figure out why it’s happening and we’ve got to clean it up.”