The 49ers’ strategy of playing rookies in September is paying dividends in December.
Of San Francisco’s six touchdowns Sunday, half were scored by rookies while one of the defense’s three interceptions was turned in by cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, a third-round draft pick.
“That’s kind of what I mean by ‘everyone has gotten better’ – especially those guys,” coach Kyle Shanahan said after the game about his rookie class. “We put a lot of pressure on those guys early in the year, playing them sometimes a little bit more than they were totally ready for. And we had to be patient with them in that aspect. But those guys haven’t wavered.”
At least 10 rookies have played in every game since the 49ers’ bye week. On Sunday, two fifth-round picks – tight end George Kittle and receiver Trent Taylor – caught touchdown passes while undrafted rookie Matt Breida had a 30-yard touchdown around left tackle late in the fourth quarter that sealed the win.
Another rookie, linebacker Elijah Lee, seemed to have another score late in the game when he scooped up a fumble and ran into the end zone, but the officials ruled that the pass play was incomplete.
“Each week is just a new experience, you get new routes,” Witherspoon said. “It just seems each week we’re improving and the only way you can do that is through trial. We come back into the film room on Mondays and we try to get better and fix our mistakes. That’s what I love about this group: everyone comes to work every single day.”
Mixed afternoon – The 49ers had been one of a handful of teams this season without a touchdown on defense or special teams.
That changed early in the second quarter, when cornerback Dontae Johnson gathered in a tipped pass and ran 51 yards for a touchdown. Johnson also had an interception and score as a rookie in 2014.
The next series, however, was a rough one for the cornerback. He committed two penalties and gave up a 19-yard pass to the San Francisco 1-yard line that led to the Jaguars’ first touchdown.
Johnson, who was briefly benched two weeks ago in Houston, again was pulled following his unfortunate series, this time in favor of Tyvis Powell.
Johnson is scheduled to be a free agent in March and cornerback promises to be atop the 49ers’ offseason wish list
Nose for backfield – Nose tackle Earl Mitchell made his debut at fullback on the 49ers’ first goal-line opportunity Sunday.
The team’s usual fullback, Kyle Juszczyk, had caught a 17-yard pass before being crunched at the 1-yard line on the previous play. He left for the sideline and Mitchell entered.
It turns out the 49ers didn’t need his 310-pound frame. Jimmy Garoppolo sneaked the ball in for the first touchdown of the game and the first rushing touchdown of his career.
Juszczyk, who is going to the Pro Bowl for the second year in a row, led the 49ers with 76 receiving yards, a career high
Most valuable … kicker? – During the second half, a lively Levi’s Stadium crowd started chanting, “MVP! MVP!,” most likely with Garoppolo in mind.
The 49ers’ kicker, however, noted that the subject was open for debate.
“Robbie (Gould) told me it was for him,” Shanahan said. “But I did hear (the chant). It was cool.”
Et cetera – Shanahan said linebacker Reuben Foster suffered another shoulder stinger before halftime and was replaced by Lee at the end of the game. He said Foster, who went to the sideline with the same injury last week, should be fine to play in the finale against the Los Angeles Rams.
Receiver Marquise Goodwin finished the game with 37 receiving yards and needs 66 more for 1,000 yards this year. His previous season high was 431 yards.
▪ The 49ers have three quarterbacks this season with more than 1,000 passing yards. Brian Hoyer (six starts) had 1,245 yards for San Francisco, rookie C.J. Beathard (five starts) has 1,430 while Garoppolo (four starts) has 1,268 yards.