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Yes, BIZARRE. Count me as someone who wasn't expecting the San Francisco 49ers to be competitive tonight on Sunday Night Football against the New York Giants based on:
- Getting SHELLACKED in their first two road games this season in Pittsburgh and Arizona.
- Colin Kaepernick looking absolutely lost in the last two games at Arizona and vs Green Bay.
- Having very little faith that the defense would be able to repeat their performance against the Packers last weekend because of their lack of consistency (actually a team-wide problem).
I could go on and on but instead let's do a recap of tonight.
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- The 49ers won the coin toss and didn't defer. If you know when it was the last time they did that please let me know in the comments section. That first drive was nice, including back-to-back quick screens to Bruce Ellington which gained 30 and nine yards respectively. The 49ers ended up settling for a 43-yard field goal attempt which Phil Dawson nailed.
- Eli Manning finished this game with career highs in pass attempts (41) and pass completions (54) and led the Giants to six scoring drives. He played a hell of a game with his only blemish probably being his lone interception.
- Speaking of Manning's interception, I can't give Tramaine Brock more than 50% credit for what was a clearly a poor decision by Manning but it was a very timely takeaway that allowed the 49ers to remain within one score of the home team.
- I mentioned in our last video podcast (shameless plug) that the Giants boasted the worst passing defense in the league (giving up 316 yards/game going into this week, most in the NFL). The 49ers noticed too and called more pass plays than run plays, including calling a pass play in all 11 snaps of their last drive of the first half in which Kaepernick completed five passes for 56 yards, took a deep shot to Torrey Smith that resulted in a holding penalty against the Giants, and scrambled for 15 yards (in which he fumbled but also recovered the ball).
- The 49ers scored not one, not two, but THREE touchdowns in New York after coming into this game averaging 1.25 TDs/game. They scored a TD for the first time since the 2nd quarter of the game at Arizona and a meaningful TD since Carlos Hyde's 17-yard run in the fourth quarter of the Minnesota game to seal that win
- Kaepernick played his best game of the season so far (although in fairness he had set that bar pretty low), including his best throw by far this season.
- Before ultimately coming up short, the 49ers defense came up with a BIG play down the stretch. With 11:49 left in the game the Giants embarked on a 14-play drive that burned 7:20 off the clock. However, they failed to score a touchdown thanks to a risky proposition by Eric Mangini who on 3rd&7 from the SF 11-yard line decided to bring NaVorro Bowman and Michael Wilhoite off the field for Jaquiski Tartt and Keith Reaser. Eli Manning seemed to play the odds and opted to hand the ball off to Shane Vereen who was only able to gain 6 yards thanks to a key tackle by Jimmie Ward. The Giants had to settle for a field goal and 23-20 lead with 4:29 left, leaving plenty of time for the 49ers to put together a touchdown drive.
- The 49ers actually put together a game-winning touchdown drive, it will just statistically not be called that because the Giants responded with one of their own.
First of all, defeat aside, this game was a huge step forward for Jim Tomsula's squad. He's the first one to point out there are no moral victories but the reality is there are a lot of good things for the 49ers to take away from this game.
Unfortunately my feelings on whether the defense would be able to repeat last week's performance against Aaron Rodgers proved right as they gave up 30 points tonight, a third of those in the 4th quarter including a game-losing touchdown with 21 seconds left. I now feel like if Rodgers had had to put up more numbers last week he would have, but Kap and the offense were so mediocre he didn't have to. That being said it wasn't like the defense reverted to the kind of performances they had at Pittsburgh and at Arizona so there are definitely positives to take from this game, most notably that Aaron Lynch was a pest for the Giants' offensive line all night long as his five QB hits reflect.
NaVorro Bowman amassed a team-high 16 tackles, 13 solo, yet it's becoming more obvious as the season goes that he isn't the same guy he was in 2013. That All-Pro ability just isn't there anymore and you wonder if he'll be able to get back anywhere close to that kind of form this season (ever?). He seems to still be a dynamic run defender but just isn't as effective in pass coverage (see, Vereen TD).
On the offensive side of the ball the coaching staff was ready and eager to show it (see, NOT deferring after winning the coin toss). Props to them. Many might have expected them to try to shelter Kaepernick and not ask him to do too much after the last two weeks but they were showed their faith in their QB and had a game plan to slowly but surely get him into a rhythm. Huge props too to Kaepernick, obviously, who as I mentioned earlier played this best game this season. Pass-catchers were nearly flawless in this game as well and I don't seem to recall any specific blatant drops.
Of course I'm not forgetting the offensive line, which may have played their second best game of the season after the opener in Minnesota. Marcus Martin remains the weak link and I can't wait until Daniel Kilgore comes back. In more exciting news, Andrew Tiller made his season debut in this game on what was a pre-determined plan by the coaching staff and, at least until I review the game, he seemed to outplay the guy he replaced (Jordan Devey).
It's unfair to pin this loss on any specific player or unit in particular but even after a vastly improved performance I come away from this game a bit salty towards the 49ers offense. On their last touchdown drive, after the two minute warning, the staff (coaches/players) should have abandoned the passing game completely. This would had allowed for more time to come off the clock during the drive which perhaps wouldn't have left enough time for the Giants to finish their game-winning drive. Instead, right after the two-minute warning the 49ers called back-to-back passing plays - one to Smith which resulted in another holding penalty against the Giants and one to Garrett Celek that was nearly intercepted. Another 40-plus seconds off the clock or even the Giants burning some timeouts at this time might have prevented them from their eventual game-winning touchdown. Just poor clock management.
Ultimately, with the game on the line and the 49ers needing to gain about 40 yards in 17 seconds with no timeouts to attempt a game-tying field goal, the offensive line disappointed once again, first giving up pressure on a DT-DE stunt vs Devey and Erik Pears (which Martin didn't recognize till late), then Alex Boone missing a blitz by J.T. Thomas which left the Giants' linebacker on Kaepernick's face before #7 could even make any attempt to throw.
But let me finish this on a good note because ultimately the offense deserves it. What Chryst's unit did with 4:29 left in the game down by four, driving 80 yards on seven plays in 2:44 was without question the most impressive drive of the 49ers this season. I know I just criticized their clock management at the end of that drive but they managed to get a touchdown with less than two minutes left on the road when they so direly needed it and they did so in a balanced manner: four runs and three passes.
No moral victories but a lot of good things that we will hopefully continue to see (perhaps even with more frequency?).