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Re-visiting the 3 keys after the 49ers’ late collapse vs. the Giants

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Oh so close. The 49ers continue to knock on the door, but can’t break it open.

NFL: New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Another second half lead and another tick in the loss column for the 49ers. After the game, head coach Kyle Shanahan didn’t mince his words at all when asked about the late-game collapse, adding “There was a number of plays, extremely disappointed. Thought we put ourselves in a position to win the game...I thought we had a chance to step on their throats and didn’t.”

The 49ers’ youth and lack of a pass rush continues to show up late in games when they try to protect a lead. There are a few defensive breakdowns or penalties, combined with too much time in the pocket for opposing quarterbacks.

On New York’s final drive, Giants’ quarterback Eli Manning was 7-of-10, aided by two huge defensive penalties from corner Ahkello Witherspoon and linebacker Malcolm Smith that kept the drive going. Nine plays, 75 yards later, the Giants have taken the lead and now the 49ers are in a near-impossible situation given who their quarterback is.

Flipping that around, I thought San Francisco’s offense played decently, given that they were down wideout Pierre Garçon before the game. Breakout quarterback Nick Mullens finished 27-of-39 for 250 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions.

How did the 49ers measure up to the pre-game keys that were laid out?

1. Slow down the Giants’ superstars, RB Saquon Barkley and WR Odell Beckham Jr

I expected the 49ers to cover one of these guys particularly well, while the other would run wild all over Robert Saleh’s defense. Except, the exact opposite happened.

The 49ers’ defense did a particularly effective job defending running back Saquon Barkley, but dropped the ball against superstar wideout Odell Beckham Jr — on the two most important plays of the game.

First up — Barkley. The former Penn State running back carried the ball 20 times, yet it was for only 67 yards (3.3 YPA). On numerous occasions, Barkley would be stuck dancing in the backfield with nowhere to go. If you take out his longest run of 18 yards, the average drops to 2.6 YPA. He tacked on four catches for 33 yards, but considering his multiple double-digit reception games in the past, the 49ers did well against the rookie.

On the other hand, San Francisco’s defense seemed to let Beckham Jr. run “buck naked” — as corner Richard Sherman likes to say — against the defense. On both of his touchdown receptions, there were busts in coverage that allowed for an easy 12 points for the Giants.

On the first touchdown catch, three 49ers’ defenders were in the area, but the ex-LSU star snuck behind them for a wide-open — I mean, the next defender wasn’t in the same zip code wide-open — touchdown. In the ensuing touchdown, Witherspoon expected help from the free safety, but Beckham Jr. was too busy celebrating his touchdown by that time already.

Outside of those two plays, the 49ers’ defensive backs and linebacker Fred Warner did a decent job of keeping Beckham Jr. in check.

2. QB Nick Mullens continues his “Mullens’ Magic” from last week

This was going to be the real question heading into Monday night — can Mullens keep up his play from last Thursday. The answer was a resounding confirmation.

Mullens certainly continued his magical play against the Giants — who played much better defense than the Raiders did last week. I’m sure there were a few plays that Mullens would like to have back, but for the most part, it seemed like he did what he could. His first interception raises questions about arm strength, but the second interception was due to a dropped pass.

On the final drive of the game, Mullens was able to move the ball 54 yards in 53 seconds, before throwing it out of the end zone in the final play to win the game and I’m sure he had a lot of Giants’ fans on the edge of their seats.

For the rest of the season, opposing defenses are going to force Mullens to throw the ball outside of the numbers and really test his arm strength and timing with his wide receivers. Aside from that, Mullens has continually showed poise in the pocket and the ability to make the correct pre-snap reads.

It’ll be tougher against better defenses, but I expect more from Mullens than I did from backup C.J. Beathard the last few weeks.

3. DC Robert Saleh should turn the pass rushers loose against the Giants’ OL

Coming into the game, Manning was sacked 31 times by opposing defenses and it’s been a poor theme for the Giants’ offensive line all year long. Looking at a lot of his sacks before the Monday night matchup, it seemed to be partially due to Manning’s immobility, as well as an offensive lineman’s mistake.

I fully expected Saleh to turn the pass rushers loose and make Manning feel the pressure in the pocket. This was a case of: “Are the 49ers’ rushers that bad or the Giants’ OL that good?” — because San Francisco finished the game with only one sack for an eight-yard loss.

Coming into the game, the Giants were giving up nearly four sacks per game, so I expected at least that for a young 49ers’ defense. Yet, a combination of poor coverage in the backend and no top-flight pass rusher continues to hurt the defense — especially in late-game situations.

It was a particularly bad sign that the 49ers’ could not generate more sacks against a team that gifts them away on a weekly basis.