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49ers-Saints recap: Chris Borland leads impressive performance on D, Colin Kaepernick's season-saving throw

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The San Francisco 49ers improved to 5-4 with their wild win over the New Orleans Saints. The defense set the tone, while the offense had to overcome some second half woes. And that Colin Kaepernick pass? My goodness!

Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

You couldn’t have scripted a more fitting ending. It was nearly a year ago to the day that a controversial roughing the passer penalty on Ahmad Brooks turned a game-sealing sack into a game-tying field goal in an eventual Saints victory over the 49ers in the Superdome. After staying quiet for most of the afternoon, Brooks exacted his revenge in overtime with a strip-sack of Drew Brees that would set up the game-winning Phil Dawson field goal in a 27-24 49ers win.

While Brooks’s big play will get much of the attention, it only punctuated the impressive performance from the 49ers defense. There were a few lapses — such as Eric Reid getting caught in no man’s land on a four verticals play that resulted in a 31-yard Brandin Cooks touchdown — but considering the circumstances, it’s difficult to ask for much more than what we saw from San Francisco’s defense on Sunday.

Antoine Bethea set the tone for the game early, undercutting and intercepting a Brees pass intended for Marques Colston on the third play from scrimmage, giving Frank Gore & Co. the ball in the red zone to start their first possession. For Bethea, it was the start of another strong performance in what has been a fantastic season. Bethea is just the latest example of Vic Fangio and the 49ers defense integrating a veteran defensive back successfully into their scheme when many thought his most useful days were behind him.

San Francisco would force another three-and-out on the Saints’ ensuing possession, something you don’t see often from Sean Payton’s offense. Coming into the week, New Orleans had gone three-and-out on the lowest percentage of drives in football; on Sunday the Niners forced four of them in the first half.

Even when the Saints managed to move the ball, the 49ers seemed to consistently come up with big plays in crucial spots. Late in the first quarter with the Saints on the fringes of the red zone, Chris Borland stopped a third-down pass to Travaris Cadet for a loss to force a field goal attempt. After a Tyrunn Walker strip-sack of Colin Kaepernick set up the Saints offense with great field position and a chance to narrow the gap before the half, Chris Culliver responded with an interception in the end zone to end the threat. Eric Reid make two big third-down stops late in the game, first tackling Mark Ingram short of the sticks on a 3rd-and–10 pass early in the fourth quarter, and then swatting away a 3rd-and–1 pass intended for Cooks in overtime. And of course, there was the Brooks strip-sack to set up the game-winning field goal.

Getting back to Borland, the rookie linebacker put together his second monster performance in relief duty of All-Pro Patrick Willis. I had questions about Borland’s ability to get off blocks at the professional level prior to the season, but he’s been a machine in the run game over the past two weeks. Using a couple of Football Outsiders’ defensive metrics, Stops and Defeats, you can get a sense of Borland’s impact.

Borland led the 49ers in both categories on Sunday, recording 8.5 Stops and 2.5 Defeats (crediting half-stops or half-defeats when two players were listed in the official game book with having made the tackle). Borland wasn’t padding his tackle total with meaningless tackles after big plays, he was making stops that prevented the Saints offense from staying on schedule and picking up first downs.

In all, the 49ers held a Saints offense that had averaged 28.4 points per game and 33.7 per game at home to 24 points on 14 possessions. The Saints’ per-drive numbers of 5.78 plays, 30.2 yards, and 1.71 points were all well below their seasonal averages. Considering the circumstances — on the road in a difficult venue and missing several key contributors, including three All-Pro linebackers — it was probably the most impressive performance we’ve seen from Vic Fangio’s unit this season.

Return of the Second Half Woes

While the results on offense weren’t quite as glowing as their teammates on the other side of the ball, it’s hard to argue that Sunday’s performance wasn’t a step in the right direction after an embarrassing performance at home against the Rams a week earlier. Unsurprisingly, there were many who were frustrated with the offense’s second half performance after things appeared to be clicking so well in the first half. So what changed? We’ll get there, but first let’s first examine how the 49ers were able to move the ball so effectively in the first half.

Greg Roman’s broader game plan early on was pretty straightforward: lean on Frank Gore on early downs and keep drives going by turning to the passing game to convert on third down. San Francisco ran the ball on their opening 10 first down plays, finishing the first half with a 12-to–6 run-to-pass ratio on first down. More importantly, the 49ers weren’t just handing the ball off for the sake of building Gore’s carry total, they were running the ball effectively. Behind a steady stream of counter plays to the left side, where Joe Staley and Mike Iupati finally managed to get movement on their double teams, the 49ers had a 52.9 percent success rate. For reference, that number would be slightly better than Marshawn Lynch’s success rate on the season entering Week 10, and is nearly double San Francisco’s success rate in their three previous games.

