© Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Sunday’s 27-13 loss to the New Orleans Saints was particularly brutal because at one point, San Francisco seemed so firmly in control. With a 10-0 lead and asserting themselves on the clock, all the 49ers had to do was not constantly shoot themselves in the foot. Instead, they turned over a pair of punts and had two embarrassing interceptions.
By any stretch, this was Kinlaw’s best game. He gets consistently double-teamed, but is learning how to split them. He did so on a key 3rd-and-2 stop on the quite large Taysom Hill, and he did it at least on one other occasion to get a pressure on the quarterback. The rookie finished with three tackles, 1.5 sacks, including his first career sack, a tackle for a loss and two quarterback hits.
That didn’t included what was effectively a pass breakup on a screen attempt to Alvin Kamara on third down. He’s clearly starting to understand the game better and some of that raw power and get-off potential started to translate on Sunday.
Javon Kinlaw, folks pic.twitter.com/c0nT6LhiNK
— Jake Hutchinson (@hutchdiesel) November 15, 2020
Robert Saleh and the safety group
No one can make a persuasive argument that the defense was the cause of this loss. There were certainly missed plays, for sure. Missed tackles, particularly on Alvin Kamara, became an epidemic, but one touchdown was the result of the incorrect roughing the passer call on Kentavius Street, and there were only three plays allowed of more than 15 yards, and just one of more than 20 yards.
This Saints offense had just 237 net total yards, most of which came from Alvin Kamara attacking the linebackers. Both Dre Greenlaw and Fred Warner were a step slow to identify and cut Kamara down.
But Saleh’s decision to start Tarvarius Moore at strong safety and play Marcell Harris as a linebacker deserves commendation. It provided far more flexibility in coverage schemes and it’s why the Saints had trouble running the ball until late, and why there was no vertical threat. That’s a far cry from the last time they played, when Harris got hung out to dry a handful of times by Jared Cook.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan admitted to Harris’ flaws and highlighted that Harris is effectively a guy you want to throw into gaps to attack the run and cover short routes in front of him. When he’s going downhill, he’s a menace; when he’s playing centerfield, he jukes himself.
“I think Azeez has been doing a real good job for us and I think Marcell’s been doing a real good job for us,” Shanahan said. “He got caught in the post a couple times here over the last few weeks. Getting Tarvarius Moore out on the field I thought helped. Seemed like it did today, and we keep Marcell focused on what he does best.”
Moore forced a fumble and at the very least did not look like a coverage liability. Harris got caught out taking bad angles to the football a handful of times, but also closed rushing lanes rapidly at other times, which is emblematic of the type of hit-or-miss player he is. And with Jimmie Ward not required to babysit Harris, Ward was stellar, coming up with a key pass breakup on Jared Cook on third down and nearly securing an interception at the end of the game. He was ever-present and looked more like the Ward of last season.
It was reported by Michael Lombardi of The Athletic that teams were interested in trading for Nick Mullens this offseason, but turned down by the 49ers. His value has clearly only depreciated since then.
Here are the plays the 49ers ran, starting with 11:43 remaining in the third quarter:
- Complete left for Brandon Aiyuk, 13 yards (1st down)
- Jerick McKinnon rush left end, 1 yard
- McKinnon rush right guard, 2 yards
- Complete left Jordan Reed, 8 yards (1st down)
- Incomplete middle for Aiyuk, ROUGHING THE PASSER (1st down)
- McKinnon rush left end, 4 yards, ILLEGAL BLOCK (Daniel Brunskill)
- Complete left Richie James Jr., 7 yards
- Complete right JaMycal Hasty, 1 yard
- INTERCEPTION MALCOLM JENKINS, for Aiyuk
- Nick Mullens sack, -6 yards
- Incomplete short right for McKinnon
- McKinnon rush for 2 yards
- Incomplete short right for Kyle Juszczyk
- Incomplete short right for Jordan Reed
- Complete right for Kendrick Bourne, 11 yards (1st down, great catch by Bourne in traffic)
- FALSE START Laken Tomlinson
- Complete short Aiyuk, -1 yard
- Complete left Hasty, -5 yards (Hasty breaks collarbone)
- Incomplete deep for Richie James Jr. (C.J. Beathard throw)
- PUNT RECOVERY FUMBLED, TURNED OVER by James Jr.
