C.J. Beathard might be mistaken for a punter in street clothes. Between the lines, he’s one of the 49ers’ toughest players.
That was evident again on Sunday, when the slender quarterback made his sixth career start following Jimmy Garoppolo’s season-ending knee injury last week.
Beathard was hit eight times against the Chargers, not including seven rushing attempts and a few escapes from would-be sacks, and was even knocked out of the game after a big hit on a near third-down conversion in the fourth quarter. But he wound up returning once he re-gathered his breath after getting the wind knocked out of him.
Beathard’s inspiring performance wasn’t enough to overcome the Chargers, injuries and a few key mistakes in San Francisco’s third loss of the season, falling in Los Angeles, 29-27, in front of a rare pro-49ers crowd on the road.
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“He’s one of the most competitive people I’ve been around,” tight end George Kittle said, who was college teammates with Beathard for five seasons at Iowa, and now two with the 49ers. “He hates losing more than anybody I know. He played the game angry and that’s just how he plays.”
Beathard’s bitter mood won’t change after his two-touchdown, two-interception performance against the Chargers. He threw for 298 yards and came close to out-dueling veteran Philip Rivers. There were four lead changes after San Francisco got off to a hot start thanks to a pick-six from his defense on the third snap of the contest.
The 49ers blew a 14-point lead in the first half and lost despite getting a career-high 125 yards from Kittle, including an 82-yard touchdown catch and run late in the third quarter.
Beathard couldn’t capitalize on an opportunity to re-take the lead late and the 49ers flew home to the Bay Area Sunday night with their third road defeat of the season.
“He gave us a chance to win today,” Kyle Shanahan said. “He played very tough, made some big plays. Especially in some of the situations, guys going in and out. He handled a lot of adversity, and a little chaos with the injuries, but I was proud of the way he played.”
Beathard attempted to pass with 2:38 remaining, down two points, and was drilled by budding star safety Derwin James as he threw. The ball popped right to defensive lineman Isaac Rochell, who ended the game by rumbling to the 49ers’ 19-yard line, thwarting the comeback attempt. San Francisco had entered the game as severe underdogs a week after losing its franchise quarterback for the season.
James took advantage of the left side of the offensive line that was without six-time Pro-Bowler Joe Staley, who left the game in the first half with a knee injury He’s expected to have an MRI Monday morning.
James – who had a sack, three quarterback hits and two pass breakups – attacked Beathard off the edge after the 49ers went to an empty set, leaving the quarterback with no additional help in pass protection. Shanahan said afterward it was the quarterback’s job to recognize the blitz and get rid of the ball before James could make the play.
It was one of two turnovers that proved costly in the two-point defeat. The other came in the third quarter deep in the red zone, when tight end Garrett Celek let an on-target pass bang off his hands to cornerback Trevor Williams, who returned it 86 yards.
San Francisco’s defense stiffened and held L.A. to a 25-yard field goal. Rivers finished with 250 yards, three touchdowns and the lone interception to Antone Exum Jr., his first pick and touchdown of his career. Running back Melvin Gordon III had 159 yards from scrimmage and finished with 104 on the ground, including 87 in the second half.
After allowing 35 points in the first half and making a comeback attempt late last week, the 49ers hung in the game Sunday despite the Chargers scoring 20 straight points in the second and third quarters.
“Our guys aren’t going to fold, they are going to try their hardest every week,” Shanahan said. “We had an opportunity to win that game. There were lots of ups and downs through the game in all three phases. We had a chance at the end and we came up short. That’s disappointing.”
Perhaps the best example of Beathard’s toughness came when he nearly converted a third-down attempt early in the fourth quarter (the 49ers were 5-12 on the day). He squirted away from the defense and evaded a sack, then took a big shot from Casey Hayward while reaching for the first down.
Beathard was writhing on the ground and required the team’s medical staff. But he only got the wind knocked out of him. Kittle had no doubts Beathard would be fine and re-enter the game, which he did a series later, despite not at all looking like a player capable of absorbing so many blows.
“He’s got a severe dad bod,” Kittle said. “... And he can take any hit. It’s pretty cool. Don’t know how he does it.”
Shanahan decided to kick a field goal, giving the 49ers a 27-26 lead, but then tackling issues on defense were an issue again.
San Francisco entered the weekend leading the NFL in missed tackles, according to Pro Football Focus, and Gordon exploded with a 34-yard run into field goal range while breaking tackles from rookie D.J. Reed, starting at safety instead of Adrian Colbert, and Greg Mabin, who worked his way into the cornerback rotation while the team was without Richard Sherman (calf).
It led to the decisive go-ahead 21-yard field goal from Caleb Sturgis, who missed a 54-yard attempt in the first quarter and two extra points.
The 49ers will return home for the second home game of the season next week against the Arizona Cardinals, who fell to 0-4 with a 20-17 home defeat to the Seattle Seahawks (2-2), thanks to a last-second 52-yard field goal.