(CLICK HERE, if you are unable to view this photo gallery on your mobile device.)MINNEAPOLIS – The flash point to Jimmy Garoppolo’s first-ever loss as a starting quarterback wasn’t purely his fault, even if he requested a share of blame after the 49ers’ 24-16, season-opening defeat Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings.
Of Garoppolo’s career-high three interceptions, the first was most damaging, a gift that rookie Mike Hughes returned 28 yards for a touchdown and an insurmountable, 17-3 lead in the third quarter.
That play defined this defeat, more so than Alfred Morris’ fumble at the Vikings 1 or George Kittle’s down-field drop or any other 49ers’ miscue. And there were plenty, especially in the red zone.
That first interception came on a pass Garoppolo intended for Kendrick Bourne, a second-year wide receiver who admitted afterward how badly he botched the play.
“I actually ran the wrong route. I was just thinking of another play,” Bourne said. “Jimmy, his read was right and totally on. I was just off. I’ve got to be on top of that stuff. I should know that.”
But it wasn’t all Bourne’s fault, just as it wasn’t all Garoppolo’s, nor was it all on a short-staffed offensive line.
When that fateful play began, Garoppolo stood in the pocket as three Vikings pass rusher charged in hard from his right. The offensive line earlier had lost right guards Mike Person and his replacement, Joshua Garnett, to foot injuries, so top draft pick Mike McGlinchey shifted over from right tackle and yielded that spot to Garry Gilliam, the only lineman left on the bench.
“As the game goes on, you have to bring the pressure on him,” Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter said of Garoppolo. “You see that he’s starting to get scared.”
That’s a damning indictment. There’s more to the story.
“There was miscommunication in protections and in routes,” Shanahan said. “We had our lineup change right there, so the protection got messed up. We had a hot situation when we shouldn’t have been hot. So Jimmy got surprised from it, had to get rid of it, and had miscommunication with the route.”
Garoppolo, ever-willing to take a punishing hit, hung in there long enough to uncork a pass toward Bourne, who was in to give Pierre Garcon a breather. Bourne stutter-stepped and then slipped while attempting to cut inside too late. That allowed Hughes to make the interception, and as he coasted across the goal line, Garoppolo stood in disbelief.
Afterward, in a brief chat on the 49ers sideline, Garoppolo did not lash out at Bourne.
“What are you supposed to say at that point? It is what it is,” Garoppolo said. “It’s both our faults. Anytime you throw an interception it’s always on the quarterback.”
“It was kind of, ‘I owe him one.’ He wasn’t mad at me or nothing,” Bourne said. “He was cool, like, ‘You’ve got it. You’re good. Move on to the next play.’ “
On the ensuing plays, the 49ers tried to rally behind Garoppolo, just as they did last season in producing comeback wins over the Chicago Bears and Tennessee Titans. But …
“When you’re 1 of 4 in the red zone, when you lose the turnover battle 3-1, when you have some of those drops and missed plays, it’s very hard to beat a good team,” Shanahan said. “That’s why it was so frustrating. We blew a lot of opportunities that you can not do against a good team, especially on the road.”
Defensively, the 49ers had mixed results. DeForest Buckner had 2 1/2 sacks, rookie linebacker Fred Warner forced a fumble, Richard Sherman debuted well, but Kirk Cousins proved too effective in his Vikings debut (20-of-36, 244 yards, 2 touchdowns, 0 interceptions).
A precursor to the 49ers’ doom was Morris’ first-half fumble at the Vikings 1-yard line. As for Kittle’s drop, it came one snap before Hughes’ pick-six. Both players took accountability for their errors afterward.
Simply, Garoppolo (15 of 33, 261 yards, one touchdown) didn’t get enough help as he tried preserving what had been a 7-0 record as a starter, including his 5-0 December debut for the 49ers that garnered him a massive contract (five years, $137.5 million).
Although Garoppolo pulled the 49ers within 24-13 on a 22-yard touchdown pass to Dante Pettis, the Vikings came away with two interceptions in the fourth quarter, and Garoppolo acknowledged he got a bit reckless trying to force the final one over the middle.
“With all the things that went bad, we still had a shot at the end there,” Garoppolo said. “It’s a tough way to end it.”
RED ZONE WOES: The 49ers had the league’s sixth-worst red-zone offense a year ago, converting 47 percent of such drives into touchdowns. On Sunday, they were 1 of 4, having to settle for three Robbie Gould field goals after promising drives.
