There were a few concerns with the 49ers’ offense following the season-opening win over Tampa Bay.
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo looked shaky, throwing for just 166 yards, a pick-six and missing a handful of open targets. The young receiving corps was still searching for players to establish themselves. The rushing attack, generally a good gauge of how well the offense is playing, never got going.
Then Sunday happened.
The 49ers routed the Bengals 41-17 behind one of the most explosive offensive performances in years. The team had 572 yards from scrimmage, the fifth most in franchise history, including 259 rushing yards and one of the strongest showings of Garoppolo’s career.
“When you stay in front of the chains like we did today, Kyle gets to use his whole (play)book,” right tackle Mike McGlinchey said. “It’s dangerous for everybody else in the NFL.”
Garoppolo tied his career high with three touchdown passes and completed 17 of 25 for 297 yards. His day was nearly perfect, save for a second-quarter interception on an ill-advised pass into quadruple coverage. His 131.2 passer rating was his highest since joining the 49ers. He averaged 11.9 yards per attempt after a career-low 6.1 against the Buccaneers.
He surpassed his yardage total from Tampa in the first half and matched his one touchdown throw in the opener on the first drive with 38-yard toss to Marquise Goodwin, who streaked open through the left side of the Bengals’ defense.
It was a play Shanahan dials up often, running play action to one side and throwing back to the other as the receiver leaks free. It was one of many good play calls from Shanahan, who got the best offensive performance from his team since he took over as coach in 2017. Garoppolo also threw touchdowns to rookie Deebo Samuel and running back Raheem Mostert on a screen.
Garoppolo was asked to describe the rhythm Shanahan had dialing up plays.
“A great one,” Garoppolo said. “Makes my job very easy. His mind is incredible — just how he’s two plays ahead while we’re running the current play. It makes everything so easy. When he gets in a rhythm like that, it puts everyone in a good position.”
San Francisco outgained the Bengals 222-8 in the third quarter. It started with a seven-play, 85-yard drive that resulted in Samuel’s first NFL touchdown catch. Samuel caught a pass on a slant route from Garoppolo and barreled 19 yards after the catch, running through and around Bengals defensive backs the way he endeared himself to San Francisco while at South Carolina.
“It was a phenomenal route by Deebo, first of all,” Garoppolo said. “... It’s like having a running back at receiver once he gets the ball in his hands, but he can run routes at the same time. It’s very unique. I love having him, and he’s so raw and still has a long way to go. That’s the exciting part.”
Samuel had team highs with five catches and 87 yards. San Francisco receivers had 175 yards after having 79 against Tampa Bay.
While Garoppolo was efficient, the running game was dominant with 259 yards while mashing the Bengals with 42 attempts. Shanahan’s team averaged 6.2 yards per carry, even as last week’s starting running back, Tevin Coleman, watched from the sideline with his left foot in a walking boot after sustaining a high ankle sprain in Tampa.
Matt Breida reached 100 yards for the fourth time in his career. It came in the third quarter and he finished with 12 carries for 121 yards. His backup, Raheem Mostert, had 83 yards.
The running game was crucial, as the 49ers had a near 50-50 run-pass split.
“It seemed like for a while we didn’t have to call a third-down play ... and that’s the goal,” Shanahan said. “You want that stuff to play off each other. When you get to third down, everyone in the league is pretty one-dimensional, and when you’re getting good plays on first and second (down), it opens up everything.”
The defense helped set the stage for a second week in a row, though it didn’t give the 49ers two touchdowns, as it did against Jameis Winston. Arik Armstead sacked Andy Dalton on his first snap, and the Bengals were forced to punt from deep in their territory following a three-and-out. Goodwin’s touchdown came on San Francisco’s fourth snap.
The Bengals had a chance to tie the score following Garoppolo’s interception that was returned by William Jackson III to San Francisco’s 26. But the defense held and Cincinnati missed a long field-goal try after Dalton (26 of 42, 311 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) committed a penalty for throwing a pass beyond the line of scrimmage.
The 49ers took control with a touchdown drive spurred by Breida’s highlight-reel 34-yard run on third and 1, when he made two defenders miss with Barry Sanders-like side steps.
Linebacker Kwon Alexander, who was ejected from the opener in the first quarter, played the entire game and was key throughout. The Bengals had just 25 yards on 19 carries (1.3 average) while Alexander was filling holes and playing with the energy that’s been his signature in his short time with San Francisco.
“You count on him bringing energy every single game, every single day,” said DeForest Buckner, who had one of San Francisco’s four sacks. “We really appreciate him. He really gets the defense up, gets them going, with all the energy, and we just feed off it.
“We were playing in the (Cincinnati) jungle today, but he was the jungle. Big morale booster for sure.”
Alexander also had an interception that led to a Robbie Gould field goal before halftime. It’s become clear the free-agent addition, who signed a four-year, $54-million contract in the spring, was brought in to provide the spark the defense lacked.
“Well, that’s just me, period,” Alexander said. “I can’t change. That’s what I’ve been my whole life. When they brought me here, they already knew what they were getting.”
The bad news for San Francisco was losing left tackle Joe Staley with a fractured fibula, though the 49ers believe he won’t need to go on injured reserve and could return in eight weeks.
Staley’s injury was the only blemish for San Francisco coming out of its week-long stay in Youngstown. The 49ers are 2-0 for the first time since 2012, their last trip to the Super Bowl, and opened the year with back-to-back road wins for the first time since 1989, when they went 14-2 and ended the season hoisting their fourth Lombardi Trophy.
San Francisco is far from a Super Bowl contender. Moving on without Staley will be difficult and the schedule will stiffen, starting with Sunday’s home opener against the Steelers.
But there’s plenty to be encouraged about — even after the offense showed little promise in the opener.