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All-22: Blaine Gabbert is surprisingly effective in 49ers debut, but will it continue?

The San Francisco 49ers got a solid performance from Blaine Gabbert in his first start with the team. We break down the good and the bad from his performance, and what to expect moving forward.

File this among the sentences I never expected to write in my life, but… Blaine Gabbert was, like, pretty OK against the Falcons last week.

Despite missing Anquan Boldin and Carlos Hyde, the San Francisco 49ers offense showed a level of competence that hadn’t been there in weeks, finding the end zone twice in a 17-16 win over the Falcons after falling to record a touchdown in either of their two previous games. Shockingly, the restoration of mediocrity to San Francisco’s offense came with, ahem, Blaine Gabbert leading the way.

By the numbers, this was one of the best professional starts of Gabbert’s career. It’s difficult to find anything but backhanded compliments to follow that statement, so we’ll just move on and stick with the numbers. His 65.8 QBR, good for 14th among the 26 quarterbacks to suit up in Week 9, was the second-best mark of his career. Gabbert finished 20 yards above replacement, per Football Outsiders’s opponent-adjusted metrics, which was his third-best game.

Perhaps the most important number of Gabbert’s performance, however, was zero. As in zero sacks. No, the 49ers didn’t scrape together a standout performance from their dreadful offensive line. Gabbert was pressured on 16-of-30 drop backs (53.3 percent), according to Pro Football Focus, which was well above Kaepernick’s pressure rate over the first eight weeks (39.6 percent).

The difference was in the way Gabbert handled that pressure. Kaepernick had been sacked on 24.1 percent of his pressured drop backs in 2015, per Pro Football Focus, a figure that trailed only Marcus Mariota entering last week. Gabbert, meanwhile, maintained a clean sheet by showing some surprising savvy navigating the pocket and getting the ball out of his hand before pressure arrived.

Perhaps the biggest factor contributing to Gabbert’s sack-less day was his understanding of where his checkdown was and when he needed to abort the play downfield and simply dump the ball off. Falcons head coach Dan Quinn imported Seattle’s Cover-3 defense, and it’s a defense that generally wants to force short throws in front of the defenders so they can rally to the ball and make tackles. San Francisco is no stranger to that style of defense, of course, and Gabbert knew it was going to be important not to force the matter downfield when it wasn’t there.

"I told our backs to get ready to catch a lot of balls today and they did a tremendous job," Gabbert said when asked about his willingness to check down after the game. It might not have been "a lot," but recently added running back Shaun Draughn finished the game with a team-high four receptions on five targets. All of those completions came when Gabbert was looking to avoid pressure, such as this one in the second quarter:

Even with a different configuration, the right side of the 49ers offensive line really outdoes itself here, allowing all three defenders aligned to their side into the backfield while offering minimal resistance. Fortunately, Gabbert recognizes the pressure immediately, knows where his running back is, and dumps the ball off. Draughn makes a nice grab and does some solid work after the catch to pick up 12 yards on a first-and-20, giving the 49ers a reasonable shot at a new set of downs. It’s a simple play with some very basic quarterbacking — and really, it’s actually a fairly inaccurate pass — but you just didn’t see plays like this show up on film very often when watching this team over the first eight weeks.

Gabbert’s athleticism (some might call it "sneaky") and elusiveness was also apparent throughout the game. He did his best Kaepernick impersonation with his legs, picking up positive yardage on the ground to either convert for a new set of downs or keep the offense on track on several snaps. The most impressive example came on his near-touchdown run early in the second quarter, in which Gabbert evaded Paul Soliai in the backfield, who was bursting past the always-overmatched Marcus Martin, before reversing field and making a break for the goal line.

Perhaps more importantly, Gabbert used his legs to avoid pressure and buy additional time to get the ball out to his receivers.

The biggest play Gabbert created with his legs came early in the game, with 4:01 to go in the first quarter. Paul Worrilow comes free immediately up the A-gap, forcing Gabbert to bail out of the pocket to his right. Once Gabbert starts scrambling, Quinton Patton makes a move upfield to separate from Philip Adams. Gabbert makes a solid throw on the run to hit Patton in stride, who does the rest with a big play after the catch.

More often, when Gabbert bought time he was simply turning a potentially negative play into a positive one to keep the offense in manageable situations.

Later in the first quarter, Gabbert makes a quick move up in the pocket to avoid the outside rush of Vic Beasley and gets the ball out to Patton, who had settled in an opening in the Falcons’ zone coverage. Patton ends up short of the sticks, and Gabbert probably could’ve had Torrey Smith for a touchdown on the deeper crossing route, but having Gabbert take the safer throw is probably the preferred strategy at this point. Patton picks up enough to get Jim Tomsula’s blood moving, leading to the rare fourth-down conversion try. Kendall Gaskins would convert, and the 49ers would ultimately cap the drive with a touchdown.

