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49ers hoping to learn from past mistakes in big games

Marc Adams
Feb 4, 2024 at 12:43 PM--

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If the San Francisco 49ers are going to beat the Kansas City Chiefs and win Super Bowl LVIII, they will have to play better than they did in their previous two games in the 2023 NFC playoffs. Specifically, the 49ers need to start faster on offense and play better against the run on defense. This game will be their toughest test yet, and the 49ers will need to be as close to perfect as possible.

But the 49ers also need to learn from past championship games and try not to make the same mistakes. Super Bowl LIV, played in February 2020, is one game the 49ers need to learn from. The 2021 NFC Championship Game, played in January of 2022, is another.

Super Bowl LIV

The 49ers entered the 4th quarter of Super Bowl LIV with a 10-point lead over the Chiefs. The defense was dominating and led the way to 20-10 lead at the end of the 3rd quarter. Even after Kansas City put together a nice drive to start the 4th quarter, the 49ers' defense still came up big with a Tarvarius Moore interception, turning the Chiefs away yet again. At this point, with 11:57 remaining in the game, the 49ers had all the momentum and seemed destined to win a sixth Lombardi trophy.

Unfortunately, the 49ers' offense couldn't close the deal. Here's how the 49ers' fourth-quarter possessions went:

First 49ers fourth-quarter drive (5 plays, 17 yards, 3:04): Shanahan's offense followed Moore's interception with a five-play drive that gained only 17 yards and used up only 3:04. That drive consisted of two runs and three passes.

Kansas City got the ball back with 8:54 remaining. The Chiefs put together a 10-play, 83-yard drive that led to a touchdown and brought them to within a field goal. This was the drive that included the infamous 3rd and 15 conversion.

Second 49ers fourth-quarter drive (3 plays, 5 yards, 1:03): The 49ers' second drive of the quarter was even worse than the first one. A three-and-out, late in the Super Bowl, when you're trying to protect a slim lead to win a championship, is not how you want things to go. Raheem Mostert gained five yards on a first-down run. Then two incomplete passes forced a punt. This was the last time the 49ers would lead in the Super Bowl, as another Chiefs touchdown drive made it 24-20 Kansas City.

Third 49ers fourth-quarter drive (7 plays, 27 yards, 1:19): Mostert started the drive with a 17-yard run. That was the last time the 49ers would run the ball in Super Bowl LIV. Six pass attempts would follow. Two were completed for short gains, three were incomplete, and one resulted in a sack.

Fourth 49ers fourth-quarter drive (2 plays, 0 yards, 15 seconds): On the 49ers' final drive of Super Bowl LIV, they attempted two passes. One pass was incomplete. The last one was intercepted.

There were four 4th quarter possessions for the 49ers' offense, two of those with a lead. On the two possessions with the lead, the 49ers ran eight plays, gained only 22 yards, and even worse, used only 4:07 of the game clock. On those two drives, they ran the ball three times and passed the ball five times.

In all, the 49ers ran 17 offensive plays in the 4th quarter. Four were runs and 13 were passes. The 49ers gained only 49 total yards in the final quarter. There were only four runs in the 4th quarter of the Super Bowl, for a team that ran the ball so well and had a quarterback who was questionable in spots like this. Hall of Fame QB Steve Young said after the game that the 49ers had it won, but they stopped running the ball and blew it.

2021 NFC Championship Game

The 49ers entered the 4th quarter of the 2021 NFC Championship Game with a 10-point lead. Sound familiar? Before the 49ers' first possession of the 4th quarter, the Los Angeles Rams scored a touchdown to move within a field goal. Nursing a small, three-point lead, the 49ers received the kickoff and began the first of only three 4th quarter possessions:

First 49ers fourth-quarter drive (6 plays, 36 yards, 3:35): The drive included three passes and three runs. On 4th & 2, from the SF 46, the 49ers tried to get the Rams to jump offsides. It didn't work. The 49ers punted from the LA 49-yard line with about 10 minutes left in the game. The next play was the Jaquiski Tartt dropped interception, followed by the Jimmie Ward 15-yard penalty. The Rams tied the game at 17 with a field goal.

Second 49ers fourth-quarter drive (3 plays, -5 yards, 23 seconds): How would the 49ers respond? Not well. The drive went like this: Incomplete pass, delay of game penalty, incomplete pass, incomplete pass, punt. At this point, there was 6:32 remaining in the game.

With the game tied, the 49ers didn't even attempt to run the ball. The delay of game penalty didn't help, though. The Rams followed the 49ers' anemic drive by kicking a field goal to take a three-point lead. And with the game on the line, and backed up near their own goalline, the 49ers needed a drive that could tie the game or take the lead.

Third 49ers fourth-quarter drive (3 plays, -3 yards, 37 seconds): Incomplete pass, completed pass for a loss of three yards, interception. The final 49ers' drive lasted less than 40 seconds of game time and lost yardage.

