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49ers lean on defense, grind out post-bye win over Chargers



© Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

There’s always a philosophical question that comes after bye weeks. Should you expect a team to play better after getting rest, or more sluggish after sitting on their hands for a week?

San Francisco played arguably its best game of the season against the Los Angeles Rams before the bye week. While they had a host of players return following it, they looked decidedly lethargic on Sunday night.

Despite that lack of incisiveness, the defense found its groove, and the offense did enough to secure a 22-16 win over the Los Angeles Chargers.

Aside from the opening, sharp drive from the Chargers, the defense was excellent. It took a while, but the pass rush started to make quarterback Justin Herbert uncomfortable, and Los Angeles — without much in the way of offensive weapons besides Austin Ekeler — defaulted to screens and other short-range targets.

After that opening touchdown. DeMeco Ryans’ defense allowed three field goals, forced five punts and ended with a turnover on downs and game-ending interception.

It was a staunch defensive performance that was predictably dominant, even with Arik Armstead still on the sidelines.

The offense was the issue for majority of the game.

Early on, there was a clear emphasis on establishing the run game. Shanahan opened with four-straight run plays and had nine runs in the first quarter. He mixed it up with Elijah Mitchell and Christian McCaffrey in fairly equal measure, 18 and 14 carries respectively.

But after the opening drive stalled out in the red zone and ended with a field goal, the 49ers’ familiar pattern of self-imposed mistakes re-emerged.

Brandon Aiyuk fumbled on the first play of their second drive. Their next two drives were three-and-outs.

Only a 3rd-and-12 conversion by George Kittle saved them from a third-straight three-and-out. He rumbled for 21 and kept the drive alive and prevented a touchdown-less first half.

Garoppolo followed up with perhaps his best throw of the season; an off-schedule, 33-yard dime to Ray-Ray McCloud while rolling out to his right.

Five plays later, Garoppolo finished off the drive himself with a good old-fashioned QB sneak touchdown. It cut the deficit to 13-10 with a couple minutes left in the first half.

Los Angeles came back with a drive that seemed like it was threatening the end zone, until Dre Greenlaw clobbered Justin Herbert. Greenlaw was unfortunate to get ejected from the game given how late Herbert adjusted his body.

But the other result of the hit was that Chase Daniel had to enter the game, as spotters flagged the hit as a possible concussion, forcing Herbert out of the game. Daniel threw three-straight incompletions and the Chargers had to settle for the field goal and a 16-10 halftime lead.

San Francisco came out with an excellent drive… that stalled in the red zone, just like the first drive of the game. This time, it was the product of a bad Brandon Aiyuk drop that should have been a touchdown.

But as the defense continued to stop the Chargers, the offense eventually came up with just enough to get the job done.

After a punt, and still trailing by three points heading into the fourth quarter, the offense did what it had to, finally.

Much of that can be credited to Jauan Jennings. He had a key third-down conversion on 3rd-and-5, then a 12-yard catch two plays later, and an immediate third-down conversion after pulling out an ankle breaker for the first down.

From there, Shanahan went to the ground game again, calling five-straight rushes to close in on the red zone.

Then, Aiyuk, making up for his two past woes, caught a ball behind him, and worked his way down to the two-yard line. Christian McCaffrey gave the 49ers their first lead of the game on a two-yard touchdown run the very next play.

At that point, despite a couple chances for the Chargers, it was over. The defense smothered Herbert consistently, ending, appropriately, with an interception by Talanoa Hufanga.

It’s win that moves the 49ers to 5-4 and a half game back of the Seattle Seahawks for the NFC West lead.