The San Francisco 49ers added their third win of the season on Sunday with their 20-14 victory over the Denver Broncos at Levi’s Stadium. It was a tale of two halves for Kyle Shanahan’s squad. The 49ers racked up 20 points and held the Broncos scoreless in the first half only to flip the script in the second, scoring zero and allowing 14.
Coach Kyle Shanahan spoke with the media Monday following the team’s Week 14 win. Here’s some of his notable talking points:
Uncertain future for veterans
Among Shanahan’s injury updates was a surprising announcement that Pierre Garçon would be placed on injured reserve after battling a knee injury for most of the season. The 49ers’ veteran receiver, who requires a knee scope, hasn’t played since the team’s Week 9 win over the Oakland Raiders.
In addition to Garçon, defensive lineman Earl Mitchell and linebacker Malcolm Smith, despite being active, didn’t play a snap Sunday in the 49ers’ win over the Broncos. Shanahan was asked if he, along with general manager John Lynch, needed to decide if the three veterans had a place on the team in 2019:
“Yeah. Those guys understand the business, and they understand how it works. That’s stuff that you don’t ignore. That’s why you guys are asking the questions. It’s obvious. I talked about that with those guys. Those guys aren’t done.”
While Mitchell has remained healthy, Garçon and Smith both battled injuries throughout their tenure with the 49ers. Garçon played eight games last season before a neck injury ended his season. Smith’s torn pectoral muscle prior to the season ended his before it could begin.
“Hopefully, they can get healthy this offseason and then you’ve got to make decisions. You don’t just get rid of people to get rid of people. They’re all good players, good people, people we love here. But, you’re always trying to improve and get better and that’s what we see. What’s the competition you can create? What are the options out there?”
All three veterans have contracts that allow the 49ers to move on in the offseason without significant penalty. Parting ways with Garçon, Smith and Mitchell would save the team $13.7 million in salary cap, while costing just $4.55 million in dead money. With young, encouraging players at each of their positions, the writing may be on the way for a trio of players that were among the first to join the Lynch and Shanahan era.
Maturation of Dante Pettis
Pettis’ season has been somewhat of a roller coaster. The 49ers’ second-round pick this year began 2018 with an incredible touchdown catch from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo against the Minnesota Vikings before a Week 3 knee injury sidelined him for four weeks. Pettis’ return to action has been filled with mistakes typical of rookie receivers, but his last four weeks have been nothing short of outstanding. Shanahan was asked about Pettis’ development so far this season:
“What has been neat to watch him is, when we didn’t have a choice and had to throw him out there, he did some things that he wasn’t ready for that we anticipated. But, by going through it, he got better as the game went with it. He made some mistakes in Tampa in the first quarter that he was better in the second quarter and got him some experience that he needs. I thought he was better in Seattle after that. Just being out there playing more, he is a very smart guy who listens and understands what you’re saying. But, you’ve always got to put athletes kind of through those situations so they can feel it themselves. He has, and he’s gotten better from it.”
Over the past four weeks, Pettis has reeled in 16 receptions on 27 targets for 267 yards and four touchdowns. He’s shown a knack for quick separation and crafty routes, traits the 49ers coveted when they traded up in the second round for the former Washington receiver. Pettis’ continued development over the last three games of the season will be one to watch.
D.J. Reed’s emergence
Starting nickel cornerback K’Waun Williams was inactive against the Broncos due to a knee injury that had him questionable heading into the weekend. Reed, initially assumed to be the starter at free safety, filled in for Williams and put together an impressive performance. Shanahan was asked if Reed earned the starting regardless of Williams’ status moving forward:
“I wouldn’t say regardless. K’Waun’s played at a very high level this year and done a good job. I wouldn’t say just one game of D.J. Reed that he fully played better than him. But, D.J. did have a very good game. I was very excited to see him do some of the stuff he did as the nickel. I think K’Waun has done a hell of a job for us in these two years. So, if K’Waun is healthy, I expect K’Waun to be out there. But if he’s not, D.J. can hopefully do better than he did last week and it would be great to go in with some real good competition with those two next year.”
The 49ers’ fifth-round rookie led the team with 12 total tackles against the Broncos, adding three tackles for loss, one sack, one quarterback hit and one forced fumble. It was a return to familiarity for Reed, who played cornerback at Kansas State. It was a solid showing that will undoubtedly give the 49ers confidence in the rookie moving forward.
George Kittle’s five yards
The 49ers’ star tight end fell just five yards short of capturing the all-time record for receiving yards in a game set by Shannon Sharpe’s 214-yard performance in 2002. Kittle amassed seven catches for 210 yards and a touchdown against the Broncos Sunday, all in the first half. Shanahan was asked why the 49ers didn’t get Kittle the ball after being held in check during the final two quarters:
“First of all, we have a lot of plays designed to go to him and when coverages go there, you go to somewhere else which is smart of them to take their coverages there after what happened in the first half. That’s why other people have to make them pay, which you get better opportunities. But, we didn’t get a lot to George. We didn’t stay on the field. We didn’t convert one third down.”
Despite missing out on Sharpe’s milestone, Kittle still set the 49ers franchise record for receiving yards by a tight end in a game and in a season. He now has 69 catches for 1,103 yards and four touchdowns in 2018. It’s been an All-Pro season for the 49ers’ second-year tight end.
Shanahan praises Nick Mullens
The 49ers’ former third-string quarterback has put together an impressive stretch over his five games as the team’s starter. Mullens has completed 111 of 174 passes (63.8%) for 1,479 yards, nine touchdowns, six interceptions and a quarterback rating of 93.5. He’s been far from perfect, but much better than you’d expect from a quarterback who began the year on the practice squad. Shanahan was asked what he’s seen from Mullens over the course of his five starts:
“Nick has shown that he can play quarterback in this league. He did a very good job in this game playing within himself, playing in a tight pocket. He made some really good throws with people around him. The second to last third down that really allowed us to finish out there on the field, the one that I tried to call a timeout before, he was the best on.”
Shanahan tried to call a timeout right before Mullens hit Pettis for a 31-yard gain late in the fourth quarter to essentially squash any real hope of a comeback for the Broncos. After another conversion to Trent Taylor, the 49ers’ offense assumed the victory formation and knelt out the clock. Or at least that was the plan before Mullens took a knee too early and left the Broncos five seconds on the clock, but to no avail for Denver.