Cornerback Marcus Cromartie got the news 90 minutes before kickoff Sunday: He was going to start his first NFL game against the Atlanta Falcons. Oh, and by the way, his assignment was to cover the NFL’s top wide receiver, Julio Jones, for much of the afternoon.
Jones, the big Falcons wideout, certainly lived up to his billing. He finished with 10 catches for 137 yards and continues to lead the league in receiving yards.
But Cromartie, 24, and the rest of a makeshift 49ers secondary kept Jones out of the end zone and held the Falcons to 16 points, their second lowest total of the season. Cromartie allowed three catches for 33 yards, earning a team-best coverage grade from the scouting service Pro Football Focus.
“Obviously, he’s a great player,” Cromartie said of Jones on Monday. “We wanted to make sure he worked for all of his catches.”
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The undrafted and unsung Cromartie – he was a member of the 49ers’ practice squad until Saturday – was part of a theme in Sunday’s 17-16 win. The 49ers were forced to rely on several castoffs and virtual unknowns at key positions, and each seized his opportunity.
Quarterback Blaine Gabbert, of course, was the most obvious example. Dismissed as a bust after three seasons in Jacksonville, Gabbert threw for two touchdowns in the first half, then was entrusted with the most crucial play in the second half, a five-yard bootleg run for a first down that helped drain the clock at the end of the game.
Guard Andrew Tiller, who also started the season on the practice squad, played a season-high 48 snaps, and he might have positioned himself to start at right guard in the next game Nov. 22 against the Seattle Seahawks. Another cornerback, Chris Davis, wasn’t even on the team a week ago. He played 17 snaps.
Meanwhile, the team’s starting running back, Shaun Draughn, was watching football on television the previous Sunday in Cleveland with his wife and two kids when the phone rang. It was the 49ers wondering if he was available for a workout.
“I actually watched a little bit of the 49ers game,” he said. “Then I got the call at 6:30 and was on the plane at 9 o’clock.”
Draughn hit the field for a workout the following Monday morning, was signed that afternoon and studied the playbook during every waking hour until Sunday. Like Cromartie, Draughn said he didn’t know he would be starting until minutes before the game, and he finished with 96 combined rushing and receiving yards.
Coach Jim Tomsula on Monday said Draughn’s study sessions largely won him the job.
“That competition went all the way through the meetings Saturday night,” he said. “As you go through meetings, (you) talk about what you see and you identify fronts and identify checks and go through all those meetings we have on Saturday night.”
On Tuesday, the 49ers added another free-agent running back, Travaris Cadet, and waived running back Pierre Thomas, who had been signed a week earlier. Both played for the New Orleans Saints last season. The 26-year-old Cadet is four years younger than Thomas and can play special teams.
Linebacker Michael Wilhoite noted that both neophyte cornerbacks who played Sunday, Cromartie and Davis, were part of the scout team in the run-up to the Falcons game. Their role in practice was to imitate the opposing defense rather than concentrate on what the 49ers were planning.
“It’s definitely hard,” Wilhoite said of practicing with the scout team, then being asked to start on Sunday. “You’re not working on what you need to get better on or what our defense does. So for those guys to do that and make that adjustment ... that’s awesome. It’s just what we needed.”
Cromartie emerged from the game with three stitches in his lip following a sideline tackle, but his starting role – for one game, at least – gives him a little more clout at family gatherings. One of his cousins is Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, a cornerback for the New York Giants. Another, Antonio Cromartie, plays cornerback for the New York Jets. The two have combined for 221 regular-season starts and five Pro Bowl berths.
Marcus said sharing their surname adds pressure.
“It almost feels like I have to step up my game,” he said. “And that’s why I want to play with a chip on my shoulder. It will be like, when you hear (the name) ‘Cromartie,’ let’s hear ‘Marcus’ and not so much Antonio and Dominique. It’s just kind of playing with a little edge.”