Outside of how well Gabbert generally handled pressure from the Atlanta defense, the other aspect of his play that stood out was his performance in key situations. On third down, he was 8-of-11 for 117 yards, two touchdowns, and six first-down conversions, including a game-clinching scramble on third-and-4 with just over two minutes to play. I’m not a rules expert per se, but I think allowing Blaine Gabbert to complete over 70 percent of his third-down passes is grounds for banishment, per NFL rules. So, sorry Atlanta, it’s the CFL for you. Address all complaints to this guy.

To begin the game, the 49ers kept the same conservative third-down approach they’ve had for much of the year. Gabbert’s first six third-down attempts targeted shorter drag or flat routes, including the two Patton receptions shown above. But starting with their fifth possession of the day, Gabbert & Co. suddenly got aggressive and begin targeting receivers well beyond the first down marker. On Gabbert’s final five third-down passes, four of them traveled at least five yards beyond the sticks and more than 10 yards in the air.

The more aggressive approach paid off. Of those four aforementioned third-down passes, Gabbert completed three of them and the fourth was dropped by Jerome Simpson. Gabbert made a nice back-shoulder throw to Patton on a fade route from the slot to beat man coverage on third-and-3…

He delivered his best ball of the day on a third-and-6 throw into the end zone for Garrett Celek’s second score…

And he went deep to Torrey Smith on a double move down the left sideline to convert a third-and-5 early in the third quarter…

As great as it was to see Gabbert playing well, particularly in critical situations, his day was far from perfect and I’d be remiss to leave out the negatives. While I was generally impressed with Gabbert’s decision-making in this game, he made a couple of inexcusable throws that could have threatened to change the outcome of the game.

Midway through the first quarter, Gabbert stared down Simpson on a drag route and threw a ball into double coverage that had "Desmond Trufant pick six" written all over it:

While he escaped disaster on that throw, the Falcons defense took better advantage the second time around. With 7:20 to go in the fourth quarter, Gabbert delivered a woefully underthrown pass to Vance McDonald on a vertical route up the left sideline that was picked off by Beasley:

With Beasley in trail technique and cornerback Jalen Collins lurking over the top, this was a throw that had little chance of being completed even if the ball was right on the money. Dan Quinn’s truly baffling fourth-down decision on the ensuing Falcons drive prevented this mistake from costing San Francisco the game, but you can’t bank on that sort of incompetence from the opposing coaching staff every week.

Accuracy was a problem for Gabbert throughout the game as well, even on throws that were completed. The third-down throw to Torrey Smith shown above had touchdown potential with an accurate ball, but an underthrown pass forced Smith to stop and come back for the ball. Smith’s second reception of the day, a back-shoulder fade late in the third quarter, saw him bail out an inaccurate Gabbert pass once again with an incredible catch near the sideline. Gabbert also underthrew Smith on an open dig route early in the game:

Across his 23 aimed passes, I charted Gabbert with a 54.5 percent accuracy rate (percentage of his passes with good ball location), which is below where Kaepernick was in most games this season. To Gabbert’s credit, his misses were generally better than Kaepernick’s misses. Kaepernick had gotten to the point where some throws were sailing 10 yards over the head of his intended target or skipping across the turf a few yards in front of them. Gabbert misses, usually underthrows, were typically still in a position that allowed his receivers to make a play on the ball, and they often rewarded him for it.

Gabbert also benefitted from a strong defensive performance — it was San Francisco’s best effort on that side of the ball since the season opener against Minnesota, according to DVOA. With the defense keeping things close, the game script allowed the 49ers to lean heavily on a surprisingly effective running game (30 non-Gabbert carries) and prevented Gabbert from having to play catch up the way Kaepernick has in so many games this season.

Don’t get me wrong, Gabbert played well. He played within himself, stuck with safer throws, and generally made good decisions. He avoided drive-killing sacks and made plays when he had to. But this was max Gabbert. We’re not getting any better than this. With games against the Bears, Browns, and Lions still to come, there will be more opportunities for us to get max Gabbert and for the 49ers offense to look competent. But those opportunities were going to be there with Kaepernick at the helm as well.

Against stronger defenses, like the ones Gabbert will face in the NFC West, it’s difficult to imagine the game script falling in his favor the way it did against Atlanta. Good defenses will be better at smothering the underneath stuff and limiting yards after the catch. Good defenses will take advantage of Gabbert’s mishaps and errant throws more frequently than Atlanta did. And Gabbert won’t face a worse pass rush than Atlanta’s — who ranked 30th in adjusted sack rate coming into the week and dropped a spot after failing to get Gabbert to the ground — over the rest of the season.

San Francisco’s offensive production has been almost entirely dependent on the quality of defense they’re facing. They’ve looked competent against middling or worse defenses, and fall flat on their face when facing strong defenses. It might look a bit different with Gabbert under center, but it’s unlikely that dynamic will be changing any time soon. With the Seahawks and Cardinals on the docket following the bye week, it shouldn’t take long for us to find out for sure.