Colin Kaepernick supplemented the running game with several big plays of his own, particularly on third down. On the second drive alone, Kaepernick found Anquan Boldin for a 13-yard pass on 3rd-and–10, scrambled for 19 yards to a convert a 3rd-and–5, and connected with Michael Crabtree for five yards to pickup a 3rd-and–4. Even more impressively, all three plays saw Kaepernick move well within the pocket to avoid the rush before either getting the ball out to his receiver or taking off with his legs. It was a welcome sight after the disaster eight-sack performance from a week ago.

Though there were a couple of solid Gore runs mixed in, the third touchdown drive was mostly the work of Kaepernick’s right arm. Kaepernick accounted for 68 of the drive’s 80 yards. An absolute laser to Boldin for 23 yards up the seam set up what had to be a shocking visual for Niners’ fans: a successful fade throw down the right sideline in the end zone! Kaepernick dropped the ball in the bucket over Boldin’s outside shoulder, away from the reach of Saints corner Keenan Lewis. The touchdown gave San Francisco 21 first half points, more than they’ve scored in four complete games this season.

That would also be the final time the 49ers found the end zone in the game and they wouldn’t get all that close until the two late Dawson field goals. Where did things go wrong for an offense that was clicking so well in the first half?

Before you grab the #FireRoman pitchforks, the playcalling didn’t significantly differ. The 49ers still leaned heavily on the run in early downs with an eight-to-four run-to-pass ratio on first down in the second half and overtime, with two of the passes coming on the final drive of regulation when San Francisco was in obvious pass mode with under two minutes to go. Instead, two things changed for the 49ers offense in the second half: runs weren’t as successful and their receivers forgot how to catch the football.

San Fransisco’s success rate dropped to 45.5 percent in the second half and overtime, with a far more damaging 28.6 percent rate when you exclude the extra period. This was partially due to the Saints selling out a bit more to stopping the run, but the 49ers were also short on opportunity because they were no longer converting those third downs through the air.

After converting four of six third down plays in the first two quarters, San Francisco only managed to convert on two of nine third down attempts to close the game. The opportunities were there, but the 49ers’ receivers were unable to take advantage. From my game notes, San Francisco dropped four third down passes in the second half, three by Boldin and the fourth by Crabtree.

None were bigger than Boldin’s drop on 3rd-and–15 with just under seven minutes remaining in the third quarter. After hauling in an errant shotgun snap, Kaepernick delivered a beautiful ball to Boldin on a vertical route just beyond the outstretched arm of Saints corner Corey White. But instead of a big play, the ball clanks off Boldin’s hands, falling incomplete. Boldin doesn’t exactly have breakaway speed and probably doesn’t score on the play, but he almost certainly puts the 49ers in field goal range with an opportunity to extend their 11-point lead.

While those drops collectively almost cost San Francisco the game, it’s actually an encouraging sign for the offense’s long-term outlook considering how well they played otherwise. According to the broadcast, Boldin set a career-high in drops on Sunday. Much like the defense’s tendency to give opponents free first downs via penalty early in the season, it’s incredibly unlikely this is an issue going forward for the typically sure-handed Boldin.

Kaepernick’s Otherworldly, Season-Saving Throw

There’s no way we could possibly get through any sort of game recap without mentioning that play. You know, this one…

Go ahead and watch that one more time. I’ll wait.

Facing 4th-and–10, with the 49ers season effectively on the line, Kaepernick unleashed an absolute bomb to Crabtree for a 51-yard completion that had to have traveled at least 70 yards in the air. It’s a throw few humans are capable of making and I don’t know if another one even attempts it.

On NBC’s Football Night in America, Tony Dungy and Rodney Harrison tried to explain what a boneheaded play Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro made to give up the big play. With Kaepernick rolling away from him and teammates closing in, Vaccaro — who was the deep-half safety to Crabtree’s side of the field — abandoned his zone to cut off what appeared to be the most likely target on the play, Vernon Davis coming across the field. No defensive player in his right mind is even entertaining the idea that a quarterback might make that throw to Crabtree. It’s an impossible throw. Yet, this happened…

It epitomizes everything that makes Kaepernick special and everything that could ultimately be his downfall. Keeping the play alive with his legs after avoiding the initial rush. That superhuman arm strength. That play is on the shortlist of mind-boggling throws he’s made in his brief career, right up there with the jump pass in last year’s NFC Championship Game.

Yet, these are plays you can’t possibly harness or plan for. You don’t build these into your offense. They just… happen. This is the week-to-week proposition that you get with Kaepernick at this point in his career. One week after looking absolutely awful and leaving numerous plays on the field by failing to move within the pocket and find his receivers, he shows those exact skills he supposedly lacked and then some by creating plays out of thin air like that fourth-down throw. I don’t know if he ever irons out the kinks and becomes the consistent player that we all want him to be. But I’ll tell you what, you can do a lot worse than having Colin Kaepernick as your quarterback.