Here are three takeaways after re-watching the 49ers’ 29-27 loss to the Chargers, falling to 1-3 ahead of their first divisional game of the season coming Sunday against the Cardinals.
The talent gap
Philip Rivers’ pinpoint first-half touchdown pass to Austin Ekeler beat reasonably good coverage from linebacker Fred Warner. Running back Melvin Gordon III, a 2015 first-round draft pick, was a wrecking ball who proved to be a bad matchup for San Francisco’s defense that has struggled with tackling. Safety Derwin James was all over the field and made the biggest play of the afternoon when he hit C.J. Beathard, leading to the game-sealing interception with less than three minutes remaining.
The 49ers faced a gulf in talent before squaring off against the Los Angeles Chargers, and it proved to be the deciding factor in the outcome of Sunday’s game. The Chargers’ stars made plays while San Francisco is still searching for those game-changing playmakers.
And that gap still would have existed even if franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and top running back Jerick McKinnon played, and Pro Bowl tackle Joe Staley had not left in the second quarter with a knee injury.
Outside of George Kittle and Reuben Foster, the 49ers lacked the playmakers on both sides of the ball to beat a solid opponent with an experienced quarterback. San Francisco’s injuries exacerbate its lack of depth, which shouldn’t be a total surprise in Year 2 of a front office and coaching regime.
Yes, the 49ers finished 5-0 behind Garoppolo last season because they are a well-coached team with a clear vision. But Sunday’s game is a reminder of where San Francisco is in its long-term process relative to playoff contenders with more established rosters.
Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch don’t have the horses, though they are looking and hoping some players already on the roster emerge. But they are still waiting for a pass rusher to take over and badly need the secondary to improve.
Not Shanahan’s best day
The back-and-fourth nature of the two-point loss, in which there were four lead changes, puts every coaching decision under the microscope. And Shanahan likely came away from the contest wishing he had some choices back.
For example: The 49ers got the ball following a Chargers touchdown at their own 25-yard line with 47 seconds remaining in the first half. Shanahan, wanting to put points on the board after the Chargers made it a 17-14 game, called three straight passing plays, all of which resulted in the clock stopping. San Francisco failed to get a first down and took just 13 seconds off the clock.
Then, punt returner Desmond King II took Bradley Pinion’s boot back 56 yards, setting up a Caleb Sturgis field goal as the first-half expired.
In hindsight, Shanahan could have sat on the ball and entered halftime with the lead. But instead he was aggressive in dialing up passing plays for his backup quarterback, which ultimately led to a crucial field goal in a one-score defeat. But Shanahan didn’t anticipate his punt coverage team, which is normally solid, surrendering a long return to put the Chargers in field goal range.
Also, two failed challenges cost Shanahan timeouts, and ultimately prevented the 49ers from getting the ball back late in the game following Beathard’s second interception.
Shanahan lost his first challenge hoping to get the ball back following Gordon’s red-zone fumble. He threw the challenge flag despite no clear evidence Malcolm Smith and D.J. Reed were in bounds to make the recovery. And that’s what the referees ruled.
Then came the decision to challenge the spot following Beathard’s third-down scramble. Slow motion replays indicated Beathard’s hip was down before he extended the ball past the line, which the 49ers should have alerted Shanahan before he threw the challenge flag. Beathard was hurt on the play, giving the team more time to evaluate those replays.
With the Chargers’ interception late in the fourth quarter, they needed just one first down at the two-minute warning before they could kneel out the clock because the 49ers lost two of their timeouts. Without losing those challenges, the 49ers could have gotten the ball late with another chance at winning the game.
Permanent changes in the secondary?
The 49ers rotated at cornerback throughout the second half Sunday, inserting Greg Mabin into the fray for his first extended playing time this season. Mabin wound up allowing two receptions on five targets for 18 yards, according to Pro Football Focus, and he forced a fumble that could have swung the game.
The 49ers have struggled at cornerback in recent weeks and Mabin might be in position to offer a much-needed upgrade over struggling second-year pro Ahkello Witherspoon, or Jimmie Ward, while Richard Sherman’s status is up in the air.
Another notable change Sunday was the insertion of rookie fifth-round pick D.J. Reed at free safety over Adrian Colbert. Shanahan said afterward that Colbert struggled with his recent hip injury during the week of practice.
But Colbert was still active for the game and played on special teams while the 49ers were without their top strong safety Jaquiski Tartt. Reed could have an opportunity to retain the starting job, much like Colbert took the starting job last year due to injuries to Ward and Tartt.
The Chargers averaged just 6.4 yards per passing attempt, with Rivers deciding against making long throws, preferring check downs (Gordon was targeted 10 times out of the backfield). That’s an indication that Reed was in position on the back end and wasn’t manipulated by the veteran quarterback.