The San Francisco 49ers kept their playoff hopes alive after a comeback win over the Los Angeles Rams. The Niners needed Nick Mullens to make plays for them in critical situations, and he did. Make no mistake, Mullens made his fair share of errors, but the same plays the backup QB made were the same plays that we usually give credit to Jimmy Garoppolo making. Yet, Mullens isn’t afforded the same.
Let’s take a look at some of the winners and losers from Week 12’s matchup.
The 49ers don’t beat the Rams without Ward’s play. His stats were great, as Ward forced a couple of fumbles as the Rams were driving, broke up a pass, and didn’t let the tight end get outside leverage on Richard Sherman’s interception:
Rams catch the 49ers in C3 Buzz. Moore should carry the second vertical route. Instead, big play— KP (@KP_Show) December 1, 2020
McVay comes back to the same flood concept on the next drive, just dressed differently. Sherm peels off his man. INT. Ward plays this perfectly by not allowing the WR to get leverage pic.twitter.com/iuGcFi74v1
Ward has been playing near the line of scrimmage more than fans have acknowledged, and it’s led to him making plays. Against Los Angeles, Ward single-handedly was responsible for a few of the Rams drives ending outside of the plays he was involved in.
On one play in the third quarter, Jared Goff looks at Cooper Kupp running an in-breaking route, but Ward is all over it. Goff has to go to his second read; it’s not there, then he takes a sack. On another play, this time to the right side of the field, Ward does the same thing, but against an out-breaking route ran by Robert Woods. A forced incompletion gets the Rams off the field. Jimmie has the Rams number.
On six separate occasions, the offensive line had a combo block on the Rams defensive lineman where they generated so much movement that the lineman who was supposed to peel off his block and go to the linebacker didn’t have to because the defensive tackle was in the linebackers lap. Six!
I counted six times from the game where the OL got so much movement on a combo block that they didn’t have to block the LB because the DL was in the LBs’ lap. pic.twitter.com/tCbCYFSHtu— KP (@KP_Show) December 1, 2020
Lineman get beat in every game, and because we only remember those times they whiff on blocks, it’s easy to ignore the 50 other plays where the quarterback isn’t touched. That was the case for the Niners’ line. Aaron Donald is impossible to block 1-on-1, and he was always going to get the best of Colton McKivitz. Those few plays shouldn’t overlook one of the best blocking performances from the line this season.
Mullens had ample time in the pocket to scan the field and get rid of the ball as well. On the sacks Mullens took, it took the defense an average of 3.25 seconds to get to him. That’s on the quarterback. Mullens wasn’t pressured until the second quarter. There were a handful of reps where Laken Tomlinson was getting the best of Donald, or you’d see the tight ends and running backs doing their part by chipping him.
Speaking of, Kyle Juszczyk, Ross Dwelley, and Charlie Woerner, and some of the backs themselves, were the reasons for the failed run game more so than the line. There were too many missed blocks from that trio that led to failed runs. That, or the backs/receivers didn’t follow their blocks. If we get this version of the Niners offensive line for the remainder of the season, knowing No. 99 isn’t on the other side of the ball, San Francisco shouldn’t have any issue moving the ball.
Givens has been one of the most under-appreciated players this season. Robert Saleh and Kris Kocurek deserve all of the credit in the world for getting the job done this season with Day 3 picks and UDFA’s on the line of scrimmage. Yes, I know where Dion Jordan was drafted, but we know he hasn’t played to that level. There was a play in the second quarter where Arik Armstead was on the field with Jordan, Willie Henry, and Darrion Daniels for a series. The Rams went three-an-out.
Anyway, I want to talk about Givens. He’s a wrecking-ball that this team has been missing. All afternoon, you’d see Givens knife his way into the backfield and create chaos. The two plays on the first drive stand out, but on Javon Kinlaw’s interception, Givens hits Goff, and that’s the reason for the errant throw. On Kerry Hyder’s QB hit, Fred Warner and Givens both execute the stunt by getting enough of the offensive lineman, which frees up Hyder to come clean and hit Goff.
There were a handful of times where Givens was in the backfield blowing the play up. He didn’t get credit in the box score, but Givens played a big role in the 49ers’ defensive success on Sunday.
If the 49ers are going to beat the Bills or any other team that doesn’t have Goff under center, they can’t turn the ball over as they did against the Rams. Three turnovers against any team is a death knell. The 49ers got away with turnovers because the Rams had one more. Your kicker missing a 50-yard field goal before the half doesn’t help, either. The team pays Robbie Gould a lot of money to make those kicks.
Mullens pass is batted in the air, which results in an interception, and the Rams kick a field goal. Goff throws an interception and the 49ers fumble on the next play. Raheem Mostert’s fumble kept the Rams in the game, as their offense had nothing going for them up until that point. You’ll take any victory you can, but sloppy play in December will cost the Niners.
49ers third-down offense
San Francisco went 3-for-14 on third down. When you get behind the chains because of a negative play or a penalty, the drive becomes a lost cause. When it was third and long, Mullens looked like a backup quarterback who had no idea where to go with the football. On 3rd & 6 or less, the 49ers went 1-for-5, including being stuffed on a few short-yardage situations.
On the season, the Niners are a woeful 23rd in third-down conversion percentage at 40%. That’s worse than the Cowboys, Jaguars, and Giants. There have been an unreasonable amount of injuries, which makes it difficult to execute, but when you get into third and manageable, you have to do better than 20%. To be fair, that’s where the Rams excel. Los Angeles ranks third in the NFL in opponent third downs and is even more stingy at home.
Late game Nick Mullens
I want to end on a good note and pick up where we started this article. Remember the throw down the sideline to Jordan Reed that should have been intercepted? If you go back and watch the play, Kyle Shanahan has his arms out wide as Mullens attempts the throw and then is jumping up and down in frustration, wondering why on earth would you let that ball go. Mullens got away with one on that play, but it was third and 10, anyway.
I want to talk about good Mullens showing up and making plays because he did that. I mentioned Gould’s missed attempt before the half. There was a 3rd & 10 on that drive where Donald got into the backfield, Mullens avoids him, scrambles right, and finds Kendrick Bourne 18 yards for a first down. That play was all Mullens, but there were no points to show for it.
After that dropped interception, Mullens went 13-for-16 for 152 yards. Six of those were first downs, and the Niners picked up an additional first after a Rams’ defensive pass interference where Mullens gave Richie James a chance as he took a big hit from a Rams lineman. I’m not sure if Mullens “blacked out” and forgot he was a backup, but he was playing in rhythm, fast, and fearless.
He attempted passes over the middle and in traffic that we haven’t seen from Mullens this season. There was a level of confidence Mullens played with that the Niners will need. If Mullens plays as freely as he did from the third quarter on, the 49ers are in good shape for the rest of the season. If we gave Garoppolo credit for comebacks last season, Mullens should receive the same benefit for beating the Rams.