San Francisco 49ers

Despite fumbles and stumbles, 49ers find a way to maintain their rare unbeaten start

Jimmy Garoppolo had only been hit two times -- combined -- during the 49ers’ first two games this season.

That changed Sunday. He was drilled eight times by the Pittsburgh Steelers, who brought pressure from various angles throughout the day to throw San Francisco’s offense off kilter.

But Garoppolo didn’t flinch.

“He loves it. He likes getting hit, I don’t know why,” cornerback Richard Sherman said. “Not every quarterback likes it. It kind of wakes him up. It didn’t bother him throughout the game.”

Garoppolo finished Sunday with 277 yards while completing 72 percent of his throws. He was charged with two interceptions that bounced off the hands of his pass catchers which they should have caught. Matt Breida batted a screen pass in the air to defensive end T.J. Watt and Dante Pettis had a throw go off his fingertips to free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick.

The 49ers won, 24-20, despite losing the turnover battle, 5-2, and giving it away deep inside Steelers’ territory while down three points with 6:53 remaining in the game.

But San Francisco got the ball back thanks to a forced fumble from Arik Armstead, giving Garoppolo another chance. He found Pettis from five yards out with just over a minute remaining to get his team to 3-0 for the first time in 21 years.

“Obviously, he stayed poised, especially on the game winning drive, the game winning touchdown,” Sherman said. “Some of those plays, like I said last year, the ball just doesn’t bounce your way. Some of the turnovers, some of the fumbles, it bounces off here, it hits this guy, it snaps right as the guy is going by. You just take that for what it is. “

Garoppolo stood firm in the face of pressure as he did when he first joined San Francisco in 2017, helping his new team go 5-0 to end the season. Getting hit, of course, is not something that be simulated during practice, and getting used to the contract was a clear obstacle coming back from the ACL tear that cost him the final 13 games of last season.

“You never want to (get hit),” Garoppolo said. “But it’s part of the game.”

Said fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who may have saved Garoppolo from an interception while making a long completion in the first half: “I just love how resilient he is. He has no fear. He’ll put the ball in there and trust his wide receivers to make a play, even when things might not look so clean and easy. He’ll step in there, take the hit and he doesn’t shy away the next play. He just continues to do it.”

The play to Pettis was particularly important. Pettis, of course, came into the season expecting to be the team’s No. 1 receiver. Only he struggled to make catches in traffic throughout training camp, leading to playing just two snaps in the season opener.

His playing time increased dramatically last week, though he wasn’t targeted in the passing game. Then he scored the game-winning touchdown against the Steelers and also had a 12-yard catch that put the 49ers’ at the 4-yard line setting up running back Jeff Wilson’s Jr.’s second score of the game, giving him four touchdowns the past two weeks.

“There have been a lot of ups and downs,” said Pettis, the son of former major league baseball player Gary Pettis. “I know that’s part of sports. I’ve been around professional sports my whole life. I know what happens. You’re not just going to be good every single day. Just to be able to fight through that -- now I know what it’s like to go through that, it’s like, okay, I can really do this thing. I know I’m here for a reason.”

Pettis made his first start of the season after having a strong week of practice, Kyle Shanahan said. The 49ers are hoping Pettis can resemble the player who scored four touchdowns over a three-game span last season, which led to the team deciding not to bring back veteran Pierre Garçon.

“He’s just gotten better each week,” said Shanahan. ”We all know how he finished last year. Had a few bumps in the road throughout training camp, which I think has been well documented and I talked about. But I’ve been extremely impressed with how he’s responded since the first week of the season. He’s taken the challenge. He’s been working as hard as anyone on our team.”

Pettis triumph came after another moment of frustration. Pettis in the first quarter had a Garoppolo pass go off his hands right to new Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. It was another example of Pettis being unable to come down with a catch in traffic, which has been a knock since he was drafted in the second round in 2018.

Shanahan didn’t lose confidence in Pettis, noting afterwards Pettis’ pre-snap alignment might have been at fault.

“It was a bang, bang play,” Shanahan said. “The ball was in the middle instead of on the right hash. We were about two yards too wide with our split. It’s a very quick throw, where you just plant and throw and it just went off the tip of his fingers. Wish he would have had a little tighter split on it. I think it would have been in his hands. It wasn’t like he eased up on the play. I didn’t think it was a bad drop.”

The 49ers are going to need Pettis to perform in critical moments as he did Sunday. The team will be without Trent Taylor for at least the next seven games after being placed on injured reserve Friday due to a foot injury. Knowing that, Pettis never worried about his teammates losing confidence in his ability to produce.

“Everybody has each other’s back,” Pettis said. “If someone’s down a little bit, people are going to let them know, hey, we’re behind you. We know what you can do. I never really felt like anybody was looking at me like this guy needs to step it up.”