Jimmy Garoppolo entered this season coming off an ACL tear that he suffered in week three of 2018. For the most part, he’s played well and has progressively gotten better each week, even as he’s looked like someone who is coming back from a major injury. He’s taken quite a bit of criticism this season around the NFL media as a quarterback who’s unable to carry his team’s offense and is being carried by the defense. While some of that may be true early on, the week nine Thursday Night Football game should have quieted that criticism.
The main criticism of Garoppolo is that his decision-making is less than stellar. That is true at times. I’ve written as much. He’s made several throws each game that has been incredible lapses in judgment, so much so that it has led to an obligatory “there’s Jimmy’s one mistake per game” by many folks on twitter.
However, I’m just not sure it means much anymore as he looks more and more comfortable each week running the offense and bouncing back from injury. But his detractors use the decision-making aspect to roll every other criticism they have into it.
As head coach Kyle Shanahan has eased Garoppolo back into playing and opened the playbook more and more each week, one thing remains as constant and as true going into week 15 of 2019 as it was in week 17 of 2017: that Garoppolo’s third-down efficiency has kept the offense on schedule and helped them close out games.
But this fact has gone largely unreported on during this season because of the nature of the hype surrounding the 49ers’ recent success and their #2 overall defense per Football Outsiders DVOA. Still, the offense has needed Garoppolo to come through on third down and (and some fourth downs too) to keep the offense moving on key drives as well just extending drives in general.
NFL 3rd Passing leaders by total conversions week 15 2019
On third down, Garoppolo leads the league with a 52.3% conversion to first down rate (56 first downs on 107 attempts). Seven of his conversions have gone for touchdowns, including three of them against the Cardinals in week nine (one was the eventual game-winning touchdown throw to Pettis), arguably his best game as a 49er.
So what are some of the more important throws that Garoppolo has completed to keep his team on schedule and allowed the offense to score or convert on key drives?
First play: Week 3 vs. PIT, 3rd quarter, 3rd & 8 at PIT 25 (11:23)
The 49ers committed four turnovers in the first half of this game and were down 6-3 at halftime as a result. The first drive of the second half set the tone for the rest of the game. They came out in the second half and converted on a third-down play when Garoppolo found receiver Kendrick Bourne over the middle on a deep in route for a gain of 22.
Garoppolo motions receiver Richie James out of the backfield into an empty 3x2 formation. On the backside of the formation, Bourne is in the slot running a “basic” route over the middle on what Shanahan calls the “follow” concept (a two-level high to low read). The Steelers are in a cover-5 shell (cover 2 deep with man coverage underneath).
The defense sets their strength to the passing strength to the offense’s left side after James motions out of the backfield. This leaves a window in the middle of the defense as Bourne runs his deep in route over the middle. The shallow routes by the trips side occupies the defenders and prevent them from locating Bourne over the middle. Bourne catches and gets upfield for 22 yards. The play led to a touchdown three plays later.
Second play: Week 6 at LAR, 1st quarter, 3rd & 3 at SF 43 (6:54)
On another much-needed scoring drive against the Rams, one that came after the Rams marched down the field on their opening drive and scored on all running plays, Garoppolo found Kittle for a third-down conversion at midfield when the 49ers were looking to answer that opening touchdown drive quickly.
Kittle is a reliable target over the middle because he gives the quarterback someone who can fight through contact at the catch point and make critical catches. As the inline tight end here, he’s running a 10-yard pivot route called “Winston.” The Rams are playing man coverage, but corner Marcus Peters widens with the running back wheel route before coming back to Kittle.
Garoppolo hits the top of his drop, looking for Coleman on the wheel route initially, sees that it’s not open, looks to Bourne on the shallow cross, but that is also covered. At this point, the pocket is collapsing around him, but he’s not done going through his progressions. He shuffles right to avoid his linemen, sees Kittle, and steps up to get a throwing lane before throwing Kittle open beyond the sticks.
Kittle hits his landmark as Peters is converging on the route, but he pivots outside as Peters initiates contact to disrupt the timing. He can’t prevent the catch, and Kittle fights through the grab to secure the pass for a 10 yard gain on third-and-3.
Third play: Week 7 at WAS, 3rd quarter, 3rd & 8 at SF 43 (0:05)
The 49ers won a sloppy contest in the nation’s capital in week seven, a 9-0 defeat of the Washington Redskins in the pouring rain. Still, Garoppolo was able to hit some big-time throws to keep the chains moving, in particular, this one to George Kittle on a third-and-8 with his left guard in his lap.
The play call is a “follow” concept to the offense’s right, with Kittle running a deeper dig route Shanahan calls a “basic.” The Redskins are in a single-high cover-1 “rat” defense with a defender that sits in the low hole and looks to rob any shallow or underneath crossers or slants. The rat defender peels off to the shallow crosser leaving Kittle 1-on-1 with his defender over the middle and no underneath coverage.
