The 49ers’ coaching staff wanted to make Friday’s practice so taxing on the defense that Sunday would seem like a breeze by comparison.
The defensive backs chased the scout-team receivers deep downfield on one play, then turned around to find a fresh set of receivers already lined up for the next snap. Coordinator Vic Fangio didn’t send in the plays to his panting defenders until the last second. All the while, Guns N’ Roses blasted at them from colossal speakers on the side of the practice field.
Welcome to the jungle.
Two days later, the Eagles’ fast-paced, no-huddled offense that had received coast-to-coast hype didn’t seem so intimidating. Philadelphia, which had been averaging 33.7 points a contest, didn’t score an offensive touchdown on Sunday, quarterback Nick Foles had only 195 passing yards and two interceptions, and the 49ers handed the Eagles their first defeat of the season, 26-21, which also was the 49ers’ first win at Levi’s Stadium.
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“It was huge,” safety Eric Reid said. “We needed a win. We needed to kick-start our season, and we did that today.”
The effort from the 49ers’ defense was even more impressive given the three touchdowns worth of mistakes made by their offensive and special-teams counterparts.
It began after the 49ers’ first offensive possession, when the Eagles blocked a punt from San Francisco’s end zone, then pounced on the ball for an early 7-0 lead.
Then in the second quarter, Colin Kaepernick was tracking wide receiver Brandon Lloyd on a crossing route but failed to see safety Malcolm Jenkins, who intercepted the pass and raced 53 yards for a touchdown.
In the same quarter, Philadelphia’s punt returner, Darren Sproles, squirted through the 49ers’ coverage units and down the sideline for an 82-yard score.
“Don’t know exactly how that transpired,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said of the special-teams blunders. “We’ll shore that up.”
In a typical game, errors like that spell certain defeat. In this one, however, the Eagles’ vaunted offense couldn’t add to the tally. Led by two veterans, defensive end Justin Smith and safety Antoine Bethea, the 49ers prevented Philadelphia from getting beyond its own 43-yard line until late in the fourth quarter.
Smith had two quarterback hits on Foles, who, unlike the 49ers’ previous quarterback opponents, was uncomfortable throughout the contest. Bethea, meanwhile, led the 49ers with seven tackles, intercepted Foles once and forced a fumble from tight end Zach Ertz. It was the 100th straight start of Bethea’s career.
“We made other mistakes in other phases of the game,” Harbaugh said, “(I) thought the defense was really really hung in there, sucked it up and kept us in the ballgame.”
The 49ers’ offense also returned to its roots.
Fullback Bruce Miller, who played a scant nine snaps in last week’s loss to Arizona, was prominent on Sunday, paving the way for tailback Frank Gore, who surpassed 100 rushing yards for the first time since last season.
Kaepernick rallied from his interception by zipping a pass to receiver Stevie Johnson in the near corner of the end zone in the third quarter. He scrambled from the pocket on the play but kept his eyes downfield for an open receiver.
He did the same earlier in the game, finding Gore 30 yards away on the opposite side of the field with a dramatic, cross-body throw that resulted in a 55-yard catch and run for the 49ers’ running back.
The victory, however, belonged to the defense. And the main theme from the players was that they were well prepared for the encounter.
The Eagles didn’t cross the 50-yard line until 4 minutes, 57 seconds remained in the game. But that single drive threatened to erase yet another second-half lead for the 49ers.
Cornerback Perrish Cox, who earlier in the game came up with Bethea’s forced fumble and who sealed the win with an interception, said the 49ers worked on two goal-line plays during the week. The Eagles ran both of them after driving to San Francisco’s 1-yard line.
On the first, Bethea blitzed from his safety spot, forcing Foles to rush his throw to tight end Brent Celek. On fourth down, Foles scrambled to his right, but his target, Jeremy Maclin, was well covered in the back of the end zone and the pass sailed incomplete.
Said Bethea: “Obviously, as you could see, everyone was in the right place and we were able to get off the field.”