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That epic 21-play drive

Breaking down an endless road to 3 points

San Francisco 49ers v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Before Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Chargers, head coach Kyle Shanahan told reporters that the San Francisco 49ers needed to solve the problems on third down, so that they could sustain drives. Well, mission accomplished.

Starting at the end of first quarter, the Niners went on a 21-play drive that took 10:44 off the clock — and still only netted three points. The Chargers didn’t get the ball back until 4:59 of the second quarter. And SF converted five third downs on a single drive.

Per team PR, it was the longest 49ers drive in terms of time since 2002, when they had a 20-play, 81 yard drive that lasted 12:07 and ended with a field goal. It was the most plays in a drive since the Cleveland Browns had a 21-play drive in 2015.

How do you even pull off such a long drive? You can’t just be slicing through a defense; you need to mix in some penalties or sacks to make it work. So it’s not a pure sign of greatness.

With the run strength and accumulating injuries of this squad, it might be increasingly common this season. The team had a 16-play drive in the fourth quarter against Kansas City, too. Here’s how this one went down:

1) 1st and 10 at the SF 25 (0:43 1Q)

On a typical running down, the 49ers went play action and threw a screen to George Kittle, who picked up eight yards. Nice start. Better tone it down there, though, guys. You’ll score in 10 plays at that rate.

2) 2nd and 2 at the SF 33 (15:00 2Q)

C.J. Beathard tripped and fumbled, but Matt Breida recovered, for a one yard loss. That’s more like it!

3) 3rd and 3, SF 32 (14:12 2Q)

Good clock burning between plays, and Marquise Goodwin picks up 4 yards on a short pass. Perfect! Only one extra yard gained past the minimum needed to move the chains.

4) 1st and 10, SF 36 (13:34 2Q)

Goodwin gets four more on an reverse, running extra time off the clock during the play. It sure looked like he ran out of bounds but the clock keeps ticking.

5) 2nd and 6, SF 40 (12:56)

Play action, pass to Kyle Juszczyk is broken up by good pass coverage. Clock stops. BOOOOO!

6) 3rd and 6, SF 40 (12:50)

Kittle catches a pass over the middle and just barely gets the first down with YAC. Back on track! 6 plays have picked up exactly 21 yards and it’s first down again.

7) 1st and 10, SF 46 (11:57)

Alfred Morris for a three yard run. He’s the master of this.

8) 2nd and 7, SF 49 (11:19)

Morris bursts through for 8 yards, and a first down in Chargers territory. Easy now.

9) 1st and 10, LA 43 (10:43)

Beathard’s pass is rejected by Derwin James like it’s a weak layup and he’s Manute Bol. Needed a finger wag.

10) 2nd and 10, LA 43 (10:40)

Beathard’s soft, low pass is deflected by one Charger, then batted in the air by another, but no one manages to haul it in. Lucky, lucky break. I love the guy but sometimes it seems like he’s just woken up from a nap and playing in slow motion. NFL defenses move too fast for that.

11) 3rd and 10, LA 43 (10:34)

Eleven plays is already a pretty long drive, but it looks like the party is over. Shanny goes deep to Goodwin, who is blanketed all the way and has no chance to haul it in. (He was the one receiver, opposite trips. Did anyone not know the ball was going to him?)

But wait - there’s hope! An illegal contact call here is perfect. First down, but you only advance 5 yards! Technically this is “no play” but I don’t care. I’m counting it.

12) 1st and 10, LA 38 (10:27)

11 plays done and the Niners have picked up four first downs but only advanced 37 yards. That is statistically almost perfect, for the slowest drive possible. A screen to Trent Taylor is a good call. It always helps to start in the backfield. Taylor gets 5 though and stops the clock by running out of bounds. Hmmph.

13) 2nd and 5, LA 33 (9:50)

Breida run loses two. Exxxxxx-celent.

14) 3rd and 7, LA 35 (9:08)

Derwin James plants Beathard like a tulip bulb, but not before he passes up the middle to Kittle. The 13-yard gain is way too much but the young QB was under severe pressure. I can’t hold it against him. Joe Staley is injured on the play and out for the game, which will also help slow down the drive, sadly. Garry Gilliam is the OL equivalent of a parking brake left on as you drive.

15) 1st and 10, LA 22 (8:47)

Getting within range of a record setting drive here, but Beathard’s gotta be careful or he’ll throw it all away with one touchdown pass. Screen pass to Breida but he gets around the corner and down to the 14, for a gain of 8. This simply will not do.

But wait! Once again, salvation, this time in the form of a holding call against Garrett Celek. Normally I’d be upset, but this is an entirely new kind of Celek Time. Dude extended the drive, and I respect that.

16) 1st and 16, LA 28 (8:14)

Beathard keeper, runs out of bounds for no gain. Solid, but should have slid in bounds to keep the clock running.

17) 2nd and 16, LA 28 (7:48)

If you have to pass, over the middle is the place to do it. Pierre Garçon gets 13 yards, stays short of sticks. That’s a smart, veteran play.

18) 3rd and 3, LA 15 (7:03)

Kittle in the flat, 7 yards down to the 8. This is unsustainable, guys. Dial it down.

19) 1st and goal, LA 8 (6:24)

Breida up the middle for one. Well done.

20) 2nd and goal, LA 7 (5:44)

Garçon gets four yards inside. Good one.

21) 3rd and goal, LA 3 (5:06)

Beathard wisely throws it away under heavy pressure. That’s better than risking a pick or a strip sack, but it sadly brings this epic drive to an end.

22) (or 21, for those that don’t count “no plays” on penalties). 4th and goal, LA 3 (5:02)

Robbie Gould kicks the field goal, putting this drive out of its misery.

This was a surprising kind of marathon drive, actually — not that many penalties or sacks. Just one fumble and 2 negative plays for only 3 yards lost, total. Just two penalties, and only one was against SF.

On the positive side, this shows the strength of the run game, and Beathard’s abilities in the short game. The bad thing is, there aren’t many teams with a soft-enough defense to keep drives like this going. If the four yard gains in this drive slip to 3 or 2 yards, as they will against better teams, these long drives will turn into 3-and-outs in a hurry.