The 49ers were a yard away from their first touchdown of the season when Morris lost a fumble 2:18 before halftime, forced by nose tackle Linval Joseph. “It wasn’t like he did anything special,” Morris said. “It was me wanting more, and not locking the ball up.”
That ended a 14-play, 70-yard drive which started after linebacker Fred Warner forced a Vikings fumble, recovered by Richard Sherman. Morris had four carries once the 49ers reached the Vikings 5.
On the 49ers final red-zone drive, a third-and-goal pass sailed too high for George Kittle in the back of the end zone. “I can’t jump 40 inches at 250 (pounds). That’s hard for me,” Kittle said. “But no, it was a high ball. I wish I could have caught it.”
BUCKNER’S HELP: DeForest Buckner, who had three sacks all of last season, delivered 2 1/2 sacks and repeatedly pressured the pocket. Just as expected, the 49ers needed others to complement him, and that help did not exactly arrive.
“We played alright today,” Buckner said. “We have to clean up a lot of stuff on defense, especially tackling. … We have to stay more disciplined.”
Buckner’s first sack (of perhaps many) this season helped halt the Vikings opening series. He dropped Cousins for a 6-yard loss at the 49ers’ 40. A snap earlier, Buckner pushed the right guard into the pocket and just missed getting to Cousins on a third-down conversion.
Solomon Thomas had a quiet game, at least until he jumped offside on fourth-and-1 with 2:54 remaining. Arik Armstead’s greatest feat: not getting flagged after pushing Cousins to the turf on a third-down incompletion on the first series.
The 49ers pass rush figured to be woeful this season, and this game only reinforced that. Cassius Marsh and Ronald Blair couldn’t bring enough pressure from the edge, either.
But Shanahan liked what he saw overall, adding: “Our defense kept us in that game, gave us a chance to overcome mistakes we made earlier.”
CORNERBACK TALK: The Vikings converted on 7 of 17 third downs. The 49ers third-down defense got off to a rough start, and it cost them a touchdown for a 10-0 deficit. On third-and-3, Ahkello Witherspoon never turned to look for Kirk Cousins’ pass down the sideline as Stefon Diggs caught the 22-yard scoring strike in stride in the end zone 13:39 before halftime.
“You’ve got to put yourself in a better position,” cornerback Richard Sherman said. “But you need to move on and that’s what he did. He did great after that play.”
Sherman noted that the defense made “too many mental mistakes. Physically, Sherman said he “felt fine” returning from last season’s Achilles tear that ended his Seattle Sehawks tenure. Sherman gave up an early, 18-yard completion to Stefon Diggs but Sherman later made a nice pass defense 1:24 before halftime.
— 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo: 15-of-33 for 261 yards with one touchdown, a career-high three interceptions and three sacks with a 45.1 passer rating. He had two carries for 6 yards.
— Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins: 20-of-35 for 244 yards with two touchdowns, no interceptions and three sacks with a 95.1 passer rating. He had four carries for 26 yards.
— 49ers running back Alfred Morris: His fumble at the Vikings 1-yard line ruined a golden chance to tie the score at 10 before halftime. He finished with 12 carries for 38 yards.
— 49ers tight end George Kittle: He became Garoppolo’s go-to guy, and although he had 90 receiving yards, he caught 5 of 9 balls targeted to him. He dropped a potential 80-yard touchdown pass (he was at the Vikings 45 with no one else to beat) and he had a third-down pass sail off his fingertips in the end zone in the fourth quarter.
— 49ers linebacker Fred Warner: Not only did he force a fumble but he was a physical force in his debut and racked up 12 tackles. Said Shanahan: “It looked like he made plays, it looked like he tackled well. I didn’t see him mess up assignments. He didn’t hesitate. When he saw his gap, he shot it.”
— 49ers wide receiver Dante Pettis: He muffed his first career punt return but Ahkello Witherspoon recovered for the 49ers at their 18 in the third quarter. After nearly catching a 43-yard pass for a touchdown midway through the second quarter, Pettis provided shades of his Gold Glove centerfielder dad, Gary, with a toe-tapping 22-yard TD over-the-shoulder grab in the back of the end zone in the third quarter.
— Vikings running back Dalvin Cook: In his return from a 2017 knee injury, he had 16 carries for 40 yards and six receptions for 55 yards.