The Washington Football Team scored 23 total points on Sunday without much effort from the offense outside of three field goals. The majority of their points were scored by the defense, who returned a fumble and an interception for touchdowns. Last week, I said that the 49ers would need to be nearly flawless in the remaining games starting this past weekend’s game against the Football Team, and they weren’t. And despite all that, they still came within one score of at least getting to overtime. Such is 2020 for 49ers football.
The defense did not allow a single touchdown, even after some possessions began in plus territory, showing yet again why defensive coordinator Robert Saleh continues to be underrated as a defensive play-caller. On offense, it’s clear that Shanahan’s game plan was again superior to the signal-caller under center. Receivers were running free and clear most of the game, and Mullens either didn’t pull the trigger or overthrew them on many occasions, and his frustrations can be seen weekly on the all-22.
watch the guy in the white jacket on the bottom left of the screen on the first two, then he's off to the right on the last play. these are the only three the camera showed. he's exhausted pic.twitter.com/ZG2M3alruo— KP (@KP_Show) December 14, 2020
But the offense’s biggest issues centered around Mullens’ lack of football security. He fumbled twice and threw one interception, and those three turnovers led to 17 points for the Football Team. He was pressured on just 17 dropbacks and created six of those himself, per Pro Football Focus. And he failed to lead the offense on a single scoring drive in four tries after the 49ers came within one score early in the fourth quarter.
Spoiler alert, the offensive line was not that bad.
Much of the heartburn this season on offense revolves around a generally bad narrative to very terrible offensive line play, but that is a bit overblown. Per Football Outsiders adjusted sack rate, the 49ers ranked 7th in lowest adjusted sack rate at 5.1%. Adjusted sack rate considers sacks per pass attempt, quality of opponent, down, and distance.
Sacks by themselves are also not an indicator of how the offensive line performs overall as quarterbacks bear some responsibility for the outcome of a sack too. To truly get a feel for how well the line plays, one must look at each individual rep and contextualize it within the play itself. Is the quarterback holding the ball for too long? Is the line blocking for longer than 2.5 seconds? For purposes of this game review, I cannot post and review each individual play, so we’ll look at the sacks Mullens took.
Tragedy struck first early in the first quarter when Justin Skule took over at left tackle for a series while Trent Williams had a potential injury examined. But Mullens’ first sack was not Skule’s fault.
Chase Young, who was the second overall pick in the 2020 draft, lined up over Skule and recorded his first sack of the game due to a savvy move.
Skule is responsible for Young on a pass rush. But Young drops into coverage as the Football Team rushes three. Skule looks for Young, doesn’t see a rush, and looks to help inside, what he’s coached to do. Mullens initially looks for the developing routes to the left that looks to be some pick route to get the go route open down the sideline, but the routes weren’t open. He clutched like he wanted to throw over the middle but did not really have a throw there either. A throw to Aiyuk might have been difficult with his lack of arm strength.
Young sees Mullens slide to the left and outside the protection of the pocket, so he takes off on his rush. Skule is unable to assist at that point, and Mullens is still looking to throw. At this point, the free rusher becomes Mullens’ responsibility as the rest of the offensive line is engaged. He should’ve just thrown the ball away.
Later in the first half, Mullens was strip-sacked with the loose ball recovered by Chase Young and returned 47 yards for a touchdown.
The play call is baffling as situationally it’s 3rd-and-8 at midfield with over one minute left in the half with two timeouts at their disposal. Yet the play call calls for four verticals from five wide, with Mullens pumping the smoke route to the trip's side. None of the routes develop on the play either in time for a throw.
Upfront, pressure forces Mullens from the pocket before he’s ready to throw with Jonathan Allen (No. 93) using a cross-chop-hump pass rush move on guard Laken Tomlinson. He chops down Tomlinson’s punch, clubs his outside arm, and uses a hump where he throws his inside shoulder up and into Tomlinson's upper body to drive him into the backfield and propel Allen through the A-gap.