Kittle gives a quick outside move to gain separation before cutting inside on the basic route. Defensive end Jonathan Allen (No. 93) bull rushes guard Laken Tomlinson into Garoppolo’s lap as he’s dropping back to pass. Because Garoppolo is skilled at throwing without stepping into his throws due to his unconventional mechanics, he still slings a pass out to Kittle for the first down. Kittle makes a nice adjustment to haul it in and gain 13.
Fourth play: Week 9 at ARI, 1st quarter, 3rd & 3 at ARI 30 (00:13)
The Cardinals game in week nine is Garoppolo’s best game of the season. He threw four touchdown passes and hit several key third-down throws on those touchdown drives with three of his touchdown passes coming on third down.
On the first touchdown, Garoppolo found Kittle for a 30-yard touchdown throw that on first glance, appears to be primarily because of Kittle’s ability to run after the catch but equally important on this throw is Garoppolo moving the underneath defenders with his eyes.
The play call is “arches” with Kittle running an “arch” route outside of Sanders inside slant/crossing route. Against the Cardinals cover-1 hole defense, Garoppolo looks off the “rat” defender, sees his first read (Sanders) is blanketed by the coverage and finds Kittle, who beat Budda Baker off the line of scrimmage to get open. Kittle then stiff-arms Baker to the ground before rumbling into the end zone for the 49ers’ first score.
Fifth play: Week 9 at ARI, 2nd quarter, 3rd & 6 at ARI 7 (9:05)
Garoppolo converted another third down midway through the second quarter against the Cardinals in week nine when he found receiver Kendrick Bourne for a seven-yard touchdown throw on third-and-6.
The pass is tipped, but Garoppolo fires a strike in behind the defender sitting on the inside hitch route. The hitch route draws the defender up, opening a passing lane behind the coverage underneath and allowing Garoppolo to fit the pass in the window to Bourne. Bourne does a nice job of corralling the tipped pass and holding on for six.
Sixth play: Week 9 at ARI, 3rd quarter, 3rd & 7 at ARI 21 (6:02)
For whatever reason, receiver Dante Pettis has spent the entire season in the doghouse with Shanahan. But on two occasions, he’s caught the eventual game-winning touchdown passes in both the Steelers and first Cardinals game.
The play call is a flood concept to the boundary with Pettis as the #1 receiver running a corner route and Sanders running a flat route meant to high-low the coverage. The Cardinals bust their coverage with both the safety and the corner keying on the flat route. The corner squats over the top of Sanders and the safety eyes follow Sanders before realizing Pettis has just run by him on the corner.
Garoppolo looks to Sanders, pumps but pulls it back when he sees the corner squatting on the flat route. He resets in the pocket and throws to the corner for Pettis and drops it right in the bucket. Pettis keeps his feet in bounds for the touchdown and a little Halloween night Thriller celebration.
Seventh play: Week 9, 4th quarter, 4:37, 3rd & 11 at SF 25
This was the play Garoppolo got much attention and praise for by even his harshest critics. He showed off elite release by demonstrating a level of processing speed he hasn’t really shown in the past and completed a pass to Sanders on a crucial third-and-11 backed up in their territory. They converted two more third downs en route to their 8th victory.
The play call is “BUNCH RT NASTY Y CTR 24 DBL SWIRL” with the outside receivers running “swirl” routes. A swirl route is a corner route stem where the receiver breaks off the corner portion of the route and turns around to look for the pass. Sanders is to the left of the quarterback as the single receiver to that side.
The Cardinals are showing single high, and just as the snap goes off, they rotate to a two-high shell with quarters coverage, but Garoppolo likely doesn’t see it as he’s focused on catching the snap at that point.
As he drops back, his eyes drift to the right looking at the swirl/dig route (basic), but there’s nowhere to go as the corner squats over the top of the swirl route to the right, and the strong hook defender passes off the dig to the middle defender playing a “wall” technique.
The weak hook defender is the key here, though, as Garoppolo led him to the middle of the field with his eyes as he dropped back. The weak hook and the wall defender have the dig bracketed as a result of the quarterback leading them to the middle of the field. Garoppolo hits the top of his drop, sees nothing open, and resets his feet looking left.
As Garoppolo resets looking to his left, Chandler Jones is bull rushing Justin Skule into the throwing lane and gets by Skule. Jones is in Garoppolo’s face when he throws, and he is unable to step into the throw as a result. It doesn’t matter though, as Garoppolo has enough power to rotate and fire his left hip into the throw, a product of the quarterback mechanics he’s trained and developed.
The throw leads Sanders away from Patrick Peterson, who had grabbed Sanders at the top of the route before Sanders was able to shed him.
