The 49ers entered the season with high hopes, a talented roster, and high expectations. Yet, barely a third of the way through their regular-season schedule, all hope seems lost in San Francisco. There’s no way around it; the Niners were embarrassed by the Colts in a 30-18 defeat. While it seems hard to focus on the specifics with such overarching problems, here’s how much blame each position group should receive for the loss.
There were two possessions all game where everything clicked offensively. Otherwise, the 49ers were unable to move the ball with any consistency. The conditions did not do quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo any favors, but his performance was undeniably subpar.
The 49ers got off to a strong start, getting the ball first and going on a quick touchdown drive. Their defense forced two early turnovers, including a fumble that gave Garoppolo the ball at the Colts’ 28. Yet they scored just 12 points in the first half.
Even as Garoppolo avoided his turnover-prone tendencies, his inability to push the ball downfield and create big plays left the Niners’ offense stagnant. On five second-quarter drives, San Francisco failed to record a single first down.
Then, Garoppolo committed three turnovers in the second half, twice on drives when the 49ers were down less than one score. Again, it’s the story of the season. Garoppolo had some flashes hitting receivers over the middle on crossing routes but did nothing exceptional while consistently putting the ball at risk.
Running backs: B+
Rookie Elijah Mitchell was once again good filling in for the 49ers’ injured running backs. Head coach Kyle Shanahan leaned on him heavily early, to great success, and perhaps when Shanahan reviews the game film, he’ll wish he had stuck with that run-first approach a little longer. Mitchell racked up 107 rushing yards on 18 carries, including a 14-yard touchdown run on the Niners’ first drive.
Without the burst as players like Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr, Mitchell cannot generate the same highlight plays as the backs he’s replacing. However, the rookie has quickly proved that he can be a trustworthy primary back.
Further down the depth chart, though, the Niners’ backs were quiet. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk did not receive a single carry or target, and running back Ja’Mycal Hasty looked rusty in his first game back from the injured reserve. Hasty recorded three receptions for 15 receiving yards but slipped on a downfield throw from Garoppolo and managed just one rushing yard on three carries.
By the way, rookie third-round pick Trey Sermon received zero carries on the day. In fact, none of the 49ers’ first four picks in this year’s draft could crack the rotation on Sunday. The Niners have had injuries, and both coaches and players have made countless mistakes this season, but it cannot be ignored that the franchise had an opportunity to add contributors in this year’s draft, and they have yet to trust any of their highest picks.
The #49ers added 4 players in the first three rounds of this year's draft. I believe we're on pace for none of them to play a snap tonight:— Marc Delucchi (@maddelucchi) October 25, 2021
1. Trey Lance (out)
2. Aaron Banks (available, has not played)
3. Trey Sermon (available, has not played)
4. Ambry Thomas (healthy scratch)
Tight end: D+
It’s hard to have high expectations for the 49ers’ tight ends without George Kittle. Nonetheless, Ross Dwelley and Charlie Woerner were unable to make a significant impact.
Dwelley was invisible all game, only hauling in a single five-yard reception while Woerner made a great catch on an off-schedule completion late. Still, with the 49ers wide receivers outside of Deebo Samuel struggling, neither did enough to move the needle.
Wide receivers: C-
It’s hard to know what to blame on Garoppolo, Shanahan, and the Niners receiving corp. However, besides Deebo Samuel, no one else has emerged as a viable second option. Brandon Aiyuk, Trent Sherfield, and Mohammed Sanu all hauled in just one reception. Aiyuk received one handoff and just one target, raising more questions about why the Niners will not give him more opportunities in open space.
Samuel was excellent once again, catching seven of his 11 targets for 100 receiving yards and a touchdown. However, even he had a misstep, fumbling while fighting for extra yards on a third down.
