The 49ers are above .500 for the second time this season after defeating the Chargers 22-16 on Sunday Night Football. Despite an excellent start by Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert, the Niners' defense locked in and lived up to their elite reputation. The 49ers' offense consistently moved the ball but struggled in the red zone. Still, they did enough to escape with a victory.
Here are the position-by-position grades for the Niners' performance:
Any game where Jimmy Garoppolo doesn’t fumble or hit a defender in the hands with a throw is usually a good one. Garoppolo showed a greater willingness to throw the ball away than I can remember. Perhaps that was an emphasis over the bye week.
Garoppolo occasionally had some happy feet in the pocket and some unusual inaccuracies, but that’s nitpicking one of the best all-around performances of his career. He made multiple impressive sideline throws and had a touchdown dropped by Brandon Aiyuk.
Running backs: B+
Christian McCaffrey and Elijah Mitchell showed off the potential of the 49ers' two-headed monster in the backfield. While the Chargers did an excellent job containing McCaffrey, limiting him to just 2.7 yards per carry on 14 attempts, he hauled in four of his six targets as a receiver for 39 yards. Moreover, Mitchell recorded 89 rushing yards on 18 carries (4.9 per attempt).
Tight ends: C-
George Kittle caught one pass on a third-and-long for 21 yards but was otherwise invisible in the 49ers' passing game. The Niners' tight ends do a lot as blockers, but on a day when Deebo Samuel accrued more yards rushing than receiving, they need to be able to do more as receivers.
Wide receivers: B-
Aiyuk made a pair of great full-extension catches in the first quarter, but the second one ended in a fumble with a great hit by Derwin James. It was an amazing defensive play, but Aiyuk needs to hold onto the ball. Aiyuk finished the night with a team-high six receptions for 84 receiving yards, but his only incomplete target was a dropped pass in the endzone.
Deebo Samuel averaged nearly seven yards per carry as a runner but only caught two of his six targets for 24 receiving yards. It’s becoming a mildly concerning trend how often he is fading to the background as a receiver.
With that said, Jauan Jennings stepped up to take on some of that volume, making four receptions for 40 yards. Ray-Ray McCloud also had a 33-yard reception on a broken play.
Offensive line: B-
The 49ers' offensive line was relatively unexceptional, given the depleted state of the Chargers' defensive line. However, they allowed just one sack and rarely let Garoppolo face heavy pressure.
Defensive line: A+
Even when the Chargers could move the ball early, the 49ers' defensive line was delivering. Nearly everyone got in on the action. Kerry Hyder made a great play chasing down Austin Ekeler on a screen, Nick Bosa caught Herbert from behind for a sack and added three tackles for loss, Charles Omenihu had a sack and tipped Herbert’s arm on the game-sealing interception, Jordan Willis got a sack of his own, and Drake Jackson deflected a screen pass.
Fred Warner was a menace as always, racking up seven tackles and three passes defended. Dre Greenlaw racked up seven tackles before his ejection, but it was a rough overall game for him. He blew multiple coverages in the first quarter, leading to one third-down conversion and a touchdown that would have been if not for a drop by Tre McKitty. While Greenlaw caught bad luck with the ejection, it was an obvious personal foul, something that has plagued him this season. Azeez Al-Shaair recorded three tackles in his absence.
Deommodore Lenoir committed one costly defensive pass interference penalty, and Jimmie Ward was torched for a big play early in the game, but as with the rest of the defense, the secondary’s play improved as the game went on. Mooney Ward was exceptional at blanketing the Chargers' pass catchers and managed to record one pass defended despite rarely being targeted.
Talanoa Hufanga had a huge gaffe in coverage that gave Los Angeles an easy touchdown after he got caught biting on a play-action fake. However, Hufanga showed off incredible ball skills to haul in the game-sealing interception with the game on the line. Tashaun Gipson had another well-rounded performance.
Special teams: D
Mitch Wishnowky may have pinned the Chargers at their one on his final punt of the game, but that’s far from enough to overcome a blocked punt, a punt that he pulled out of bounds at the 30, and a missed extra point by Robbie Gould. While Gould made all three of his field goals, his longest attempt was from just 26 yards.