San Francisco 49ers

Was Jimmy Garoppolo ‘scared’ of the pass rush? Separating fact from fiction

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, center, is sacked by Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson (93) and defensive end Everson Griffen (97) on Sunday, Sept. 9, 2018, in Minneapolis.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, center, is sacked by Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson (93) and defensive end Everson Griffen (97) on Sunday, Sept. 9, 2018, in Minneapolis. AP

Ask Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter about how to throw off Jimmy Garoppolo and he’ll offer a scathing answer.

“As the game goes on, you have to bring the pressure on him. You see that he’s starting to get scared,” Hunter told reporters after the 49ers’ Week 1 loss in Minnesota.

Indeed, pressure from Minnesota’s vaunted defense was a key factor in Garoppolo’s less-than-stellar performance to begin 2018. He threw three interceptions, including two while under siege from the pass rush, and completed just 45 percent of his passes. It was the first time he completed fewer than 60 percent of his passes during his eight career starts.

But was Garoppolo scared?

“I’d never heard that before,” Garoppolo said Wednesday. “But, it’s the way (Hunter) thinks, I guess.”

Garoppolo made some of his best throws under pressure during his five games as San Francisco’s starter to end 2017. In his first start, he found receiver Louis Murphy between three defenders in the middle of the field with Chicago’s 332-pound defensive end Akiem Hicks bearing down on him.

Against Jacksonville, which finished second in the NFL with 55 sacks, Garoppolo made perhaps his signature play of the campaign. He rolled left and slung a side-arm pass to wideout Trent Taylor for a crucial touchdown before taking a hit from defensive back Aaron Colvin. The 49ers’ offense scored 38 points that day.

In fact, Garoppolo in 2017 led the NFL in completion percentage (62.3) and yards per attempt (8.3) while facing pressure, according to Pro Football Focus.

“Pressure is always a good thing in a quarterback’s eyes,” said Garoppolo. “It opens up windows, they have less guys in coverage. So, it’s kind of pick your poison, I guess.”

Kyle Shanahan’s offense is designed to give Garoppolo options as he sees blitzes coming. It’s why Garoppolo tends to get rid of the ball quickly to avoid duress (he also led the league by averaging 9.7 yards per attempt against the blitz last season, according to Pro Football Focus).

But Garoppolo also takes chances. The completion to Murphy in Chicago could have been intercepted — and might have been downright lucky. Sunday, he repeatedly made risky throws to the middle of the field, including at least two that led to Pierre Garçon taking vicious hits.

Garoppolo doesn’t often throw the ball away the way less aggressive quarterbacks might. His aggressiveness is something Shanahan appreciates and allows Garoppolo to make plays that are outside of the structure of the offense. But it’s a balancing act.

“When you get happy with guys who are making plays, you can’t sit there and get mad at them every time that they don’t,” Shanahan said. “That will handcuff them, and that’s speaking out of both sides of my mouth as a coach.”

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Take Garoppolo’s lone touchdown pass in Minnesota. He spun away from pressure to his left and found a freelancing Dante Pettis in the back of the end zone. The 22-yard score kept San Francisco alive in the third quarter after falling behind 24-6. Pettis initially ran a crossing route, but cut upfield when he saw Garoppolo escape the pocket.

Garoppolo could have played it safe by throwing the ball away and living to see third down. Instead, he took a shot.

“Jimmy has made a lot of plays when nothing has been there, and my whole thing with that stuff is just about not guessing,” Shanahan said. “If you see something, I always want a guy to see something, react, let it rip and don’t hesitate. If you make a mistake, just be able to understand why you did, be able to articulate it and we’ll see it on the tape and then we’ll learn why we don’t make that again.”

On Sunday, the 49ers will welcome another gunslinger in the Detroit Lions’ Matthew Stafford, who was the only quarterback to throw more interceptions (four) than Garoppolo in Week 1. Stafford is one of the league’s most polarizing quarterbacks because of his extreme arm strength paired with a knack for turnovers. He’s thrown 122 interceptions since entering the league as the No. 1 overall pick in 2009.

Shanahan said he appreciates Stafford’s willingness to take chances.

“I appreciate that about all of the top guys. I like guys who aren’t scared to fail,” he said. “They’re going to let it rip. They’re not going to just guess and gamble, but they’re trying to win the game and they try to see stuff and they try to let it rip. You do the best you can and then you live with the consequences. What you don’t want is someone who isn’t sure and they’re scared to get blamed so they sit there and take a sack.”