Too short, too slow. Arms like a T.rex and definitely a liability in pass coverage.
Those were the knocks on linebacker Chris Borland before the draft, and even defensive coordinator Vic Fangio cautioned last week that, despite the rookie’s recent display as a tackler, he was not Patrick Willis’ equal in pass defense.
But Sunday, it was Borland’s stubby, 291/2-inch arms that came up with a team-high 12 tackles and two interceptions as he and the 49ers’ defense again bailed out their offensive counterparts, this time in a 16-10 win over the Giants.
With the win, the 49ers (6-4) went undefeated over their roughest two-week stretch of road games and gained ground on NFC opponents like the Seahawks, Lions and Eagles, all of whom lost Sunday. Four of San Francisco’s final six games are at home, and one of the trips is a 35-mile bus ride to meet the Raiders.
Borland became the first 49ers linebacker with two interceptions in one game since Ken Norton Jr. did it against the Rams in 1995. His first set up a 49ers field goal. The second came on a fourth-down play at the goal line with 4:50 remaining and essentially sealed the win for San Francisco.
“The guy’s playing out of his mind,” defensive end Justin Smith said. “He only played three or four games, but he’s got to be in the talk for Defensive Rookie of the Year, I would think. The guy’s instinctive, and he kind of reminds me of (former Dolphins linebacker) Zach Thomas back in his day. Glad to have him on our team.”
Borland, who last week recovered a fumble in overtime that set up the 49ers’ win over the Saints, wasn’t the only defensive rookie to make his mark against the Giants.
Aaron Lynch started his second straight game at left outside linebacker, then played nearly every snap with Ahmad Brooks sitting – mysteriously– on the bench in the second half. With Tramaine Brock out because of a hamstring strain, cornerback Dontae Johnson, a fourth-round draft pick in May, played extensively. He got his hand on Eli Manning’s goal-line throw late in the game, tipping the ball to Borland.
Manning, who entered the game with six interceptions, threw five Sunday. Linebacker Michael Wilhoite, safety Eric Reid and cornerback Chris Culliver each had one.
Still, it was the second straight game in which the 49ers required end-of-game heroics from the defense.
The offense fell into its usual pattern – starting well but sputtering late. Running mostly to the right side, the 49ers ran 11 plays on the opening drive but turned the ball over deep in Giants territory when Frank Gore lost his grip on the ball, his first fumble of the season. Two other long, first-half drives ended in field goals.
The offense finally struck early in the third quarter when Colin Kaepernick connected with Michael Crabtree on a short post pattern. The wide receiver had griped a week earlier about his lack of opportunities, saying that he had been relegated to a third-down option. Crabtree is in the final year of his contract; his catches are down and his drops – including another one Sunday – are up.
Kaepernick’s throw, however, was delivered on first down and on target. Crabtree caught it in stride and outran the Giants’ secondary for a 48-yard touchdown, his longest of the year and his first since Week 6.
“I’m so happy for him,” Gore said of Crabtree. “That’s my boy. I’m real close with him. In the offseason, we train together. And I know it’s a contract year for him, and I want the best for him because he’s a great player. I know he might not have the stats – but me knowing football – he’s a top receiver in my book.”
New York answered Crabtree’s touchdown with a 43-yard field goal, and the Giants were within one touchdown of snatching a win for the rest of the game.
It seemed as if that was imminent when Manning hurled a pass deep down the right sideline that was hauled in by the Giants’ own good-looking rookie, wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., for a juggling 37-yard gain that put the ball on the San Francisco 4-yard line.
But Manning’s first three throws to the corner of the end zone fell incomplete. And the fourth – in the middle of the field – was tipped to a diving Borland, who has made a habit of finding both ball and ball carrier at critical moments.
“There’s a mentality now that we are in the playoffs – every game is a must win,” Borland said. “It’s on to Washington.”
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.