SANTA CLARA — The 49ers fell to the visiting New York Giants, 27-23, Monday night. Here are five takeaways.
The 49ers suffer another gut-wrenching loss
We have become all too accustomed to this script. The 49ers play a superior game, hold a lead in the fourth quarter, have a chance to close out the game, but fall short.
That’s exactly what happened Monday night.
The 49ers led by 10 points with eight minutes remaining in the third quarter. But the Giants scored a touchdown 93 seconds later, and the game teetered back and forth for the remainder. The 49ers took a three-point lead when Robbie Gould connected on a field goal with 2:46 remaining in the game. The 49ers had to deliver one more defensive stop to win, but they did not get it done. With the help of a couple 49ers penalties, the Giants marched downfield. Eli Manning hit Saquon Barkley on a 23-yard completion. Two plays later, Manning found Sterling Shepard for a touchdown with 53 seconds remaining.
With no timeouts at their disposal, the 49ers gave themselves a late chance. But Nick Mullens threw the ball out of the end zone as time expired, and San Francisco suffered another brutal loss.
The 49ers are now 1-4 in games decided by four points or fewer this season. In the past two seasons, without Jimmy Garoppolo leading the offense, they are 0-9 in those scenarios.
Nick Mullens followed a nearly flawless debut with a solid performance
Mullens may never replicate the near-perfect debut he engineered in Week 9, when he completed 16 of 22 pass attempts for 262 yards and three touchdowns.
He prevented himself from a similarly glistening stat line when he threw an interception on his fourth throw Monday night, and his first on the 49ers’ offensive second drive. Mullens intended his pass for Kendrick Bourne, but the ball floated a bit, and it was not located close enough to the sideline. The Giants picked it off and promptly scored a touchdown on their offensive drive.
But Mullens responded. With exception to a couple more sideline throws, that if located poorly could have been intercepted, he was both reliable and efficient. The offense consistently hummed with him under center. When his first read was not there, he calmly located his second or third and delivered a strike. When no one was open, he threw the ball away.
Mullens completed 27 of 39 passes for 250 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions.
His stat line is defaced with a second interception that was not all his fault. Early in the fourth quarter, he threw a short pass slightly behind Marquise Goodwin, who bobbled the ball into the hands of the Giants. But Goodwin should have caught it.
Mullens consistently found tight end George Kittle, one of the league’s budding stars, over the middle. Mullens’ only touchdown came when he hit Matt Breida in the corner of the end zone to give the 49ers the 20-10 lead. Mullens excelled on intermediate throws, particularly over the middle.
For the second straight game, Mullens engineered the 49ers offense with little issue. The starting job for the rest of the season remains his until he shows otherwise.
The Kittle-Breida combo was effective
For the first time in about a month, Breida looked fully healthy. Throughout recent weeks, it has become customary for the second-year running back to hobble off the field after being crunched on a carry. That happened once Monday night, but it was not serious enough to keep Breida sidelined for the rest of the game.
He was explosive in his cuts all night. Breida, who led the league in yards per carry for the majority of the season, was efficient once again, carrying the ball 17 times for 101 yards with a touchdown. He also caught his third career receiving touchdown.
Kittle continued what he has done all year. He caught a career-high nine passes for 83 yards.
At times, it feels the 49ers do not have an outside presence. But Kittle and Breida compensated for that void with prolific performances.
The pass defense was prone to big plays
Glance at the numbers, and you’d think the 49ers secondary played one of their best games. Giants quarterback Eli Manning completed 19 of 31 passes for 188 yards and three touchdowns. Odell Beckham Jr. caught four passes for 73 yards and two touchdowns.
But you could argue those middling numbers are more a product of New York’s lack of execution than San Francisco’s stingy defense.
All year long, the 49ers have been prone to miscommunications in the secondary. Those issues have gradually decreased, but they have not totally disappeared. They resurfaced on that final drive, when Barkley slipped behind the defense for that 23-yard gain to set up the winning score.
Back in the first quarter, Beckham cut his route and sat behind Ahkello Witherspoon and K’Waun Williams in the back of the end zone. Manning found him for the Giants’ opening score.
Fast forward to the third quarter. Ninety-three seconds after the 49ers extended their lead to 10, the Giants scored a touchdown. Beckham got behind the defense for a 30-yard gain. (He consistently slipped into those pockets, but Manning only found him a couple times.) Two plays later, Manning found Beckham in the corner of the end zone. Witherspoon, who was in coverage, was apparently angry with the lack of help over the top. Shortly after, Sherman was seen yelling out of frustration to defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley on the sideline.
Beckham could have had a third touchdown grab had he not slipped when the pass arrived. That play, too, highlighted him finding a soft spot in the 49ers’ zone.
The run defense is strong and unwavering
Perhaps the 49ers defense’s biggest strength is its run defense. It entered Monday night tied for the NFL’s eighth-best unit on a per-carry basis, allowing four yards on average. The 49ers had contained the top-tier running backs on their schedule, including David Johnson (34 carries for 114 yards in two games) and Todd Gurley (15 rushes for 63 yards). Melvin Gordon (15 rushes for 104 yards) is the only opposing running back who eclipsed 100 yards against the 49ers this season.
San Francisco’s next test: Barkley, the rookie sensation averaging 4.7 yards per carry entering Monday night. And he, too, was bottled up for the vast majority of the game. He ended with 20 carries for 67 yards. Barkley’s stat line looks even more modest if you omit the 18-yard run he ripped in the first quarter.
The 49ers consistently erased the edge, preventing Barkley from using his speed to escape to the outside. Richard Sherman made several open-field tackles that prevented big gains. Fred Warner was tremendous. The 49ers’ platoon of big-bodied first-round draft picks — DeForest Buckner, Solomon Thomas, and Arik Armstead — clogged the middle.
The 49ers may not have a game-changing edge rusher, but the consistent run-blocking has been an underrated but essential part to the defense.