© Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
The 49ers are lacking closers, and Kyle Shanahan knows it.
On Sunday afternoon, San Francisco squandered a 12-point lead in the fourth quarter of its 18-15 loss at Arizona. It was the second time in three weeks the 49ers lost games in which they led late, which is nothing new. In the past two seasons, the 49ers are 3-8 in games decided by three points or fewer.
“It comes down to, you can do a lot of things throughout a game, but when it comes down to the end when we need to close people out, and we need some closers to do that,” Shanahan said on a conference call Monday morning. “We’ve had some opportunities to do it.”
The 49ers defense played its best game of the season, but it collapsed in the fourth quarter. The offense did not help.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Cardinals capped a 75-yard drive with a touchdown, cutting the deficit to five. The 49ers punted on the following possession. One drive later, 49ers safety Tyvis Powell forced a fumble, and they recovered on their own 30-yard line with fewer than five minutes remaining. But the 49ers yielded just four yards on five plays on the ensuing possession, and they punted again. The Cardinals had just enough time to come back. Rookie quarterback Josh Rosen led them 73 yards for a touchdown, then punched in a two-point conversion, with 34 seconds remaining. The following 49ers possession resulted in a bad snap, leaving C.J. Beathard scrambling backwards before throwing a pass that spiraled to the grass — fitting for San Francisco’s collapse.
No one expected these 49ers to carry on without Jimmy Garoppolo and Jerick McKinnon seamlessly. The current six-game losing streak has exposed the lack of talent on the roster, but there is enough to win games.
Perhaps that is the most frustrating part of this 49ers team: they are not totally incompetent. Untimely lapses just make it seem that way. They move the ball for stretches, only to fall short in the red zone or turn the ball over. They consistently string together defensive stops, only to wilt early or choke late in the game.
The 49ers had legitimate chances to win at Green Bay and Los Angeles (Chargers), two teams with more experience and talent than San Francisco.
The 49ers jumped out to an early 14-point lead on the Chargers. Even when they regained the lead, the 49ers moved the ball and had opportunities to win the game late. But two second-half interceptions — one on a Garrett Celek drop near the goal line — proved too costly.
The 49ers led the Packers by seven points with fewer than three minutes remaining, only to subsequently allow a touchdown, throw an interception on the following drive, and allow Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers to steamroll through their defense in the final minute for the win.
The Green Bay loss and most recent Arizona loss bother Shanahan the most, he said Monday. Factor in the Chargers defeat, and the 49ers could be 4-4 if they closed out winnable games this year.
“We obviously are getting opportunities, reps and experience at it, but the experience hasn’t paid off yet,” Shanahan said. “We had an opportunity last night to do it. I thought we would, I felt extremely confident in that the entire game until the last play. But, we came up short again and that’s stuff that we have to continue to learn from and we have to get better at, and we’ve got to find people who can get it done.”
That last line is telling. Shanahan has long maintained that this team is much better than last year’s. Even with enough talent to occasionally win, however, it’s clear these 49ers lack the necessary playmakers that will vault them to the next level. That spans from the receiving corps to the edge defenders to the secondary. Even Reuben Foster, one of the team’s most talented players, has not forced or recovered a turnover either in his college or professional career.
The 49ers entered Sunday with a league-worst -15 turnover differential. Taking care of the ball has been a focal point. Taking it away has, also. For the second time all season, they won the turnover battle Sunday, 2-0.
They still lost, which is troubling. There are plenty of problems kicking this team, but everything seems to trace back to the same thing: lack of playmakers or, as Shanahan says, closers.
This season, the 49ers are averaging just 3.8 points in the fourth quarter, the second-lowest in the NFL. Clutch, timely plays have continued to elude them.
“I’ve got to find a way, as a coach, to make sure I get our guys more prepared for those, better at those situations and able to make those plays really when it counts in the fourth quarter and not the previous three,” Shanahan said.