Believe it or not, San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan has a portion of his offensive playbook dedicated to 3rd-and-a mile plays.

Turns out, he needed that section of his playbook Saturday night in Week 16 against the visiting Los Angeles Rams.

Los Angeles, vying to keep its playoff hopes alive, had tied things up at 31 apiece late in the fourth quarter, leaving Shanahan and the Niners offense enough time for a potential game-winning drive in the waning minutes. Yet San Francisco's offense had sputtered for much of the game, particularly in the first half, and the Rams pass rush continued to be problematic throughout all four quarters.

With 2:30 remaining in regulation and the game still tied, Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald sacked quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, which took the clock down to two minutes and forced the Niners into a 3rd-and-16. But then, Garoppolo delivered a strike right over the middle to wide receiver Kendrick Bourne for 18 yards, moving the chains for San Francisco and keeping alive the hopes of ending the game before overtime.

But Garoppolo and the 49ers faced yet another 3rd-and-16 again, following Garoppolo's sixth sack of the night. This time, he tossed a rainbow shot in the direction of wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders:


Sanders beat Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey for 46 yards, putting the Niners in position for Robbie Gould to kick his game-winning field goal.

At 12-3, the 49ers are feeling pretty good about being on the right side of a field-goal win, but these two 3rd-and-16 first-down conversions meant all the difference.

"A 3rd-and-16 is not the best situation to be in," Shanahan told reporters after the game. "Usually you're not feeling great in those situations. The guys [up front] gave [Garoppolo] enough time in protection. The first one to Bourne over the middle. And he had a similar play over the middle, but the safeties got real wide, and that got the opportunity to Emmanuel down the field."

Sanders had Ramsey beat, while Bourne fought in the middle between two L.A. defensive backs. Afterwards, he spoke of the play in the locker room.

"I just saw a spot in the middle," Bourne said. "I knew that my depth would get the first down, the way Kyle drew it up. And Jimmy being there on time."


Jimmy G struggled for much of the game, going 16-of-27 for 248 yards, a touchdown pass to tight end George Kittle, two interceptions tossed and a passer rating of 71.2. But even when he might not have been at his best, particularly with a noticeable lack of pass protection up front amid a patchwork 49ers offensive line, Garoppolo came through with the clutch plays when he absolutely needed to.

And just in time, too.

"I felt like we were putting pressure," Donald said after the game. "We were there, but [Garoppolo] was making some good throws. We were about to get him, if we had a second longer. he made two good passes to help his team to win."

Speaking of split seconds, Garoppolo admitted his right arm was hit on the second 3rd-and-16 conversion, perhaps partially the reason why there was so much air under the pass to Sanders.

"My arm got hit as I threw it," Garoppolo said. "So I got a little nervous, but he made a great play. It was awesome."

Sanders and Ramsey had been jawing at each other throughout the game, so one has to figure the second of the two third-down conversions had to make San Francisco's veteran wide receiver feel pretty good. Ramsey had little to offer after the play itself, although Rams running back Todd Gurley simply remarked, "It is what it is," when asked about the two allowed third-down conversions.

Overall on the night, the 49ers went 4-of-10 on third-down attempts. But rare are the plays a head coach can call when facing 3rd- or 4th-and-forever. Doing so twice on the same drive is almost unheard of.

"We actually do," Shanahan added when asked if there was a section of the playbook for 3rd-and-16 plays. "It's not a fun area. Until today, it went well. Usually I get into I-formation and run the ball out of frustration, but that would have been bad in that situation, so I'm glad I didn't."

Neither are the 49ers Faithful, Kyle. Neither are they.
  • Peter Panacy
  • Written by:
    Peter Panacy has been writing about the 49ers since 2011 for outlets like Bleacher Report, Niner Noise, 49ers Webzone, and is occasionally heard as a guest on San Francisco's 95.7 FM The Game and the Niners' flagship station, KNBR 680. Feel free to follow him, or direct any inquiries to his Twitter account.