The 49ers escaped with a victory over the Cincinnati Bengals after a fourth-quarter surge by Cincinnati. According to FiveThirtyEight, San Francisco improves to 4-0 in Eastern Time Zone games, and head coach Kyle Shanahan’s playoff hopes improve to 76%.
We look at my five takeaways below.
Niners defense doesn’t bend in the first half, breaks late in the game
San Francisco’s defense has forced a three-and-out or turnover on opposing offensive drives to start the game in each of their last five games. DeMeco Ryans’ defense did not allow a touchdown in the first half (saved by a Ja’Marr Chase drop in the 2nd quarter).
Azeez Al-Shaair continued his breakout season with 11 tackles, including three tackles for loss and a sack in the first half. But, then, Al-Shaair exited the game, and the defense wasn’t the same after that:
When Azeez Al-Shaair was on the field, the 49ers defense allowed 4.6 yards per play on 40 plays.— KP (@KP_Show) December 13, 2021
Once he left with just over 2 minutes to play in the 3rd qtr, the defense allowed 8 yards per play on 25 plays. https://t.co/AXE7lyTOj8
The defense started to bend once San Francisco’s offense became stale in the second half and could not get in the endzone. The Niners had a six-play, one-yard drive after Cincinnati missed a field goal on their second possession after halftime. Joe Burrow extended the play on 4th and 5 to hit Chase on a 17-yard scramble drill touchdown on the next possession. Rookie safety Talanoa Hufanga was in coverage, but it’s almost impossible to guard a receiver on an improvised route.
In the fourth quarter, the Bengals tied the game, rookie cornerback Ambry Thomas got beat by Chase on a Sluggo route. Thomas was left in one-on-one coverage in Cover 3 and got beat by a dynamic player. I thought Thomas was OK Sunday, but he was saved by a Chase drop where he also got beat earlier in the game. Just something to monitor with Emmanuel Moseley still sidelined.
The most glaring stat from Sunday was Cincinnati's 92.9% Series Conversion Rate on drives that started with a pass. Burrow was able to slice up Ryans’ zone defense.
The offense is still bad on third down
Shanahan’s offense went 0-6 on third down in the first half. And 10 points came off drives where the Bengals muffed punts—reviving the offense from not being able to move the ball. The offense finished 5-15 on third down, and it reflects the struggles on first down.
Lack of creativity (Garoppolo limitations) on early downs limited San Francisco's offense against a respectable Bengals defense, limiting the Niners to zero explosive runs outside of Deebo Samuel’s touchdown. The running game needs a touch-up as Samuel has carried Shanahan’s rushing attack. In addition, Elijah Mitchell’s absence was felt.
Drives that started with a pass saw more success (73.7% success rate) versus the run (58.3% success rate), which proves my take of the offense would be on Garoppolo’s shoulders. Garoppolo will continue to have the weight on his shoulders with the running game in a rut. That means delivering regardless of the down and helping his offensive line out by avoiding sacks.
No touchdowns in the second half in back to back weeks
Struggles on third down arent going to lead to the endzone. It’s easy to say this team should easily put up 30 points per game, but inconsistencies continue to hold them back. The Niners have three respectable offenses left on their schedule. Leaving no room for struggles in the second half as these teams will continue to apply pressure.
San Francisco had two successful drives in the second half, and that was their first and last possessions. The second “successful” drive was ruined by a Robbie Gould miss but the offense was at least able to drive 50 yards to give Gould a chance to win the game.
Garoppolo getting sacked four times in the fourth quarter deserves a D grade by itself. The offensive line’s struggles, paired with Garoppolo’s inability to get rid of the ball in a muddy pocket killed drives. San Francisco can enter the playoffs as an offensive powerhouse if they avoid shooting themselves in the foot.
Yac Bros help carry the load
Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, and George Kittle continue to grow as key elements of the offense. In Sunday's game, Samuel had the longest run (27-yard touchdown) by any rusher. In addition, he has kept the running game afloat with his ability to make an impact from the backfield.
George Kittle became the first tight end in NFL history to have at least 150 yards receiving and one touchdown in back-to-back games. His 13 catches led all pass catchers, and his heroic effort on his touchdown grabbed earned his (6th) new career-high in touchdown receptions.
I was glad to see Aiyuk seal the game. Aiyuk has been used sporadically this year for different reasons. However, he has shown drastic improvement since Week 9. His almost touchdown catch in the third quarter was redeemed by his game-winning touchdown in overtime. Aiyuk’s diving effort was one of the biggest plays of the game.
Garoppolo shows up in overtime
Garoppolo had shaky moments during regulation, but his throw to Juan Jennings in overtime could be his best throw of the day. He put it where only Jennings could catch it and Jennings made a physical catch. The Niners receiving core has needed a physical jump ball-like receiver, and Jennings has filled that void nicely.
Garoppolo’s completion percentage (100%) on six straight throws is one of five stats that put an exclamation mark on the 49er's victory. When it mattered most, his delivery deserves respect, and San Francisco will need that level of play to finish the regular season strong. Decision-making is one of Garoppolo’s strong suits, and he proved that in overtime.
San Francisco’s play against the Bengals isn't sustainable for the foreseeable future. Every player in the NFL is playing for their livelihood, meaning the next four games will be the toughest of the season. The Atlanta Falcons have lost in horrible fashion, but they still have a chance of making the playoffs somehow.
After that, the Niners are scheduled for a primetime showdown against the Tennessee Titans, who have had an up and down season themselves. The Niners should come out of this four-game stretch 3-1. San Francisco needs the polished version of the offense to achieve that.