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How 49ers’ offense finally found itself, just as time was running out

© Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

CHICAGO — San Francisco’s front office tends to be fairly tight-lipped, so when reports start to leak out, it means it is by design.

Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch started to set the stage this week for Trey Lance to start at some point this season — with NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo and Ian Rapoport piggybacking to say more explicitly that it’s likely Lance will start — the message was clear: if the 49ers keep losing, they will turn to Lance.

Anyone who has followed this team knows the predilection Shanahan has towards being a tough love motivator. See: Dante Pettis, Brandon Aiyuk, Trey Sermon and now, amongst the many other examples, Jimmy Garoppolo.

The message from the brass could be interpreted pretty clearly as a statement to Garoppolo: unless you win soon — as in, this Sunday — you’re out.

And to Garoppolo’s credit, he won. Had they lost and stood at 2-5, the outlook would have been fairly dire, and the indications were there that Lance’s time would have been imminent.

Until the final drive of the first half on Sunday, there was very little convincing about the performance from San Francisco’s offense, which was more a result of dropped passes, and failed execution by receivers than it was Garoppolo’s fault. There were, however, clear errors on his part.

He missed Brandon Aiyuk on a go route early, and missed Aiyuk again to open that final first half drive.

Then he hit him on back-to-back plays, in between which Kyle Shanahan made the conservative decision to let the clock bleed — saying after the game he was worried that the Bears, with three timeouts, would go down and score if the 49ers weren’t careful — meaning that Garoppolo’s best throw of the season, a 50-yard bomb to Deebo Samuel, only left seven seconds on the clock.

That approach allowed just one passing attempt in the red zone, on which Garoppolo overthrew Deebo Samuel, before a half-ending field goal.

After gashing the 49ers to close out that half and getting just about whatever they wanted, though, the Bears could only muster a field goal to open the second half.

Then Deebo Samuel happened. Garoppolo hit him on the most efficient screen pass the 49ers have had all year. It’s an area in which they have struggled. Samuel, with the help of his blockers — including the athletically-challenged Alex Mack making a key block 19 yards past the line of scrimmage — changed that.

It was an 83-yard near house call which Garoppolo followed up with a rushing touchdown that he was supposed to give back to Samuel.

From that point on, San Francisco’s offense looked like it’s supposed to, or at least as close as it’s gotten since the season opener.

A few bread-and-butter short passes broke off consistent yardage to move the chains, setting up Elijah Mitchell to take the 49ers’ first lead of the game.

Mitchell had five carries of more than 10 yards, and three of 27 or more yards, taking 18 carries for 137 yards and a touchdown. Aside from the 27-yard run in the first quarter, those all came in the fourth quarter, as did the lead-taking touchdown run in which he was essentially forced into the end zone by the offensive line.

The defense responded by nearly stopping Justin Fields, before allowing one of the greatest plays of the season. As Shanahan said afterwards, there were about three players who should have tackled Fields en route to the end zone, but no one did.

It didn’t matter, though, because the 49ers’ offense — previously so unreliable in key situations — continued to accelerate.

Garoppolo opened the next drive hitting Mohamed Sanu in his favorite area of the field — between the hashes — for a 19-yard gain. Then Mitchell broke away for 27 yards, displaying excellent vision, patience and burst past the line of scrimmage. Two plays later, Garoppolo ran in his second touchdown.

And for all the defense’s woes, it came through, with Samson Ebukam’s first sack of the season.

Mitchell’s most explosive run of the game, for 39 yards, all but sealed it.

As Shanahan said afterwards, it wasn’t just blocking that opened things up for Mitchell. That patience and vision, finding daylight where only a glimpse was available; that was all Mitchell.

“He got a lot more plays or made a lot more plays than what he was blocked for,” Shanahan said.

Is all this sustainable? It better be. With Jimmie Ward sustaining a calf injury, the secondary is as threadbare as it has ever been, and the pass rush is nowhere near as consistent as it was in 2019. At this point, with Javon Kinlaw done for the season, it’s extremely unlikely it will get near that point.

There’s reason for optimism and pessimism in assessing this game, which amounts to the realization that we still don’t really know what this team is because Chicago is a non-premium opponent.

The 49ers’ next two opponents in the Cardinals (7-1) and Rams (7-1), well, they are very much premium opponents.

The Bears let Garoppolo attack the only area of the field he has ever shown confidence in attacking: center cut. You can be confident that the division opponents who have seen all too much of Garoppolo over the last half-decade will try to make Garoppolo beat them elsewhere. It will likely not be as easy for him as it was in the second half.

Unless… the 49ers run game remains this reliable and Shanahan can find the rhythm he found on Sunday, which he admitted he’d lost following the loss to the Colts.

It was also a win in which Brandon Aiyuk, finally, was a regular part of the offense. He blocked well and was targeted seven times, catching five balls for 45 yards, and had a winning go route which Garoppolo missed him on (it’s that white dot on the deep left sideline in the graph above). Shanahan said it was “definitely” his best game of the season and Aiyuk indicated it was the most fun he’s had playing football since the season opener.

The other cause for optimism is that in all four of the preceding losses, the 49ers have beaten themselves through an amalgam of penalties, poorly executed offensive plays and bad quarterbacking decisions.

Sunday was a tentative step in the right direction, but given how unreliable this team has shown to be and the strength of the next two division opponents — of whom the 49ers likely need to beat at least one if they’re going to contend for a playoff spot — it’s tough to know whether this is the beginning of a long term trend.

At the very least, San Francisco has some momentary confidence. Their visiting locker room at Soldier Field could be heard behind the press conference room, and the elation and relief from players could be heard despite the multiple doors separating the two rooms.

For now, the 49ers’ offense did what it’s best at, albeit against the Bears; the ball got to the yard-after-catch threats regularly, and the running game eased the pressure on the passing offense. This wasn’t nothing, but until it happens against a respectable team, it is worth having cautious expectations, especially with a defense that is not nearly the threat it once was.


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