Quarterbacks typically struggle on the road when they first join the NFL. And C.J. Beathard was no exception.
The 49ers’ third-round pick in 2017 completed just 50 percent of his passes and averaged 206 yards in two games away from Levi’s Stadium as a rookie, losses to Washington and Philadelphia.
In one road game this season, Beathard proved he’s taking steps in the right direction. During Sunday’s loss to the Chargers — albeit with more 49ers fans in the stands than those cheering for the home team — Beathard completed 23 of 37 (62 percent) for a career-high 298 yards with two touchdowns and a pair of interceptions, one of which clanked off the hands of Garrett Celek near the goal line.
“I think he’s gotten better knowing where people are, faster with it. That happens the more you play in a system,” coach Kyle Shanahan said of Beathard. “So he’s much further ahead this year than he was last year.”
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The 49ers are hoping Beathard can continue to show improvement after replacing Jimmy Garoppolo, who had surgery Wednesday morning to repair the torn ACL in his left knee. Beathard will get his first home start of the season Sunday against the winless Arizona Cardinals.
The biggest play for San Francisco’s offense on Sunday came on the heels of Los Angeles scoring 20 straight points during the second and third quarters. The game was in danger of getting away from the 49ers, who struggled after leading 14-0.
Beathard took a shotgun snap deep in his own territory, felt the pass rush coming up the middle from a defensive tackle, and still managed to look off a safety to the left side of the field, leaving tight end George Kittle wide open on the right. Beathard knew exactly where Kittle would be, which allowed him to toy with the safety. Kittle caught the pass up the right seam before speeding across the field and down the sideline for an 82-yard touchdown.
It was an example of the subtle improvements Beathard has made since his first start Week 7 of last season, when he was overwhelmed during a 30-point defeat to the Cowboys.
“Being able to do different things, more things with your eyes and your feet and timing and all of that comes with more reps in the offense and more reps with certain players,” Beathard said.
Beathard took nine hits on Sunday but just one sack. He was sacked 17 times over his five starts last season behind a struggling offensive line before getting replaced by Garoppolo.
Getting the ball out of Beathard’s hands quickly has been focus this week to both preserve his health and take the onus off his banged-up offensive line. Both starting tackles, Mike McGlinchey and Joe Staley, and center Weston Richburg sat out practice Wednesday with knee injuries. Their status is uncertain for Sunday.
The Cardinals rank 11th in pass defense and have 10 sacks through four games, tied for the seventh-most in the NFL. Star pass rusher Chandler Jones has three after leading the league with 17 last season.
“That’s what we work on all week: try to get rid of the ball versus pressure,” Shanahan said. “You try to get guys open faster. We could not get (Beathard) hit if we ran the ball every single play. ... You try to stay balanced. In order to do that, you’ve got to throw the ball well, though, so you move the chains on third down.”
The 49ers on Sunday had a 21-play drive that chewed up 10:44 of game time, the longest possession since December 2002, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. They converted four consecutive third downs, not including when Marquise Goodwin drew an illegal contact penalty on a third-and-10.
On one third down, the 49ers faced a third-and-7 on the fringe of field-goal range. Safety Derwin James blitzed from his right, slamming Beathard into Staley, who was hurt on the play. But Beathard got the ball out just before James could make the sack, finding Kittle, again, for a first down. Three of San Francisco’s five third-down conversions were completions to Kittle.
“I mean (Kittle) ran a great route but I don’t know if I would have been able to get that out last year,” Beathard said. “I just know it slowed down a lot and I feel a lot more comfortable out there this year.”