We were going to find out a lot about the San Francisco 49ers in their matchup against the Buffalo Bills, whether they won or lost. The Bills have been one of the better teams in the NFL all season, so they’d give us a better idea of who this Niners team is. Unfortunately, Buffalo exposed many faults that have been there and rained on San Francisco’s playoff parade. Here is what we learned from Monday night.
You can’t always go against little brother
The 49ers have played seven teams that are over .500 this season. Two of those teams are the Rams, who San Francisco knows like the back of their hand as they’ve seen Los Angeles’s plays every day in practice since Kyle Shanahan took over. If you take out those two Rams games, the Niners have been outscored 175 to 98. The 49ers have been outscored on average 35-19 against playoff teams this season.
Against the Rams, the 49ers look like a playoff team. Against everyone else that will be playing into the second week of January, warts that are backup, injuries, lack of execution topped with miscommunication in the secondary have led to a Niners squad that looks unwatchable for stretches of the game. The margin for error is non-existent when you put all of those together, but the 49ers have at least two turnovers in six straight games. If you don’t take care of the football, you don’t win unless you’re going against little brother.
When you have a guy, you know it
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Monday night’s game was that you know when you have a quarterback. Buffalo does. San Francisco does not. I’m sure we’ll hear about pressures and hurries this week, but Josh Allen ran out of multiple plays where the defense was in the backfield to extend the play and find a receiver down the field for a first down. We saw it countless times. Those are the same plays we see 49ers fans complain where the offensive line doesn’t give the quarterback time. Allen averaged 2.77 seconds in his attempts. Nick Mullens averaged 2.68 seconds. The argument that Allen had all day to throw is a fallacy.
They pay defenses to make plays, too. If you need the situation to be perfect for your quarterback to succeed, he’s not a franchise quarterback. I’d love to know how many plays the Bills had that last over five seconds because it felt like that number would be in the double-digits. The Niners’ defensive line hit Allen three times and sacked him once. The secondary was OK initially, aside from a few coverage busts, but I mentioned in the game preview that the secondary must be ready to cover the Bills receivers “twice” in one play. That didn’t happen Monday. Credit Allen for his remarkable performance.
On the other side of the ball, as has been the case all year, Shanahan doesn’t have 100% faith in the guy under center. If you believed in your quarterback, would you run the ball and throw a check down route in your first two plays out of the two-minute warning at midfield before halftime? I doubt it. We’ve seen it all year, even when Jimmy Garoppolo was healthy. Kyle is afraid to open up the offense because, as we’ve seen, both Mullens and Garoppolo are prone to mistakes.
Allen is, too. The difference is Allen is a playmaker, while the Niners quarterbacks haven’t shown they can elevate the talent around them. That’s why Allen is a franchise quarterback. We haven’t seen a performance like Allen’s in the Bay Area in years.
11 is a special talent
There aren’t many positives when you lose by double-digits in the NFL. One positive has to be Brandon Aiyuk. In a game where the 49ers fell behind so they couldn’t get their ground game going, neither running back had double-digit carries, Aiyuk’s play gave fans a glimmer of hope for how the future would look. Yes, he made a mistake and should have caught a pass that resulted in an interception.
Aiyuk finished with five receptions for 95 yards and a touchdown. His longest pass went for 49 yards, where Aiyuk ran by a cornerback. We haven’t seen a wideout be able to do that, then adjust to the pass on the fly, and reel it in. It’s great that Aiyuk is productive as a rookie, but it’s promising to see him win on various routes all over the field.
Aiyuk was targeted nine times, and it’s evident that Shanahan views him as the team’s No. 1 receiver. On his first reception, Aiyuk runs a shake route against press coverage, against an elite cornerback, to convert on 3rd & 6. We’ve wanted a red zone target on this offense for a while. Aiyuk beat a different cornerback on a simple slant route where Aiyuk won at the line of scrimmage. He had a 20-yard gain on an out route where Aiyuk made the cornerback turn in the wrong direction. A few throws were off-target where Aiyuk had to dive for that should have been complete.
Speaking of, Aiyuk is close to becoming a complete wideout. He’s not there yet, but the fact that we’re discussing this topic in his first-year signals that this kid’s future is bright.
San Francisco couldn’t get out of their way
The 49ers weren’t beating the Bills, even with Garoppolo and George Kittle on the field. I’m not sure Garoppolo makes a few plays with his legs that Mullens does, or Jimmy attempts that deep pass and completes it to Aiyuk. Buffalo had The Mandalorian under center. San Francisco needed to play as close to flawless and both sides of the ball as they could, and the team did anything but that.
The penalties were backbreaking. The Niners only had five penalties, but each of them cost the team. A defensive hold on Arik Armstead gave the Bills a 1st & Goal, and they scored a touchdown on the next play. Fred Warner makes an interception in the second quarter, but a Richard Sherman illegal contact penalty negates the turnover, and Buffalo marches the field and scores a touchdown. A 2nd & 18 incomplete pass turned into a first down after Kentavius Street roughed the passer. Two plays later, Allen throws a 23-yard touchdown. Finally, a false start, by the quarterback, on the five-inch line, backs the Niners up, and Mullens throws an interception on the next play.
The 49ers lost the hidden yardage battle all night. Dontae Johnson had a couple of opportunities to make tackles in the backfield or near the line of scrimmage. He didn’t, and that gave Buffalo manageable down and distances. Those off-target throws from Mullens easily cost Aiyuk yards after the catch and field position. You could go down the list and find mistakes on both sides of the ball.
When you play a high-quality team with an MVP-caliber quarterback, you have to bring your A-game. During the postgame press conferences, the media was content on making excuses, including having to play in Arizona. There’s nothing wrong with admitting that Buffalo was the better team on Monday night. That’s why the 49ers lost.