The 49ers had three 4th quarter possessions consisting of 12 offensive plays (9 passes, 3 runs). They score no points. The 49ers' final two drives lasted only 60 seconds combined. And the one 49ers drive in which they had the lead gained only 36 yards and used only 3:35 of the game clock.

Two 4th quarter leads were lost, in the biggest games of the season. Twice, in championship games, the 49ers blew a 10-point 4th quarter lead. Here are four reasons why I think the 49ers blew those double-digit 4th quarter leads, and what they need to do to not repeat history in Super Bowl LVIII.

1. They abandoned the running game.

In the Super Bowl, it felt like the lack of a running game was a decision coach Kyle Shanahan made. I base that on the plays he called. He ran the ball only four times in the 4th quarter of the Super Bowl. Mostert had rumbled for over 200 yards two weeks earlier. But Shanahan abandoned the ground game.

In the NFC Championship Game, the Rams played the run and dared Garoppolo to beat them. The 49ers only ran the ball three times in the 4th quarter of the NFC Championship, but that was, in part, due to how the Rams were playing the 49ers.

Two championship losses following 10-point leads. Combined, the 49ers ran the ball only seven times. In Super Bowl LVIII, the 49ers will need a heavy dose of Christian McCaffrey. I would even like to see Elijah Mitchell, as well. And maybe even some Jordan Mason.

The Chiefs' run defense isn't anything special, and the 49ers should be able to take advantage of that.

2. Going away from a creative game plan.

In the first half of the Super Bowl against the Chiefs and in previous games against the Rams, Shanahan was very creative as a play-caller, using a lot of play-action and misdirection. There was a lot of movement and Shanahan built his plays so they looked alike, meaning you often weren't able to tell if it was a running play or a passing play. And it was working.

But I remember noticing, in the Super Bowl especially, that the misdirection and creative playcalling that was successful in the first three quarters, disappeared in the fourth quarter. I'm not sure why that happened, but when the creativity wasn't there, and QB Jimmy Garoppolo was forced to survive on just pure passing, the offense struggled.

Now, I realize there are times when play-action can't be as effective. The Rams' game plan was to do everything to shut down the 49ers' run game and take their chances with Garoppolo. It worked. And it worked because, without the threat of a running game, there is no play-action game to rely on. And when Garoppolo didn't have play-action, he became a liability.

If the 49ers are going to win the Super Bowl, Shanahan needs to call a creative game for four full quarters.

3. QB failures when the play breaks down.

Sometimes the play breaks down. Sometimes there are missed assignments, or the defense has the perfect call for the play, or the offensive play-caller makes the wrong call. There are multiple reasons why a play can break down.

In a huge game, like the Super Bowl or any other championship game, the pressure is much greater, and the level of play is amplified. When the play breaks down in those games, especially late in games, when it's close and everything is on the line, it's even more important to have a quarterback who can make things happen on his own.

In the final quarter of the NFC Championship Game, the play broke down a few different times, forcing Garoppolo to scramble out of the pocket. In those instances, his passes ended up resulting in two incompletions (one was almost an interception), and the game-sealing interception. Late in the Super Bowl, there were similar plays. That was Garoppolo's most glaring weakness.

With Brock Purdy, the 49ers have a quarterback who can do things with the ball when the play breaks down. And while the 49ers offense is still at its best when they're running the ball and using play-action, if it's not there, Purdy still has a chance to beat you.

Purdy will need to have his best game yet, especially when plays break down, for the 49ers to win a sixth Super Bowl.

4. Not using your best players in the biggest moments.

In the biggest moments of Super Bowl LIV and the 2021 NFC Championship Game, the 49ers failed to get the ball into the hands of their best players in the fourth quarter. In Super Bowl LIV, Mostert, the team's best offensive weapon in the 2019 postseason, touched the ball only four times in the 4th quarter. Tight end George Kittle touched the ball once in the 4th quarter. Wide receiver Deebo Samuel, who had 53 rushing yards on three carries, and five catches for 39 yards, did not touch the ball at all in the final quarter.

Read that again. In the final quarter of the Super Bowl, Mostert, Kittle, and Samuel touched the ball a total of five times! And in the NFC Championship, Samuel, the 49ers' best player in 2021, only touched the ball once. Kittle had zero touches.

In contrast, the Chiefs made sure to get the ball to their best players when the game was on the line. Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelsey both had key catches in big moments. And the Rams made sure to get Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham, Jr. the ball when they needed plays.

After the comeback win over the Detroit Lions last week, Shanahan was asked about halftime adjustments. He said he simply focused less on the scheme and just got the ball to his best players. It worked last week, and if he can do that for four quarters next Sunday, it will work again.

The 49ers can win Super Bowl LVIII if they can learn from past mistakes and stick with the run game, stay creative, keep making plays even when the called play breaks down, and make sure to get the best players the ball in the biggest moments. Do these four things, and the 49ers will be preparing for a celebratory parade soon.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.
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