The drive continued, and the 49ers picked up two more first downs, including on a third-and-9 where Garoppolo found tight end Ross Dwelley in the shallow underneath zone. Dwelley was able to pick up the first down, sealing the victory.
Eighth play: Week 10 vs. SEA, 3rd & 8 at SEA 10 (2:07)
Garoppolo had some ups and downs, and everything to like and not like about his career thus far was on display in the first meeting with Seattle. Late in the game in overtime, he threw a few passes straight to the defenders who dropped them. Early in the game, the offense was clicking, and he hit some big throws, like this third down, in particular, to put them up 10-0.
Garoppolo found receiver Kendrick Bourne for an early score when Bourne ran a crossing route from the middle slot. The Seahawks are in a cover-1 defense with a five-man pressure. The middle linebacker comes on a blitz, opening the middle of the field for Bourne’s shallow crossing route. Garoppolo gets the ball out quick and hits Bourne in stride for the touchdown.
Ninth play: Week 10 vs. SEA, 4th quarter, 3rd & 8 at SEA 21 (6:26)
Later in the Seattle game, after the 49ers clawed their way back from a 21-10 deficit, they faced another third down on a crucial drive. A touchdown here would’ve put them up by four points and would’ve increased the likelihood they remained undefeated. Receiver Kendrick Bourne had other plans.
Bourne is to the left, running a dig route across the middle behind Seattle’s five-man pressure. As he’s running free across the middle, the defenders break inside on the dig. The rush gets to Garoppolo, but he’s able to get the pass off in time for Bourne to catch and convert. But the pass goes right through Bourne’s hands and is nearly intercepted before falling incomplete.
Tenth play: Week 11 vs. ARI, 2nd quarter, 3rd & 7 at SF 31 (3:22)
This play came from the end of the second half with the 49ers trailing the Cardinals 16-7 at home and shows Garoppolo’s ability to stand in the pocket with bodies all around him and deliver a strike to keep the chains moving. They didn’t score a touchdown on this drive, but they did get a key field goal putting them within one score, which they eventually got on the first drive of the second half.
The play call is a “flag bow” (variation of the “smash”) concept with Deebo Samuel on the flag route and tight end Ross Dwelley on the “stick china” route (stick route, pivot back inside). The Cardinals are in a cover-1 robber defense with the two safeties rotating at the snap. The post-snap coverage shift indicates to Garoppolo that he should go to the smash side as the robber safety drops down into the middle of the field to rob the dig route.
Garoppolo drops back and immediately sees the rotation of the safeties, so he looks right to the flag and pivot routes. Dwelley on the stick china route is the first read in the progression but the corner squats on Dwelley’s route. Against man coverage, this means there is no one to sink under the flag route, and the sideline is open. Garoppolo resets and finds Samuel down the sideline as he’s basically throwing from the inside of a phone booth.
Eleventh play: Week 14 at NO, 1st quarter, 3rd & 6 at the NO 6 (8:31)
Garoppolo found receiver Kendrick Bourne for two more touchdowns in the red zone against the Saints in week 14, two pivotal plays, as every score seemed more important than the last because both teams scored on nearly every drive, they possessed the ball. But this play, in particular, came on a drive in the first quarter after the defense gave a big play for a touchdown. The 49ers would need to answer with big plays of their own, and they did with several throws on this drive, capped off by the touchdown.
The play call gave Garoppolo two primary reads to the left with a flat checkdown. Bourne appears to be the second route in the progression, with Kittle being the first. Bourne is running a swirl route with Kittle running a crossing route. Corner Marshon Lattimore (No. 23) has Bourne man to man on a vertical stem, so safety Marcus Williams (No. 43) takes Kittle across on the crosser while safety Vonn Bell (No. 24) funnels to the flat with the running back.
Garoppolo looks for Kittle on the crosser as he drops back. It’s bracketed by Williams and linebacker Demario Davis (No. 56). At the same time, Bourne gets upfield and attacks Lattimore’s outside shoulder before pivoting back inside.
Garoppolo fires it into Bourne on time as he pivots back inside and puts above any Bourne to the inside, eliminating any chance the defender could break it up. Garoppolo fits it in there just as Davis looks to undercut the throwing lane.
Garoppolo is proven to be one of the most efficient third-down passers in the league since he was traded to the 49ers. He does get a lot of open reads on third down, but these plays also show that when the structure breaks down or he’s under some pressure, he can still deliver an on-time and accurate pass into tight coverage and score when necessary.
Down the stretch and into the playoffs, this will become even more important, and he’ll need to continue being consistent on third down. With a final tune-up game before games against the Rams (making a late playoff push) and the Seahawks on the road in week 17, I feel pretty confident that he’ll continue to get the needed conversions and move the chains to give his team a chance to win.