The 49ers were able to tough out a 22-16 win over the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday night at Levi’s Stadium. Both teams had 11 possessions each, but the 49ers ran 14 more plays and out -ned Los Angeles by 149 total yards. The Chargers fell into Kyle Shanahan’s trap of losing on both sides of the run game, with the 49ers out-rushing the Chargers 157-51 and resulting in a near 14-minute time of possession advantage for the 49ers, and that’s where the game was won.
The 49ers' defense held their opponents to a scoreless second half for the second week in a row, as the offense did just enough to squeak out the six-point victory. These are the winners and losers from Sunday night.
Winner: Elijah Mitchell
In his first game back from an injury he suffered in Week 1, Mitchell was the 49ers' most productive player on offense in terms of total yards. He finished with a team-high 19 touches (18 carries, one reception) for a team-high 88 yards (89 on the ground, minus one receiving). Mitchell was ultra-consistent the whole night, averaging 4.9 yards per carry with a long run of 12 yards, with only two of his runs resulting in negative yards. It came as a bit of a surprise that Mitchell led an offense that included McCaffrey and Deebo Samuel in touches in his return to the offense. However, his consistency made it an easy choice for Kyle Shanahan as the game continued.
Loser: Dre Greenlaw
Greenlaw’s return from injury was cut short after New York decided his second-quarter helmet-to-helmet hit on runner Justin Herbert was ejection-worthy. Herbert got loose on a third down late in the second quarter, and he was brought down by Jimmie Ward, Greenlaw’s helmet connected with Herbert’s head resulting in the flag. While the penalty was likely warranted, the ejection might have been excessive as Ward’s tackle is what changed the angle Greenlaw was hitting Herbert. Greenlaw finished with a team-high seven tackles, but his struggles in pass coverage, paired with the disqualification, made it a forgettable game for the linebacker.
Winner: Fred Warner
While Azeez Al-Shaair stepped up in Greenlaw’s absence, Warner’s game was easily the most impressive of the linebacking corps. He finished with seven total tackles (tied with Greenlaw) but had an all-around solid game with three pass deflections and was notable in the pass rush. Warner came up clutch in the second half, applying pressure on Herbert that forced a third-down incompletion and punt. Then late in the fourth quarter, Warner broke up a second down pass intended for Tre’ McKitty on a drive that resulted in a turnover on downs.
Winner: Mitch Wishnowsky and Samuel Womack
As the special teams once again struggled, Wishnowsky had a first half punt blocked while Robbie Gould missed his first PAT of the season, one of the biggest plays of the game came from the punt unit.
The 49ers were forced to punt on a fourth-and-5 with 2:11 left in the fourth quarter in Chargers territory, with the 49ers clinging to a three-point lead. Wishnowsky unleashed a punt from the 49ers' 45-yard-line that hung in the air for about 4.6 seconds (TV networks need to bring back the on-screen hang time stopwatch) that traveled approximately 46 yards in air bouncing at the Charger’s six-yard-line. Samuel Womack was waiting and downed the ball at the one, forcing the Chargers into a long field goal with 2:02 remaining in the game. The defense utilized the field position to its fullest, forcing a turnover on downs and giving the offense a goal-to-go situation. Should it have been called a touchback with Womack walking the ball backwards into the endzone? The NBC broadcast team seemed to think so but was not called on the field to the 49ers’ benefit.
Loser: Kyle Shanahan’s lack of fourth-down aggressiveness
Let’s keep in mind that the 49ers won Sunday night, and ultimately these fourth-down decisions didn’t hurt the team. The 49ers even converted on a fourth down in the third quarter with a Jimmy Garoppolo sneak. The conversion was only the third of the season for the offense, and removed themselves from the last-place tie for the fewest fourth-down conversions.
However, that was just one of the few situations where Shanahan could have attempted a fourth-down conversion. The Chargers' offense opened the game with a touchdown-scoring drive, but the 49ers responded with a first drive that got the offense down to the Chargers' 2-yard-line. Instead of trusting one of the many weapons at his disposal in the offense, Shanahan opted for a 20-yard field goal from Gould to cut the Chargers' early lead to four.
The 49ers then had three second-half drives that saw the offense get to the Chargers' 8-, 41-, and 2-yard-line with the former two resulting in another Gould field goal in a goal-to-go situation and the Wishnowsky punt mentioned above on fourth-and-5. The last of the three drives saw the offense start at the Chargers' 8-yard-line, holding onto a three-point lead with 1:17 remaining in the game.
The 49ers ran the ball three times, getting down the 2-yard-line with the Chargers burning all three of their timeouts. Shanahan again opted to take the short field goal, extending the 49ers' lead to six and putting the Chargers in a touchdown-or-bust situation. This decision also followed an interesting third-down play call that had Mitchell run the ball out of the shotgun that lost a yard. Again instead of trusting one of many options on offense, this time to put the game away, Shanahan went the conservative route with the chip shot field goal.
At some point, it would be a pleasant change to see Shanahan get aggressive in these fourth-and-short situations. The offense has shown it can convert on the late downs and is in the top ten of the league on third-down conversions while also being in the bottom ten-team in terms of fourth-down attempts. It still hasn’t been something that has hurt the 49ers and didn’t on Sunday night, but it’s a concerning Shanahan trend.
Winner: 49ers defensive line
On Sunday night, the defensive line may have been the best unit for the 49ers. The front four played a huge part in holding the Chargers' rushing attack to just 51 yards on 16 attempts, with Austin Ekeler finishing with only 24 yards on six attempts. Ekeler’s six rushes resulted in gains of 0, 5, 2, 3, 12, and 2 yards, essentially turning the Chargers leading rusher into a non-factor.
For as good as the line was against the run, the pass rush was just as good, if not better. Nick Bosa led the way for the pass rush with a sack and four quarterback hits, with Jordan Willis and Charles Omenihu each recording sacks of their own. Even rookie Drake Jackson chipped in, batting a Herbert second-quarter pass down at the line. Herbert was never able to get too comfortable in the pocket, resulting in a season-low 196 yards.