On Sunday, the 49ers lost the defining game of the Kyle Shanahan/John Lynch era. All the worst elements of the last four and half seasons reared their ugly head on Sunday as the 49ers were boat raced by Colt McCoy-led Cardinals and missing several key starters, including Kyler Murray, DeAndre Hopkins, and J.J. Watt by a score of 31-17.
Those elements: the turnovers on offense, the lack of turnovers on defense, defensive players out of position, the injury-riddled roster made worse by more critical injuries, and a bad quarterback situation that everyone but the head coach acknowledges needs to change all contributed to perhaps the most embarrassing loss of the Shanahan/Lynch era.
The 49ers committed three turnovers, two fumbles, and a late-game interception. They were somehow unable to corral a fumble on defense that was encircled by four 49ers defenders at one point before somehow a Cardinals offensive player recovered it. The team lost right tackle Mike McGlinchey for the rest of the season, depleting an offensive line that lacks any viable depth.
On defense, the team played its worst game of the season and was frequently out of position on several big plays. On offense, outside of the fumbles that likely took points off the board, matters were made worse by a starting quarterback who, off one of the best games of his career in week eight in Chicago, reverted into his authentic self as he missed reads and open throws, walked into many sacks and left yards on the field.
Garoppolo was not the reason they lost, but he didn’t help
The box score says Garoppolo had a good game. Pro Football Focus graded Jimmy G as the highest-graded quarterback for the last two weeks. He was 28/40, 326 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception while boasting a passer rating of 100.6.
The film, however, tells a different tale. In my personal opinion, he was not the reason they lost. But when the starting quarterback makes the mistakes shown below, it’s not easy to score points and win.
Analyzing Garoppolo’s sacks
Garoppolo was sacked five times. At least four of them are credited to the quarterback.
His first sack of the game came on the game’s first drive. In a 3rd-and-10 situation, the 49ers motion from 3x1 to 2x2 against the Cardinals Cover-1 hole defense. Garoppolo takes a quick three-step drop in shotgun, looking to his left for Aiyuk on the whip route. This is a quick passing game concept, and Garoppolo needed to be throwing as he hit the top of his drop.
He tried to reset for a throw to Kittle over the middle but ended up on the turf. The situation was 3rd-and-10, but he has to understand that he needs to get the ball into the playmakers' hands.
On this sack late in the second half, Garoppolo does not pull the trigger to the wide-open receiver on the shallow crosser. To the offense’s left, the 49ers are running a basic pick play to get fullback Kyle Juszczyk open for a short catch and run. Jimmy drops back and stares at it but, for some reason, does not commit to throwing the pass.
He resets and looks for Brandon Aiyuk, where he might have had a throw but ultimately decided not to let it rip there either. Instead, he eats the sack when he should’ve gone with his first instinct and thrown it to Juszczyk. The sack ultimately ended up not mattering since the offense scored a few plays later.
Later in the game, Garoppolo seemed to make the correct pre-snap decision to work the left three-receiver side in a 3x2 formation in the low red zone.
To his left, Garoppolo has George Kittle running under what appears to be a sort of natural rub created by the routes of Deebo Samuel and Elijah Mitchell. To the left, the offense has the advantage in a 3-on-3 situation, a series of 1-on-1’s with the defense. To the right, he has a 3-over-2 less advantageous look as the defense is plus-one to that side.
He drops back and impatiently leaves the read to the left to look for a receiver open on the right, but since it’s 3-over-2, there’s nothing available due to the brackets over the receivers. At this, there’s nothing else to do except take the sack. So instead of being patient with Kittle and hanging in for a beat longer, he hastily moved off the read and took a sack.
Right tackle Tom Compton gives up the sack working against Markus Golden, but in that situation, his right tackle wouldn’t have given up the sack if he had pulled the trigger to Kittle.
On his fifth sack of the game (fourth that was his fault), Garoppolo again showed a lack of anticipation, and that had he thrown as the receiver was about to uncover, he would’ve gone for a first down on a drive that they needed points on.
The offense has receiver Trent Sherfield over to the right running a spot route to occupy the curl/flat defender and Deebo running a 10-yard dig route over the top of that curl/flat defender. Reading it out again, Garoppolo should have let the pass fly as Deebo was breaking his route off inside.
The end zone view shows a better angle of where that curl/flat defender is, and he wouldn’t have been in a position had Garoppolo led Deebo over the middle. He doesn’t throw it and instead takes the sack.
On plays where he didn’t take a sack, he still showed a lack of awareness for finding the open receiver and making incorrect reads. On the game’s first pass play for the 49ers offense, the 49ers have a three-man concept to the left with Aiyuk, Kittle, and Juszczyk, with Juszczyk running underneath the dig by Aiyuk and the deep crosser by Kittle.
Garoppolo should know that the route distribution is unfavorable to a throw to Kittle on the deep crosser. The seam defender has it bracketed with the free safety.