Offensive line: B
Despite missing Trent Williams, the offensive line held up well against the Colts line. Jaylon Moore and Dan Brunskill had a couple of whiffs, but the 49ers line consistently generated good push on run plays and gave Garoppolo enough time when he dropped back. Brunskill, right tackle Mike McGlinchey, and offseason signing Alex Mack have received plenty of criticism this season, but they were one of the few bright spots on Sunday.
Defensive line: D+
The 49ers pass rush has struggled to rack up sacks all season but has generally caused some chaos in the pocket. On Sunday, though, the unit was unable to generate any consistent pressure against Indianapolis. Colts quarterback Carson Wentz quickly escaped on the few occasions they did, extending plays for downfield throws and even scampering for a huge first-down conversion. Perhaps the 49ers cornerbacks were getting beat so quickly that the line did not have time to get to Wentz, but a defense built around pass rushers did not generate much pass rush at all.
While everything else fell apart around them, Fred Warner and Azeez Al-Shaair were a fantastic duo in the middle of the Niners’ defense. The two starting linebackers combined for 11 tackles, three tackles for loss, and two fumble recoveries. Al-Shaair made several big plays and did not have any issues finishing tackles, something that has hampered him throughout his career. Warner also lived up to his All-Pro reputation in pass coverage and run defense.
Josh Norman forced two fumbles, including one turnover, and yet the group played poorly enough to earn an F. Norman was the most egregious in pass coverage. He committed multiple defensive pass interference penalties and got caught biting on play fakes several times, including on the Colts’ first touchdown of the game.
It seemed like the Colts’ offensive game plan was to throw the ball deep and dare the Niners corners to make a play. Wentz made a couple of downfield completions, but DPI flags were the bread-and-butter of the Colts’ offense. It worked time and time again.
Emmanuel Moseley continues to have flashes in coverage, recording four pass breakups while limiting Indy’s receptions when he was targetted, but his own struggles with DPI popped up. Perhaps he would be a passable starting corner opposite a difference-maker like Jason Verrett, but Moseley looks more like a good backup than a trustworthy starter.
K’Waun Williams was back from injury and was fine in the slot. Defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans was able to blow up some plays using Williams’ unique abilities in pursuit. Still, it’s never a good sign if the highlight of a secondary’s performance is what they did in the run game.
As for the performance of late-game sub Dre Kirkpatrick, who allowed the game-sealing touchdown, I will let For The Win’s Charles McDonald analyze that:
dre kirkpatrick is still in the league???— charles (redzone 6-0) mcdonald (@FourVerts) October 25, 2021
Much like with the receivers, it’s hard to evaluate safeties Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt because so much around them has gone wrong. While there was speculation that Tartt was benched for rookie Talanoa Hufanga after he missed a tackle on Colts running back Jonathan Taylor in the first half, Tartt actually suffered a knee injury and was in and out throughout the game.
Hufanga was the lone safety with a notable gaffe. The USC alum got caught on a pick play and was several yards behind running back Nyheim Hines, who had an open lane to the endzone. Hines dropped a perfectly placed ball from Wentz, but Hufanga easily could have surrendered a touchdown on the play.
Special teams: C+
The 49ers special team’s effort had one notable lowlight but otherwise played well.
The worst play, of course, came when Brandon Aiyuk let a punt bounce and realized after it had rolled several yards that his decision had cost the Niners some field position. So, trying to make up for his original mistake, he leaned down to pick up the ball and kicked it towards the endzone. He eventually picked up the ball and was tackled for a touchback. However, had he gained possession of the ball a yard sooner or not recovered in time, it could have easily been a safety or touchdown for Indianapolis.
Joey Slye missed his first extra-point attempt of the game, but he also knocked in both his field-goal tries, including a 56 yarder. Longsnapper Taybor Peppers had no issues on any snaps, even with the wet conditions. Mitch Wishnowsky blasted a 65-yard punt and continued his excellent start to the season. They even threw Samuel back to return kicks late, and he averaged 30 yards a return.