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Evaluating Kyle Shanahan’s playcalling on the 49ers 2nd-to-last drive

The 49ers punted the football after taking just 16 seconds off the clock.

The San Francisco 49ers suffered a disappointing 19-17 loss to the Cleveland Browns over the weekend, dropping to 5-1 on the season in a game that slipped away for the former.

Offensively, the 49ers faced a tough challenge with the Browns’ defense, while quarterback Brock Purdy struggled in his worst game of the season, but San Francisco still had a chance to win going into the final minutes of the fourth quarter.

However, the Browns were able to score a go-ahead field goal with under two minutes left, while 49ers kicker Jake Moody missed wide on a 41-yard game-winning attempt to keep the final score at 19-17.

While the missed field goal at the end of the game was certainly a brutal mistake from Moody, there were several questionable decisions by the 49ers at the end of the game, including head coach Kyle Shanahan’s playcalling on San Francisco’s second-to-last drive.

The circumstances

Despite playing a poor game offensively for a majority of the afternoon, the 49ers held a 17-16 lead with 3:21 remaining in the fourth quarter, while the Browns had two timeouts.

Naturally, given San Francisco’s struggles in throwing the football, as well as Jordan Mason’s power, it would make sense for the 49ers to run down the clock, looking to gain a first down and burn Cleveland’s timeouts.

Instead, San Francisco dropped back on first down, and the Browns’ pressure forced an intentional grounding penalty from Brock Purdy, who couldn't get the pass back to the line of scrimmage.

As a result, the 49ers were dealt with a 2nd & 21 at their own 14-yard line with the clock stopped.

Determined to get a first down, the 49ers dropped back on each of the next two plays, with Purdy completing a pass to Aiyuk on second down, although the receiver was forced out of bounds, and the quarterback throwing an incompletion on third down.

With the clock stoppages due to the penalty, going out of bounds on the completion, and the third-down incompletion, the 49ers were forced to punt, taking just 16 seconds off the clock.

Now, the 49ers did not lose the game because of the playcalling on this drive, but the decision to drop back three consecutive times, specifically on first down, was questionable, given the way San Francisco had struggled in the air all afternoon.

Kyle Shanahan’s take

Following the game, head coach Kyle Shanahan looked to justify his decision, acknowledging that throwing three times in that situation was not ideal.

“Well, you don’t plan on throwing it three times in a row. You don’t plan on getting intentional grounding on the first one,” Shanahan said.

However, with over three minutes left and the lead being just one point, Shanahan didn't think as much about clock management, as it would only come into play if the 49ers got a first down.

“I’m not really worried about time when you have a one-point lead and three-something left, Shanahan shared. “If you get a first down and everything, then time can become a factor. But regardless of the timeouts in the game you know you’re going to throw it one of those downs so you’re not thinking totally about the clock. Yeah, you’d love to stay in bounds and love to do all that, but the clock’s not going to matter until you get a first down.”

Instead, Shanahan felt the mistake came from the play design on first down, as the running back’s positioning covered the hot route, leading to the issues that transpired.

“Everything’s about trying to get a first down and they were blitzing us and stuff and we thought we’d have a really quick pass to [WR Brandon] Aiyuk on the first-and-10, which is exactly what we got. We just made a mistake in where we sent our back, which made Aiyuk covered on a hot, unblocked throw, which put Brock in a bad position where he had to just get rid of it. So we made a mistake on that play and then that’s why we got intentional grounding.”

Then, backed up deep on second down, the mindset remained with looking to get a first down, as there was ample time left on the clock.

“And when you’re in second-and-20 and there’s three minutes left, I’m not thinking of running out the clock,” Shanahan said. “I’m thinking about trying to get a first down. We thought that the best way was with a quick pass to Aiyuk, which we did. It got us back in a competitive, at least down where we had a chance on third down, but we didn’t get it.”

The 49ers ultimately punted it there, hoping for a stop defensively, which didn't occur, as the Browns were able to get a field goal.

However, San Francisco did have enough time on the clock, which provided them the opportunity for a game-winning drive.

Overall, it was a day where bad was piled onto bad, leading to the number of mistakes for the 49ers that ultimately cost them the game.

Now, the 49ers will look to avenge their first loss with a victory over the Minnesota Vikings on Monday Night Football.