Mullens tries to take off looking to make a play but doesn’t tuck the ball away as he’s chased down from behind and loses the football as Daron Payne swipes at his hand. Chase Young scoops it up and scores down the sideline.
On Mullens’ fourth sack of the game in the third quarter, he has to understand that he’s going to pressure from time to time, and he’s going to have to find ways to make plays regardless and live to fight another down.
He gets pressure up the middle from Allen again, who swim moves over Tomlinson to get into the backfield and force Mullens to evade to the right. As he scrambles, his receivers do him no favors either. Richie James drifts back across the middle and doesn’t try to get open. Tight end Ross Dwelley sits on the sideline and doesn’t take off upfield. With no other options, he should throw it away but doesn’t and takes a sack.
Later in the quarter, Mullens threw a pick-6 when he failed to see the open running back out of the backfield.
To the left, the two receivers are running vertical routes to clear out the underneath coverage for running back Jeff Wilson out of the backfield. Mullens also has fullback Kyle Juszczyk in the flat to the right as receiver Brandon Aiyuk clears out the coverage to that side.
Mullens drops back looking for Wilson out of the backfield, but the pass rush collapses the interior, so Mullens looks elsewhere. In reality, he should’ve thrown the ball to Wilson on the in-breaking route out of the backfield. Mullens creates this pressure by not throwing with anticipation at the top of his drop.
He doesn’t change his depth, doesn’t manipulate the rush by climbing up, and allows the Football Team defensive line to dictate the rushing lanes as he stays right where he’s at so that eventually, he has to leave the pocket and find an open guy. He forces himself out of the pocket unnecessarily and floats a pass to Juszczyk on the sideline that gets picked off by Kamren Curl (No. 31).
The non-offensive line run blocking and pass protection issues
The 49ers' offense as a whole has been unspectacular in their blocking assignments in both the passing and running games and contributed to another fumble and sack at various points in the game.
At least one of Mullens’ four sacks wasn’t his fault in this game, but rather came on the back of the fullback, literally and figuratively, when linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis bulldozed fullback Kyle Juszczyk on a play-action drop back pass.
The 49ers are running a staple play-action concept that Shanahan likes calling for Mullens to get the offense going: dagger. Dagger is a deep in route on the outside and a deep cross over the middle, stressing the seam and hook defenders in front of the safeties. Mullens drops back after the play fake, but the routes haven’t fully developed. Usually, he’d get to a 1-hitch and throw as the deep-in route breaks open, but Pierre-Louis knocked Juszczyk down on his blitz and sacked Mullens before he even had a chance to throw.
On the team’s first fumble of the game in the second quarter, the one that wasn’t returned for a touchdown, the offensive line again cannot be blamed for the result. The negative outcome was actually the result of a bad block by Juszczyk, who did everything he could to keep Montez Sweat from wrecking the play, but he did anyway.
The 49ers are running a sweep from shotgun with crack blocks on the edge by Juszczyk and Aiyuk on the edge with McGlinchey as the pulling lead blocker. Sweat bursts upfield inside of Juszczyk as Wilson takes the handoff, and Juszczyk is along for the ride at that point. Sweat muscles his way into the running back’s path, causing him to stop and change course. That split-second decision cost the offense a turnover as Chase Young caught Wilson from behind and strips the ball, allowing Daron Payne (No. 94) to recover it.
Offensive line battles
Contrary to popular belief, Mike McGlinchey was one of the best in pass protection on Sunday. The worst, giving up five total pressures to Jonathan Allen, was Laken Tomlinson.
Mike McGlinchey gave up just two pressures, but unfortunately, he took most of the blame for the offensive line performance because one of them came at a bad time late in the game on a holding call that negated a catch and run on a potential scoring drive to tie the game.
But he put a number of good reps on tape despite his performance on that particular play. Most of his pass blocking snaps were quality wins against Montez Sweat.
Trent Williams was the best performing pass blocker against the Football Team, however, several quality wins were in the passing game against Chase Young.
Trent Williams surrendered just one total pressure during the game and was not only their top-graded offensive lineman but received their top grade on the offense as a whole.