The flat defender commits to the route by Juszczyk, and it’s at this point that Garoppolo should let it fly to Aiyuk on the dig route. There was no reason not to throw this pass, but he was not prepared for the throw because he predetermined his choice pre-snap.
On 3rd-and-10 later in the first quarter, Shanahan called up a staple pass play and one they’ve used to convert third downs with relative ease so far this season: “double swirl.” On double swirl, the outside receivers run corner-stop routes, and the inside receiver to the two receiver side runs a 10-yard dig over the middle.
The play highlights poor processing pre-snap by Garoppolo. The defense has 3-over-2 to the right side, and 3-over-3 to the left side, just like in the sack above. Garoppolo chooses to work the 3-over-2 side to the right and ends up just sailing the pass out of bounds instead of giving himself a shot to the left.
Had he chosen the left side first, he might have converted on a throw to Aiyuk. Even if he left the progression to the right and came back to the left, I think there was still time to throw the swirl route to Aiyuk. On 3rd-and-10, he has to take that chance.
Later in the third, we get a missed read on a staple play in the Shanahan offense: play-action dagger. Dagger is a deep dig by the number one receiver on the outside (Aiyuk) and a deep crosser by the slot receiver inside (Sanu). The deep crosser is the first read and gets wide open with nothing but grass around him.
The defense is influenced by the jet motion, which holds the corner, and the play-action fake prevents the weak hook defender backside from defending and dropping under the crosser from the backside. There is no reason not to throw to Sanu here, but he simply moves off of the read too fast and has to check it down as a result because the number two in the progression is not open.
It’s getting closer to that time when Lance will be named the starter for good. That needs to happen sooner than it is, though. Shanahan appears to be holding onto hope that this team can make a last-ditch playoff push to be a wildcard since it seems they would only need to win eight or nine games at this rate. I do not think this team is going to make it, though. It’s past time for the quarterback switch.
Out of position defense give up big plays
On the other side of the ball, the defense was plagued by an inability to stop an offense missing its star quarterback and star wide receiver as well as some key pieces on the offensive line. Kliff Kingsbury did a stellar job scheming against and taking advantage of a defense missing several players and causing confusion with their defensive rules.
The Cardinals line up in a 3x1 trips formation on 3rd-and-18 late in the first quarter here and look to be running a flood concept into the boundary with a clear-out route and two out routes to the sideline at various depths. The 49ers are in quarters coverage defending the line to gain, and all eyes go to the trips at the snap, including from the backside safety and corner as they anticipate rallying to the opposite side.
The running back leaks out on a shallow check down, and McCoy hits him on the dump-off. It’s not clear if the trips was just a dummy call, but it’s conceivable, and the route distribution did its job clearing the defense away from the single receiver side and opening the field for the running back.
All James Conner has to do is beat Aziz Al-Shaair, and he’s off to the races. Al-Shaair has been having a great season filling in for Dre Greenlaw. In this game, he did not play well. Another play illustrates this.
The Cardinals are running a duo run-pass option here to the left, which looks like inside zone, but on the double team blocks, the blockers never scoop block to the next defender and instead stick on their defenders. Warner should fill the backside A-gap but is held by the bubble RPO action.
Al-Shaair should fill the run side B-gap with Talanoa Hufanga coming down to fit the run. But Al-Shaair jumps inside and takes himself out of a 1-on-1 situation he would normally win. Benjamin Eno scoots for six.
On another drive, McCoy completed a 50-yard deep pass down the middle of the field from deep in his own territory when he saw Christian Kirk streaking open against Hufanga in coverage. This was McCoy’s longest pass of the day, and it didn’t even vault into the top quarterbacks for the week in completed air yards or intended air yards. Per the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, McCoy finished second to last in both categories. It didn’t matter here.
The Cardinals motion to a 3x1 and are running an all-go concept with options to cut the route off by the offense, an air raid offense staple. Kirk is running the bender vertical as the new number three after the motion, and Hufanga, as the backside safety, is responsible for number three up and across the field with no vertical threat from his side.
Hufanga should be gaining depth but is caught flat-footed and barely moves as Kirk races past him. At the point Kirk crosses the 20-yard line, it’s over for Hufanga, and he can’t recover as Kirk runs past, and McCoy drops the pass into Kirk in stride.
The season doesn’t get any easier with the Rams coming up on Monday Night Football, then cool off a bit with Jacksonville and Minnesota on the schedule right after. I suspect the team still thinks they have a shot at a potentially eight or nine-win season and can squeak into the seven-seed, which would explain a lot of the current decision-making. But I think the seven seed is giving them false hope.
At some point, the decision has to be made to bench Jimmy, and they are well past that the time when that should’ve happened, but there are plenty of games to do it coming up and get him the experience he needs to head into next season as the franchise quarterback.