- Complete short left Austin Walter, 27 yards
- Complete short right Kendrick Bourne, 4 yards
- Incomplete deep right Aiyuk, PASS INTERFERENCE ON NEW ORLEANS
- Walter rush left, 3 yards
- Incomplete deep left for Aiyuk
- Incomplete short left for Aiyuk
- FIELD GOAL GOOD
- Mullens incomplete right for James Jr.
- Mullens complete deep right Jordan Reed, 26 yards
- Mullens complete deep right Aiyuk, 22 yards
- Mullens incomplete short left for Aiyuk
- INTERCEPTION PATRICK ROBINSON in end zone, for Bourne
That’s a net of 115 total yards of offense (plus 24 penalty yards) in the entire second half, resulting in one field goal and two interceptions, which cost the 49ers a minimum of 6 points, and with returns that lost a combined 3 yards of field position.
For Mullens, after a 13-of-18 first half for 134 yards and a touchdown, he went 11-of-20 with 113 yards and two interceptions in the second half.
He took far too long to pick up on the constant blitzes from C.J. Gardner-Johnson and both interceptions were from poorly thrown passes, of which there were at least a handful of other interceptable throws.
Mullens and this offense have become so predictable that on one play, Malcolm Jenkins, watching Mullens’ eyes, gave up on a seam from Brandon Aiyuk. On that play, Mullens connected with Jordan Reed for 11 yards and a first down, but were he to have pump-faked and looked downfield, it was a guaranteed touchdown. He made the right decision on that play, given how the design, his read progression and drop set it up, but Jenkins’ reaction belies the reality that this offense only operates from behind the lines of scrimmage to about 20 yards in front of it.
On the one designed long throw the 49ers had, C.J. Beathard came in, with Mullens saying that he couldn’t breathe.
“I couldn’t breathe,” Mullens said. “I got the air kind of knocked on me and so I was shaken up on that play. And I had to come out. And it is what it is but I was glad I got to go back in the game.”
Below are the order of plays preceding that Beathard third-down throw. Mullens was not seriously contacted on any of the plays on that drive preceding the one in which Beathard came in. Ordered by recency:
- Screen to Hasty (Hasty injured), Mullens not contacted
- Shovel pass to Aiyuk, Mullens not contacted
- False start by Tomlinson, Mullens not contacted
- Complete to Bourne for 11 yard, Mullens lightly bumped by Daniel Brunskill
- Incomplete right to Jordan Reed, Mullens lightly touched by Demario Davis (reached over Jerick McKinnon)
- Incomplete right to Kyle Juszczyk, Mullens not contacted
Mullens may well have just lost his breath, but it seemed at the time like the 49ers were bringing in their bigger arm to take a deep shot, and that’s exactly how it played out.
He was certainly not helped by his receiving corps, with the Saints corners covering Aiyuk, James Jr. and Bourne tightly, but too often Mullens stuck to his first progression and tried to force a ball into a spot it had no business going.
The return game was brutal on Sunday. First, Trent Taylor called a fair catch but declined to yell and clear out the area, resulting in the ball ricocheting off Ken Webster’s leg, setting up New Orleans for a game-tying touchdown, evening the game at 10-10.
On the ensuing kickoff, Jerick McKinnon returned the ball to San Francisco’s 14-yard line when he could have let the ball go for a touchback. Later that drive, San Francisco attempted to go for it on 4th-and-1 with McKinnon and failed. New Orleans turned around for their second touchdown to go up 17-10.
The drive may have played out differently if the ball started at the 25, and may not have even been as successful, but if San Francisco gained the same 45 yards they had starting at the 25, they would have been in position for a 47-yard field goal.
Later, Richie James Jr. muffed a punt which gave New Orleans a free touchdown and 27-10 lead.
Shanahan said after the game that Taylor should have caught the ball and that there was no excuse because of the dome lighting for the muffed punts. The Saints’ Deonte Harris muffed one and fumbled another on a Webster tackle. Shanahan said letting Brandon Aiyuk return punts is, “… something we definitely got to look to with what happened today.”