The tide always changes after a loss. All context and reason go out of the window, and everyone wants to point the finger. While the San Francisco 49ers loss to the Atlanta Falcons came down to the final play, the team could have easily avoided being in that position. So let’s go over the handful of plays before Julio Jones game-winning five-yard touchdown reception.
End of the half issues...again
When you have second and goal from the three-yard line, you have to come away with six points. If the 49ers are in this situation at any point for the rest of the season, they have to get six points. There is no other way around it. In this scenario, San Francisco failed in three plays. Let’s review each.
On first and goal from the seven-yard line, the offense threw a screen pass to George Kittle, who undoubtedly would have had a better chance to score if Emmanuel Sanders and Kendrick Bourne didn’t attempt to block the same guy:
Kittle gets it to the three-yard line after avoiding No. 20, who is just outside of the circle above. It’s not fair to say Kittle would have scored if the safety was blocked, but he likely doesn’t have to slow down.
In the next play, my biggest critic on Tevin Coleman, all season, is on display. The Niners run it to the weak-side of the formation. When you do that, you generally leave the backside defensive end unblocked, as Kittle does below. I purposely slowed the play down so you can watch Coleman’s path. If he follows Kyle Juszczyk, there’s a good chance Coleman scores. He cuts back and cuts right into Beasley. By doing that, he gives the defender McGlinchey is blocking a chance to tackle him as well.
Following the path of his blocks has been a struggle all season for Coleman. It cost the team points here.
The third-down was a woefully underthrown fade by Jimmy Garoppolo to George Kittle. I’m actually a fan of that play; you just have to throw it high, and to the pylon, so Kittle is the only person who can make a play. I won’t blame Kyle Shanahan for the call on this one.
San Francisco was up 13-10 and had just completed a long pass to Kittle. The offense was on the 38-yard line going in, and Matt Breida fumbled for the first time all season. It was uncharacteristic for Breida, but a costly mistake. Breida actually fumbled earlier on the drive, but the ball went out of bounds. The other two plays on the drive went for 21 and 16 yards to Kittle. The offense was in a groove, but the fumble burst the momentum bubble.
Because Atlanta didn’t score on their next possession doesn’t make this a “no harm no foul situation.” That’s not how this works. The 49ers squandered an opportunity to put points on the board. Points that they couldn’t afford not to have.
Reed em and weep
It’s 3rd & 18 in the fourth quarter, and Matt Ryan hits Fred Warner in the numbers. D.J. Reed has a chance, and he goes after the pass as well, effectively knocking the ball out of Warner’s hands to force a punt instead. The Falcons punted, and that led to the 49ers punting and Ross Dwelley forcing a fumble that led to a touchdown. Again, that doesn’t absolve the mistake. There were only offensive lineman and Ryan in front of Warner. I’m not saying he scores, but he takes that interception deep into Atlanta’s territory, and the 49ers may have more time towards the end of the game to score. Who knows.
What I do know is that the 49ers haven’t had an interception since Dre Greenlaw’s in Week 10. Opposing quarterbacks have thrown 11 touchdowns without an interception in five games since. The 49ers defense was always predicated on timely stops, sacks, and turnovers. That’s not happening, and that’s why teams are scoring nearly 26 points per game the last two months on them.
Go for it
Oh, hindsight. It’s 4th and a long one on the Falcons 25-yard line. You are up two points, and if you elect to go for it and fail all Atlanta needs is a field goal to win it. That is the worst train of thought to have. Especially as an 11-win team.
You do what is best for your team. By kicking a field goal, the 49ers win probability dropped 10%. Here is why I think Shanahan should have gone for it: game flow. If the 49ers were struggling to move the ball, I’d understand kicking it in this situation. I’m in the school that you go for it on fourth down, whether you are on your ten-yard line or the opponent’s ten-yard line. On this drive, Mostert bulldozed his way for eight yards after carrying a few Falcons defenders. Deebo Samuel snuck open out of the backfield for 29 yards. Juice did the same on first down and made a nice diving catch. Sanders had a four-yard reception. Kittle fumbled on the third-down play before. If he holds on to the ball, it’s a first down, and we’re likely talking about how everything is fine today and “a win is a win.”
The point of going through all of that is to say the 49ers had plenty of success on that drive, and the only thing getting in the way of themselves was themselves. Throw it to Kittle, run behind Kittle with Mostert, do something that instills confidence in your football team instead of relying on a defense that hadn’t stopped Julio Jones all afternoon. The odds of you preventing Atlanta from getting in the end zone were worse than you picking up one yard. That’s how Shanahan needs to view these situations. He didn’t, and ultimately, it cost the team. Not one play at the end of the game, but a handful of plays throughout the game cost the 49ers. The team still controls their destiny. The loss to Atlanta just eliminated their margin for error.