The San Francisco 49ers kept their playoff hopes alive on Sunday, pulling out a 23-7 win over the Houston Texans. Things got off to an ugly start against the 4-11 Texans, trailing 7-3 at the half. However, the Niners bounced back, scoring 23 unanswered points, and finished their ninth victory of the season.
Here are the 49ers position-by-position grades from the win:
In his second-career start, Trey Lance flashed the volatility that most expected. He made a bad decision on his interception in the first quarter and missed some easy completions with inaccurate throws. However, he also made several impressive downfield throws to George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk, and a game-sealing touchdown to Deebo Samuel.
Lance’s second half was much better than his first, but I’m not convinced Shanahan opening up the playbook for him to push the ball was not responsible for that transformation. Lance was also inaccurate at times in the second half, but Shanahan gave him the big-play opportunities to make up for it.
In the short sample we have seen, Lance has missed the layups more often than Jimmy Garoppolo, but in my opinion, he’s generated enough big plays to make up for that. It might be a different conversation if Garoppolo was akin to Alex Smith in his ability to avoid turnovers, but he’s not. Whether or not Garoppolo is healthy in Week 18, I hope Shanahan gives Lance an opportunity to build off his second-career start.
It wasn’t perfect by any means but uhhh I mean, cmon pic.twitter.com/KhOjvOEhCu— Rich (@richjmadrid) January 3, 2022
Runnings backs: A-
Things started slowly for the 49ers on the ground, but with Elijah Mitchell back in the fold, the 49ers eventually found room to operate. Mitchell set the franchise’s all-time rookie rushing record and amassed 119 rushing yards on 21 carries. Given the number of injuries Mitchell is dealing with, it remains surprising to see the Niners forego utilizing a backup back other than Deebo Samuel, but Ja’Mycal Hasty, Jeff Wilson Jr, and Trey Sermon all did not receive a carry.
Tight ends: B
Whether it’s a side-effect of adjusted playcalling for Lance, strong chemistry with Garoppolo or a bit of both, but tight end George Kittle was not a notable part of the 49ers’ attack. Of course, Kittle was out when Lance made his first career NFL start earlier this year, which might explain it a bit. Still, Kittle’s only reception was a huge 29-yard completion on third-and-12 in the fourth quarter.
Wide receivers: B
Brandon Aiyuk was the 49ers' most dynamic threat early, hauling in a downfield pass for 27 yards on their field goal drive at the end of the first half and then taking a great throw from Lance over the middle for 43 yards early in the third quarter. Aiyuk finished with four receptions for 94 receiving yards, and he probably would have eclipsed 100 yards had the Texans had any offensive success in the second half.
One of Lance’s biggest mistakes was on a third down in the fourth quarter, when he underthrew a wide-open Jauan Jennings on the sideline. Jennings made a fantastic catch despite the bad throw and converted the first down. Lance delivered a deep bomb to Deebo Samuel on the next play for the game-clinching touchdown.
Offensive line: B
The 49ers' offensive line has a very different task with Lance, who holds the ball awhile but can also evade defenders inside and outside the pocket, then with the quick-throwing Garoppolo. They handled Lance’s second start better than his first, but there were still some costly missed assignments in pass blocking, especially on the right side of their line.
Defensive line: A-
The 49ers' defensive line took some time to get going, but they finally began turning their pressures into sacks in the second half. Arden Key, Samson Ebukam, Arik Armstead, and Jordan Willis all recorded a sack, but Nick Bosa generated his fair share of pressures as well.
Fred Warner was playing at an All-Pro level this week. He was flying all over the field and racked up 15 tackles (one for loss), but he was far from the only Niners linebacker making big plays. Converted safety Marcell Harris recorded 10 tackles on top of his game-changing interception. Of course, we all know that Harris fumbled on the interception return, but the 49ers benefitted from a lucky break when the referees decided his forward progress had been stopped.
Sunday’s victory was quietly the best performance from the 49ers’ rookie class. Despite good positioning, Ambry Thomas once again allowed a deep completion, but that was his lone failure in deep coverage. In fact, he broke up a pass in the first half that easily could have resulted in a pick-six. Thomas was clearly the 49ers’ best corner on Sunday, which is not saying much but is still a sign of his improvement. Josh Norman was benched for Dontae Johnson after another defensive pass interference penalty, and we’ll see if Norman stays on the bench going forward.
Jaquiski Tartt and Jimmie Ward had another solid, well-rounded performance. They each recorded four tackles but continued making their impact beyond the standard box score. Tartt had an early highlight containing a Texans run on a third-and-short, and it was the perfect example of how the 49ers’ safeties make their impact. Tartt did not record the tackle, but his disciplined play forced the Texans running back to cut back towards their other defenders.
Special teams: B+
Punter Mitch Wishnowsky still had a weirdly short punt but also blasted another 52 yards. Robbie Gould made all his attempts. Aiyuk and Travis Benjamin had 10+ yard punt returns in the return game. The only shaky moment came on a kickoff return when Houston kicked it short, and JaMycal Hasty fielded the ball off a bounce and failed to reach the 49ers' 20.