© Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
They are always the most convenient scapegoat. When a loss, and the season as a whole, is as multi-layered as San Francisco’s gut-wrenching 33-30 defeat to the Green Bay Packers Monday night, the coaches are the easiest to blame. Particularly when you had the seven-point lead with two minutes remaining, and particularly when you’re 1-5 on the season.
Don’t put all the blame on Kyle Shanahan and Robert Saleh for San Francisco’s loss Monday night. They did not coach a perfect game, but they called a very good one — one that was good enough to win.
There are no moral victories, but the fact is, the undermanned 49ers were in position to win at Lambeau Field, against one of the all-time greats in Aaron Rodgers. The 49ers outplayed the Packers for the majority of the game, largely because Shanahan and Saleh executed their game plans.
Let’s start with Saleh, whose unit allowed 33 points. For the second straight week, the 49ers defense got off to a nightmarish start when the Packers ripped a 60-yard gain on a play-action that completely fooled the secondary.
Rodgers ran a naked bootleg, and the Packers receivers ran crosses. 49ers cornerback Jimmie Ward ran with the inside receiver instead of covering his third of the field, leaving acres of land for the big gain.
There is no way Saleh, whose Cover 3 scheme is designed to protect every third of the field equally, is to blame for that mistake.
“When you do your job, this defense is hard to beat,” Richard Sherman said postgame. “On the first freaking play again, we busted— we busted a simple coverage.”
The Packers scored three plays later. The shootout was on.
The 49ers fumbled the ball on the ensuing kickoff, and the Packers recovered in the 49ers’ territory. They held the Packers to a field goal.
On Green Bay’s third offensive drive, the 49ers blew another coverage. The Packers ran a play-action, and tight end Jimmy Graham looped behind the defense for a 54-yard gain. Ward, again, seemed to be in no-man’s land.
After the game, the 49ers cited lack of communication as reasons for those lapses. That’s a hallmark of a young, inexperienced unit still learning how to play cohesively.
The 49ers defense allowed the Packers to do whatever they wanted in the first quarter, allowing 17 points and 194 yards in the first 15 minutes. Then, almost suddenly, the 49ers figured it out.
After the Packers’ first three scoring drives, the 49ers held them to just six points on the following seven drives. One of Green Bay’s field goals during that period came after San Francisco fumbled and gave the Packers favorable field position.
During a 42-minute, 52-second stretch, the 49ers held the Packers to six points. The players executed their assignments better, and Saleh dialed up more blitzes, pressuring Rodgers, who was gimpy with a knee injury. The 49ers had three sacks, tied for their most of the year, and it would have been four had Sherman’s illegal contact penalty on the final drive of the game not erased the last sack.
The defensive performance was bookended with an awful start and finish. The Packers scored 10 unanswered points in the final two minutes to steal the win.
Saleh’s scheme works if his players are sound in coverage, and the pass rush yields enough pressure to force turnovers. It’s a simple, but successful defense that has swept the league in recent years.
The 49ers are still looking for capable players to fill the holes. The right cornerbacks have been torched this season. Ahkello Witherspoon has regressed, Ward has been inconsistent, and Greg Mabin struggled mightily down the stretch of Monday night. Free safety Adrian Colbert has failed to live up to expectations following an encouraging rookie season. The pass rush is lacking a dynamic edge option to supplement DeForest Buckner’s inside presence.
San Francisco’s big free agent defensive signing was Sherman, who has been as dominant as anyone could have hoped. Out of the 1,750 passing yards the 49ers have allowed, Sherman has allowed just 28 yards (he did not play in Week 4). Opposing offenses simply aren’t throwing to his side, yet they are finding success.
The 49ers will need another marquee addition, whether via free agency or the draft, to take that next step. Maybe, the 49ers don’t have enough good defensive players to consistently win challenging games.
On Monday night, Saleh devised a game plan that, if executed all game long, was good enough to knock off the Packers.
So did Shanahan. The 49ers offense put on a clinic for the first three quarters of the game.
Lots of people lamented his play-calling on the final drive. The 49ers ran three straight passes, the final resulting in a long interception, to give the Packers the ball back with 64 seconds remaining. If Shanahan ran the ball, it would have milked the clock and given the Packers, which had no timeouts, a slim chance to win the game in regulation.
That’s understandable. But the 49ers would not have been in a position to win had it not been for Shanahan’s superb play-calling throughout the game.
The 49ers scored on six of their first eight offensive drives, which includes Kyle Juszczyk’s fumble on the first play of their fourth drive. One week after C.J. Beathard threw the ball 54 times, he attempted just 23 passes Monday night. The 49ers relied on the running game, which compiled 174 yards, and set up play-action and misdirection. They moved the ball with ease.
The 49ers gained 374 yards through three quarters. The offense stalled in the fourth, gaining just 27 yards. The 49ers punted twice and threw an interception on the final three possessions, which hurts.
It’s easy in hindsight to say the 49ers should not have ran three straight times on the final drive. But the 49ers had gained negative-one rushing yards on the prior two possessions. Shanahan chose to stay aggressive, rather than run the ball and risk overtime. He didn’t want to give Rodgers the ball.
Regardless of the final play calls, the 49ers still scored 30 points. That should be enough.
This game was indicative of many of the close losses that marred the 2017 season. The 49ers played well in spurts, were prone to mental breakdowns, and had a chance to win in the end but fell short. The 49ers have held leads in five of their six games this year, and one resulted in a win.
But let’s not forget what a fully healthy 49ers roster presented entering 2018: a good, potentially great offense with an inexperienced defense that looked to be a year or two away. If the 49ers wanted to make the playoffs this year, they needed better health, progression from its second-year defensive players, and the ability to win close games — which it didn’t do last year until Jimmy Garoppolo arrived. None of those prospects have come to fruition.
On Monday night, Shanahan and Saleh put their players in positions to win an important game, but they fell short.