“This is why you play the game!,” quarterback Nick Mullens yelled as he broke down the post-game cheer in the 49ers’ locker room. It was all smiles on the home side, as San Francisco finally break through without quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, 34-3.
It might not have been the Thursday Night Football showdown everyone was expecting, but it turned into a 49ers’ rout of their cross-town rivals. Never did I think that Shanahan and his third-string quarterback could run circles around a healthy, Jon Gruden-led Raiders’ team, but oh boy did it happen on Thursday.
Shanahan’s group came out blistering hot on an opening touchdown drive and didn’t look back the rest of the way. Let’s take a look at the pre-game keys and see how the 49ers performed on a short week.
1. Take the ball out of the 49ers’ quarterbacks hands and lean heavily on the running game
I figured that un-drafted free agent Nick Mullens would struggle in his debut, especially on a short week, under the lights in an extremely complicated offense. Subsequently, that meant running backs Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert would need to shoulder the load on offense.
Boy, could I have not been more wrong. Mullens finished the night 16-of-22 for 262 yards, three touchdowns and a passer rating over 150 — the maximum score is 158.3, just saying. The 49ers’ ran 32 rushing plays, compared to 22 passing attempts, but the number is slightly skewed because San Francisco led by so much at the end of the game, forcing them to run the ball more.
In the pivotal moments early, Shanahan put faith in his third-string quarterback and decided to let it fly against a poor Raiders’ pass defense. The 49ers definitely didn’t follow this key closely, but managed to easily win on Thursday night.
2. Limit the Raiders’ most productive pass-catchers, TE Jared Cook and RB Jalen Richard
Raiders’ quarterback Derek Carr has a lot of weapons at his disposal, but prefers to throw to large target tight end Jared Cook and shifty running back Jalen Richard. The 49ers haven’t been very effective in covering these two positions, due to multiple linebacker injuries, so it was an area of concern.
In the absence of linebacker Reuben Foster, linebackers Fred Warner and Malcolm Smith stepped up, making numerous plays in the passing game to limit Carr’s favorite targets. Richard led the Raiders in catches with four for 45 yards, while Cook only had two catches for 20 yards.
The 49ers’ linebackers did an outstanding job in coverage, limiting the yards after the catch. This allowed them to get off the field in key third-down situations.
3. Don’t give Derek Carr extra chances against the 49ers’ defense
With a third-string signal caller in for the 49ers, I was terrified of the potential turnovers on Thursday — but Mullens did a fantastic job protecting the ball.
Unlike backup quarterback C.J. Beathard, Mullens tends to release the ball sooner, preventing defenders from creating a sack or strip fumble. The former Southern Missisippi quarterback was particularly accurate too, not allowing Raiders’ defensive backs a chance at interceptions.
Fumbles have been another issue for the 49ers, but it’s something they didn’t allow on Thursday. With zero turnovers on Thursday, San Francisco employed its best defense against Carr and the Raiders — keeping the 49ers’ offense on the field.
With the Giants up next on the schedule, will Mullens and Co. be able to string together two wins?