In the NFL, you have to learn to win ugly. In the NFL, you also have to put teams away. San Francisco failed to do the latter but managed to pull off the former against the Bengals Sunday.
Cincinnati lost two muffed punts. They should have never had a chance to be in the game. San Francisco faces a couple of inferior opponents in their final four games. As a team, they’ll need to learn how to start putting teams away if they want to make noise in the playoffs.
The 49ers received “A” games from their “A” players. At the most critical moments, their stars stepped up. When that happens, this team is tough to beat. But, unfortunately, there was too much stagnant offense and sloppy play outside of that. So let’s look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s game.
Winner - George Kittle
Kittle was not on the field on the first third down of the game. That would be the last time that happened. Kittle had a superstar performance with 13 receptions for 151 yards and a touchdown.
On the surface, those sound like spectacular numbers. Kittle had to contort his body, go outside his frame, and make several difficult catches look routine. You know you’re a playmaker when everyone in the stadium knows you’re getting the ball, and you still come through.
Deebo Samuel “only” played 77% of the snaps after missing a week with a groin strain. That added more pressure on the other offensive stars. As Brandon Aiyuk said after the game about Kittle, “man, that is a different dude.”
The 49ers don’t win this game without Kittle’s performance. He helped spring Samuel on his touchdown run. Kittle impacts the game without touching the ball. His value since returning from injury cannot be understated.
Bosa had another ho-hum ten pressure day. He lives in the backfield every game, and Sunday was no different. Bosa is an All-Pro because of when he makes plays. His first pressure of the game forced Joe Burrow to flee the pocket and run out of bounds short of the first down marker.
He would have had three sacks had it not been for a rookie mistake at cornerback. Bosa opened up the Bengals game-tying drive with a sack. His final sack came on a Bengals 3rd & 3 that made them settle for a field goal.
There are several other plays Bosa makes during the game that we can’t quantify. However, Bosa is among the best edge rushers in the NFL already, and this is his second full season of playing professionally. What’s even more impressive is he’s off a season-ending knee injury.
The 49ers wasted no time getting Deebo involved as they handed him the ball as a running back on the game's second offensive play. I wonder how much of the 49ers having a significant lead in the second half played a factor in a relatively low targeted/carry game. During the first half, Samuel was much more involved.
Deebo’s speed around the corner will always impress. However, few players provide the luxury of knowing you can hand it off to them on 2nd & 8 and the probability of them turning it into a big play is a coin flip.
On Samuel’s 22 yard-reception to open the third quarter, he comes back to the ball not only to protect himself but to ensure the defender can’t make a play on the pass. Samuel can do it all. The 49ers hit the jackpot with Deebo.
Losers - Daniel Brunskill/Tom Compton
When you talk about the 49ers dropback passing game, there’s plenty of discussion about whether Kyle Shanahan trusts his quarterback. Against the Bengals, the duo of Daniel Brunskill and Tom Compton were put through the wringer.
It was a surprise if a play went by where one of the two didn’t make a mistake. Brunskill allowed five pressures and a sack. Compton was beaten twice, including a sack and a quarterback hit.
Every offensive lineman gets beaten. The Bengals entered the game with one of the best edge rush duos in Sam Hubbard and Trey Hendrickson. Those two have made plays all season, and that wasn’t going to change Sunday.
It’s how Brunskill and Compton are giving up pressure. They were stomach to stomach on one play after Cincinnati ran a twist with their defensive line. The goal is to block the opposition, not your teammate.
They are both athletic enough to make plays on the perimeter and assist in the 49ers running game, but throwing the ball when the right side of your offensive line struggles with elementary twists or any competent pass rusher lowers the ceiling on this offense.
Robbie Gould/Mitch Wishnowsky
Wishnowsky had seven punts that averaged 41 yards. That would be the seventh-worst average in the NFL. I’m not giving Wishnowsky credit for the Bengals failing to catch his punts. I am blaming him for a 29-yard punt that gave the Bengals the ball at their 34-yard line in the fourth quarter down a touchdown. Sure enough, that field position led to a game-tying score.
On the final drive of regulation, the 49ers converted a 2nd & 10 and a 3rd & 10. They moved the ball to the 29-yard line. The game is over if Gould hits the 47-yarder. The reason you extend and pay Gould is to hit these kicks.
These are the same kicks that you should be able to take your headset off if you’re coaching, walk to the fridge if you’re at home because the kick should be automatic. Unfortunately, it’s been everything but automatic for Gould this season.
The kicking situation for the 49ers continues to haunt them. It didn’t cost them against the Bengals, but that doesn’t mean the issues don’t exist.
Rookie defensive backs
Ambry Thomas faced two top-20ish wide receivers in his first career start. Sunday’s result was always going to happen. He was thrown into the fire without much choice or enough time to prepare. DeMeco Ryans did everything he could to hide his cornerbacks Sunday.
Eventually, you have to close the middle of the field. Once that happens, your cornerbacks have to hold up on the outside. Thomas, and Talanoa Hufanaga, hardly put up a fight against Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. Those two had 191 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
Both Hufanga and Thomas gave up the touchdowns. Thomas had errors that were almost equally as bad as giving up a touchdown. He had two illegal hands to the face penalties that wiped out a Bosa sack and a Jimmie Ward interception that would have given the 49ers the ball, at the very worst, at midfield.
Thomas played a bad game, and Hufanga looks lost in coverage the further away he is from the line of scrimmage. I’m not going to talk down too much on the rookie defensive backs. Joe Burrow was lights out and gave his stud wideouts a chance to make a play.
The rotation at safety seems to happen at the worst possible time. Perhaps, don’t take Jaquiski Tartt out of the game? As for Thomas, you’re hoping for growth if he gets another opportunity.
Winner - Brandon Aiyuk
Aiyuk feels like a player that’s knocking on the door of stardom. He caught six of his 11 targets for 62 yards. Even if they aren’t turning into big plays, I like the idea of giving him the ball on screens and throws near the line of scrimmage. Those can be viewed as an extension of the running game.
Aiyuk couldn’t get a second limb in bounds on a money pass from Garoppolo on a 2nd & goal play where the 49ers had to settle for three points. Those are the plays — like last week when he couldn’t hold on after a big hit — that are preventing me from putting Aiyuk in the Deebo/Kittle tier.
But then you give him the ball on the final play of the game, and Airyuk jumps from just outside of the four-yard line and manages to somehow score. After the game, Aiyuk said, “They say you’re not supposed to reach the ball out, but nobody said anything because I scored.”
IDKs - Jimmy Garoppolo
The 49ers punted on three straight drives to begin the second half. Their two touchdowns in the first half were thanks to turnovers from the Bengals. Shanahan seems terrified of letting or trusting Jimmy G to throw the ball down the field. He had a brutal sack-fumble that ended a drive.
Then, of course, that near interception at the end of the game. But, before that, Garoppolo missed Kyle Juszczyk wide open in the end zone that would’ve iced the game.
Every week, the only thing that changes for Garoppolo is whether the defender catches the ball. They didn’t catch it this week, so the team was fortunate for another opportunity. Garoppolo gave Kittle and Aiyuk chances and also added a perfect back-shoulder throw to Jauan Jennings late in the game.
Inconsistent Jimmy is here to stay. He did come up limping after the dropped interception. Kyle Shanahan speaks Monday afternoon at 4:30 p.m. PT. We’ll see if Garoppolo is limited in practice or if anything pops up. He finished the game, likely on adrenaline. Garoppolo’s best throw of the game came when he threaded the needle to Kittle to convert a third down, setting up Aiyuk’s score.