If there’s anything to be learned about this version of the 49ers, it’s that they haven’t been able to overcome mistakes.
That was the theme again in Monday night’s heartbreaking loss to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. San Francisco controlled the game and was in position for one of the most spirited victories of coach Kyle Shanahan’s tenure. Yet the 49ers watched Aaron Rodgers take it away because he was enabled by San Francisco’s errors.
Botched coverages in the first half helped the Packers in an explosive 17-point first quarter. Quarterback C.J. Beathard being unable to hit the right spots while getting blitzed, particularly late Monday night, put Green Bay in position to retake command, leading to 10 points inside the final two minutes.
Richard Sherman’s illegal contact penalty, which he didn’t dispute after the game, gave the Packers life following a DeForest Buckner sack on third-and-15 before the decisive field goal. It allowed Green Bay to win the game instead of sending it to overtime.
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“We didn’t get it done. We had a chance to win today,” Shanahan said. “Very disappointed that we didn’t. We had our times on both sides of the ball.”
The defense got off to an ominous start for the second consecutive week. Receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling on the very first snap broke free from coverage due to a miscommunication in the secondary and went for 60 yards up the sideline.
It was the exact same scenario as San Francisco’s previous game against the Arizona Cardinals. Beathard orchestrated a touchdown drive to open the game only for the defense to allow a big play immediately afterward leading to a touchdown. This time, it took four plays instead of one.
San Francisco’s defensive miscues have led to coordinator Robert Saleh coming under fire. After all, San Francisco is 1-5 and there’s chatter that Saleh deserves blame. But it’s not a viewpoint that Sherman shares.
“People don’t know ball,” Sherman said. “This is one of the most sound schemes in football. That’s why you see so many people execute it. And when you don’t play sound, it can lead to busts — in any scheme. If you don’t play sound, it can lead to big plays. We got to find a way to just play disciplined.”
Sherman said busted coverages in the secondary came after correct calls were made in the huddle. It’s up the players to make adjustments while in formation before the play, or, in some cases, after the snap. Any mishap in communication can lead to a receiver running free.
Rodgers made the 49ers pay for their gaffes. He threw for 425 yards and had three pass catchers — Vales-Scantling, Jimmy Graham and Davante Adams — with more than 100 yards receiving. It all happened without starting receivers Randall Cobb and Geronimo Allison, which helped the 49ers while they controlled the middle portion of the game. They outscored the Packers 23-6 from late in the first quarter to 11:21 left in the fourth.
But the Packers scored 10 points in the final three minutes. It was made possible by mistakes by San Francisco’s offense.
On a fourth-quarter third-and-10 after the 49ers made a spirited stop on fourth down near the goal line, Beathard couldn’t get rid of the ball and was sacked by Clay Matthews. Green Bay took over at their own 42 and scored the game-tying touchdown four plays later with two minutes remaining.
The 49ers had a chance to win the game late. Receiver Richie James Jr., who was in the game because D.J. Reed fumbled for the second time in three games, returned a kickoff 32 yards and had a late-hit penalty tacked on, giving San Francisco a golden opportunity.
And on second-and-three, Shanahan dialed up a passing play, despite his well-schemed rushing attack averaging 5.8 yards per carry. The pass to Pierre Garçon was batted down by linebacker Nick Perry. The Packers sent an all-out blitz at Beathard on the next snap, and he threw an interception on a desperate heave to Marquise Goodwin (four catches, 126 yards, two touchdowns).
“It wasn’t ideally what we wanted,” Shanahan said. “They all-out blitzed us. We had to get rid of it. There was four options on the play, but that wasn’t the one that we wanted.”
Added Beathard: “You need to get it out quicker (when blitzed). I think we could be a little bit better in every aspect.”
Beathard was solid otherwise. He finished with 245 yards while completing 16 of 23 passes (69.6 percent). The offense prioritized the running game, which logged 174 yards on 30 attempts.
But Beathard had a chance to make it a two-score game early in the fourth quarter. He had tight end George Kittle wide open in the flat for an easy first down. But Beathard was forced to throw the ball high because pass rusher Matthews was in his face. It was a rare airmail during an otherwise accurate performance from the 49ers backup signal caller.
“It’s a play we have to make and we didn’t do it,” Kittle said. “(Mathews) is a big body when he jumps up in the air. C.J. had to get it over the top of him. That’s a play I’d like to get back, but you can’t get it back.”
Ward suffers another injury — Cornerback Jimmie Ward had an up and down performance, but his late-game absence was clearly felt. He left the game in the fourth quarter with another hamstring injury, which forced Greg Mabin into the game. Rodgers targeted Devante Adams with Mabin in coverage on the game-tying touchdown with two minutes left.
“Unfortunately, Jimmie went down before that last drive and (Mabin) came out and played hard,” Sherman said. “That’s all you can ask him to do. We got to find a way to finish that. And that’s all that can be said. Got to find a way to get it done regardless of the circumstances.”
Shanahan noted the plan entering the game was to given Ward all the snaps, not rotate at cornerback opposite Sherman, which the defense had done previously. It was clear Monday that Ahkello Witherspoon, a third-round pick that showed promise last season, has been moved down to third string.
Move to Mostert pays off — Running back Raheem Mostert entered the game with six carries for 11 yards on the season, including a crucial fumble during the previous loss in Arizona. But Shanahan said he challenged Mostert to enter chilly Green Bay ready to go.
Mostert responded with a career-high 87 yards on just 12 carries. Shanahan said Mostert benefited from increased practice reps all week because Matt Breida (14 carries, 61 yards) was coming off an ankle injury and didn’t return to practice until Saturday.
“It’s all about preparation in this league,” Mostert said. “(It’s) what you do throughout the week, and I was having a great week. So just got to keep building off that.”
Mostert offers the 49ers another speedy running back to that can spell Breida, who has similar speed. The 49ers elected not to play Alfred Morris, a bigger back who runs between the tackles. The running game suffered against Arizona because Breida went down with an injury and had to shake up the game plan to fit Morris’ skill set. But Mostert could be a valuable piece of the offense if he can continue to play like he did in Green Bay.
“I expect it of him,” Breida said. “I know a lot of people know who he is or what he can do in the backfield, but he did that stuff in practice all the time. ... He’s a great special teams player, but he’s also a good running back.”
Goodwin’s return looms large — The 49ers had their deep threat back in Marquise Goodwin, and it proved valuable throughout the game. Goodwin scored two first-quarter touchdowns for his first multi-score game of his career.
Goodwin finished with a career-high 126 yards and helped create space for the running game. He hadn’t been healthy since Week 1 against the Vikings due to quad and hamstring injuries.
“This is definitely the best I’ve felt,” Goodwin said.
Beathard threw arguably his best pass of the season when he hit Goodwin in stride for a 67-yard score in the first quarter when he speed through the middle of the Packers defense.
“It was great having him in there,” Beathard said. “He does some stuff that’s tough on defense. Obviously it showed today. He had a good game.”