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C.J. Beathard threw for a career-high 349 yards in Week 5, and he was conservative. The 49ers doubled the Arizona Cardinals in time of possession and yardage and tripled them in first downs, largely because San Francisco trailed for the final 54 minutes of the game.
But the 49ers offense was far less explosive than we have seen in the recent past. Only one of Beathard’s career-high 54 pass attempts exceeded 25 yards. Two of his 34 completed passes were thrown at least ten yards downfield.
San Francisco’s plodding aerial attack — which sounds like a paradox — has become this team’s reality in a season marred with injuries to its top playmakers. The 49ers entered last Sunday’s 28-18 loss to the Cardinals without their franchise quarterback, starting running back, and two most dangerous receivers. Two of their five active receivers made NFL debuts in Week 5. The offensive line entered the game banged up, most notably Joe Staley (knee), who faced the unwelcoming task of containing 2017 first-team All-Pro edge rusher Chandler Jones.
Kyle Shanahan can only do so much. Most of San Francisco’s biggest completions last Sunday are credited to superior play-calling. Ultimately, the 49ers could not muster enough offense to offset the points Arizona scored off San Francisco’s five turnovers.
Beathard’s passing chart shows how conservative the 49ers were in Week 5.
As you can see above, nine of his completions came from behind the line of scrimmage. The 49ers largely relied upon screen plays to move downfield, which worked to begin the game. They ran three screens that yielded 50 yards on the opening drive, including two to fullback Kyle Juszczyk and one to Matt Breida, who scampered for a five-yard touchdown. For the most part, San Francisco’s throws behind the line of scrimmage worked, yielding 12.9 yards per attempt, according to Pro Football Focus.
After their first touchdown, however, the 49ers did not score again for nearly 48 minutes.
The absence of speed within the offense was glaring. To make matters worse, Breida sprained his ankle early in the second quarter and did not return, stripping the 49ers of their most dynamic active playmaker — again.
For reference, look at the variation of Jimmy Garoppolo’s Week 1 passing chart, when the 49ers had a (mostly) healthy lineup.
Beathard and Garoppolo are clearly not the same player, but the disparity in those graphics is striking. Beathard has averaged 5.3 intended yards per throw this season, the lowest in the NFL. Garoppolo averaged 8.9 intended yards per throw in the nearly three games he played, the 10th-highest in the league.
The absence of speedsters Marquise Goodwin and Dante Pettis shrunk the field last Sunday. Beathard had limited open downfield options. Combine that with his maturation as a second-year NFL quarterback, his periodic struggles to swiftly move through his progressions, and lack of consistent pass blocking, and Beathard was under constant pressure last Sunday. He was sacked four times and hit hard on many others.
His first sack prefaced the recurring struggles that plagued the 49ers all game long.
In the first quarter, on third and six, the 49ers deployed four receivers. None of them got open. Meanwhile, center Weston Richburg helped on Jones, who made an inside move, leaving linebacker Josh Bynes with a free lane to Beathard.
The 49ers have relied heavily upon George Kittle and Juszczyk, their top two receivers, through five weeks. Kittle is on pace for a career year, largely because Shanahan has schemed to exploit mismatches and maximize Kittle’s speed.
Last Sunday, the 49ers faced third and 13 early in the second quarter. Kittle detached from the line, moving all the way out wide, bringing linebacker Haason Reddick with him. The Cardinals botched the coverage, and Kittle found the open space in the middle of the field to pick up 17 yards and the first down.
Shanahan drew up a similar play on another third and long. He moved Juszczyk out wide, stacking the right side with three receivers. He darted across the middle, the Cardinals defensive backs got mixed up with the crossing routes, and Juszczyk turned the easy catch into a 15-yard completion.
When Beathard’s first read was open, and he had time to throw, he generally moved the ball. But the pocket consistently collapsed on him.
According to the NFL’s NextGen Stats, Beathard has had just 2.53 seconds to throw on average this season, ranking 33rd out of 37 NFL quarterbacks.
In the play below, Cardinals safety Antoine Bethea had a free shot on Beathard. 49ers right guard Mike Person helped over the middle, blocking the same rusher as center Weston Richburg and left guard Laken Tomlinson. It appeared that Juszczyk saw Bethea at the last second but couldn’t get over in time to block him.
Part of the problem was San Francisco failed to pick up blitzes. Other times, Beathard did not move up in the pocket with enough urgency when pressure mounted.
In the third quarter, Jones whipped around the edge and got a hand on Beathard’s arm as he attempted to throw. It looked like Staley blocked Jones well, but Beathard didn’t account for his length. Arizona recovered the fumble. This was one of San Francisco’s five turnovers on the day. Arizona did not commit one.
Beathard’s best throw of the game resulted in an incompletion — fitting for San Francisco’s frustrating day. With 10 minutes remaining in the game, on first and 10, he lobbed the ball to the outstretched Pierre Garcon, who dropped it. The 49ers needed more chunk conversions to consolidate drives.
As seen in many of these clips, the 49ers receivers struggled to get open downfield. When Beathard’s initial read wasn’t open, things typically ended sour.
Such was the case when Reddick strip-sacked sacked Beathard with fewer than five minutes remaining, then returned the fumble for a touchdown to extend the Cardinals lead to 21-12. There weren’t open receiving options, Beathard stalled in the pocket, and the 49ers failed to handle Arizona’s blitz.
Similar to his rookie season, Beathard has been tossed into yet another unforgiving situation, surrounded by little help. Injuries have determined that.
One thing is for sure: the lack of offense last Sunday was not a singular issue.