The 49ers played poorly enough to lose to the Detroit Lions in their home opener.
However, they caught some big breaks before escaping with a 30-27 victory Sunday at Levi’s Stadium. Namely, the Lions made a gaggle of mistakes and failed to capitalize on opportunities created by San Francisco’s sloppy performance.
Cornerback Richard Sherman summed it up best afterward, saying, “A win’s a win. But it feels like a loss.”
The biggest play of the game was Jimmy Garoppolo’s late interception negated by Detroit safety Quandre Diggs’ holding call before the throw. Diggs was on the right side of the field covering George Kittle, whom the Lions emphasized in coverage after the second-year tight end led San Francisco in receiving Week 1. It didn’t impact the play because Garoppolo’s throw went to his first read to his left.
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Had that flag not been thrown, the 49ers defense would have been forced to try stopping Matthew Stafford from scoring a touchdown starting at the 7-yard line — on the heels of the Lions quarterback leading back-to-back scoring drives the previous two series.
But the 49ers hung on to get their first victory of the season. It should provide coach Kyle Shanahan’s young team with plenty to learn from. Here are a few takeaways after re-watching the action:
The problematic pass rush
The 49ers had success when Stafford was forced to throw under duress. The problem, of course, was that he wasn’t pressured often enough, leading to his impressive fourth-quarter scoring drives that kept Detroit in the game after falling behind by 17. Stafford passed for 347 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions.
DeForest Buckner registered another sack, giving him 3 1/2 on the season, second in the NFL behind Denver Broncos star Von Miller. But he had little help.
Buckner led the defensive line with 64 snaps played. Second were Cassius Marsh and Arik Armstead (54 apiece). Ronald Blair had 40 and Solomon Thomas had just 37, playing fewer than half the snaps for the second consecutive week to begin his second season.
Thomas, the third-overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft, entered the year with a lot to prove following his three-sack rookie campaign. He played out position along the edges for the majority of the season, but began to show flashes when he played his more natural position as a pass-rushing defensive tackle.
The coaching staff has decided early in 2018 that Armstead is the better option there, with Blair and Marsh rushing from the edges. Thomas has worked mostly on the edge in rushing downs, where he has played well. He has a good motor and is good at chasing down ball carriers. He finished with two tackles Sunday but was mostly a non-factor against the pass.
Perhaps Thomas’ most notable play was a missed sack on a first-quarter third down before the Lions scored their first touchdown. Thomas looked like he had Stafford wrapped up, but the quarterback slipped away before completing a first-down throw.
Suffice to say, Thomas hasn’t been as productive as the 49ers hoped in the early going, which is a key factor in the inconsistent pass rush. The coaching staff might try to get creative with alignments to get Thomas back inside, perhaps moving Buckner or Armstead to the outside more often. San Francisco needed more than two sacks Sunday (Marsh had one negated due to a face mask penalty just before the Lions’ second touchdown).
Getting pressure on Patrick Mahomes has to be a top priority this week at Kansas City. The Chiefs’ second-year quarterback threw six — yes, six — touchdowns passes Sunday in a road win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Shanahan’s questionable play calling
Shanahan was hitting the right notes throughout the first three quarters of Sunday’s game, but some debatable decisions in the fourth quarter played a role in Detroit’s rally. We’ll dive into the negated interception, but there was another play beforehand worth mentioning.
The 49ers were back in the red zone early in the fourth quarter. Facing second-and-seven from Detroit’s 15-yard line, Shanahan tried a jet sweep to rookie receiver Dante Pettis. The exchange was mishandled and the play went for a three-yard loss, setting up a third-and-long.
That came after San Francisco had 19 yards on three consecutive Alfred Morris runs — and Matt Breida’s 66-yard touchdown run the previous possession. Breida was given just one fourth-quarter carry after his long score.
So after Pettis’ sweep, the 49ers were faced with a third-and-10, which fell incomplete when Garoppolo tried to find Pettis deep over the middle. San Francisco finished 3 of 11 on third downs and have converted just 33 percent through two games. After three Morris runs in a row, it would seem logical to try Breida again on second down, who was averaging 13.8 yards per rush to that point.
On the other hand, Shanahan tried the Pettis sweep to give future opponents something else to account for. Shanahan constantly has to juggle what works in the moment versus what might help in the future. Perhaps using Pettis as a decoy will open up a big-play possibility Sunday against the Chiefs, for example. But it didn’t work against Detroit and the 49ers had to settle for another field goal.
But the negated interception was Shanahan’s worst decision of the day. And fortunately for him, it didn’t cost the 49ers the game. It was third-and-two just outside of the two-minute warning. Instead of a running play (San Francisco had 190 rushing yards and averaged 6.8 yards per carry), he put Garoppolo in shotgun and emptied the backfield while the Lions stacked the box.
“We got the wrong route from a receiver,” Shanahan said. “Obviously, we’ve got to see that and still try not to throw it.”
Pettis lined up outside with Breida in the slot. Pettis was supposed to run a route inside to displace Breida’s man in coverage in a pick play. But Pettis ran straight up field and Garoppolo threw it to Breida anyway.
In this case, blame can be placed on three people: Shanahan for the play call, Pettis for running the wrong route and Garoppolo for throwing it.
Pettis was in the game replacing Marquise Goodwin, who is known for his ability to stretch the defense. That’s an important part of Goodwin’s game, but his absence Sunday might have been more noticeable given Pettis’ fundamental mistakes, like mishandling the jet sweep and running the wrong route on the crucial third down.
Receiver Kendrick Bourne ran the wrong route on Garoppolo’s pick-six in Week 1. If Sunday’s interception stood, it would have marked two mental mistakes from young receivers in two games with disastrous consequences.
▪ Robbie Gould’s three successful field goals in the game put him at 29 in a row to set a new franchise record.
Why is that notable? Look around the league Sunday. The Cleveland Browns had a chance to take the New Orleans Saints to overtime, but lost due to a missed field goal and extra point late in regulation.
The Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers tied 29-29 because the teams combined for three misses in overtime.
In total, 19 kicks were missed throughout the NFL (12 field goals, seven extra points) while Gould was perfect, accounting for 12 of San Francisco’s 30 points in the three-point victory.
Gould led the NFL in field goals made last season while ranking near the top in percentage. He’s quietly been very, very valuable to San Francisco since joining in 2017.
▪ The 49ers’ secondary is entering a crucial week banged up. Jaquiski Tartt aggravated a Week 1 shoulder injury late in the game and had to be replaced by Antone Exum Jr.
Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon was taken out of the game after being targeted over and over again by Stafford. He was replaced by Jimmie Ward. Shanahan said Witherspoon’s ankle injury that bothered him last week played a role Sunday.
So what happens if Tartt can’t play against Kansas City and Witherspoon isn’t up to speed on the ankle?
The 49ers have said they believe Ward (5-11, 193) can play strong safety despite his lengthy injury history. But that would mean he wouldn’t be available to replace Witherspoon should his issues persist against the Chiefs’ explosive offense. The team’s other cornerbacks are Greg Mabin and rookie third-round pick Tarvarius Moore.
▪ Reuben Foster will return to the team this week and not a moment too soon. His replacements have struggled with missed tackles in his absence — and he’ll provide the defense an emotional boost.
“Lot of energy. He’s an exciting guy to be around,” Garoppolo said Sunday. “Always smiling, always having a good time. It’ll be good to have him back.”