SANTA CLARA — Oh, another fourth-quarter lead that vanished, huh?
Just when you think the 49ers are going to hold a fourth-quarter lead, they become heroes for all those scouting their 2019 draft status. Well, congratulations, the 49ers (2-8) currently reside behind the Raiders in the No. 2 overall draft slot with six games to go — or, as we should say, six more chances at blowing fourth-quarter leads.
Monday night’s latest come-from-ahead defeat was a 27-23 meltdown to the New York Giants (who are in the No. 3 draft spot with their 2-7 record).
That’s enough draft talk. There’s still too much football to play and still too many jobs at stake for 2018 and beyond, as coach Kyle Shanahan reminded players in Tuesday’s meeting ahead of this week’s bye.
One job is undisputed: “Nick Mullens is our starter until I say differently,” Shanahan said.
Let’s examine what made Monday’s collapse similar to those C.J. Beathard quarterbacked in road losses to the Los Angeles Chargers, Green Bay Packers and Arizona Cardinals. Those came in Weeks 4, 6, 8 and, now comes this Week 10 flop:
1. Poor pass defense: Eli Manning entered the fourth quarter with 113 passing yards, then completed 7-of-12 for 75 yards and a last-minute touchdown. In the four losses with blown fourth-quarter leads, the 49ers have allowed opposing QBs to post a 107.4 passer rating (35 of 57, 420 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs with just two sacks).
Not only have there been no interceptions but also no forced fumbles in those fourth quarters. Compounding Monday’s misery were last-drive penalties on Malcolm Smith (holding on third-and-12) and Ahkello Witherspooon (pass interference for not looking for the ball).
Former first-round picks Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas did not play on the final defensive series, to which Shanahan said: “They didn’t have enough opportunities in nickel and I would have liked to seen them out more.” Each started and played 31 of 59 snaps.
Translated, neither Armstead nor Thomas rank among the 49ers’ four best pass rushers in their base defense. Instead, DeForest Buckner, the 49ers’ only reliable linemen, was flanked on that final series by a rotation of Ronald Blair, Cassius Marsh, Sheldon Day and Dekoda Watson.
Buckner and Watson shared the only sack, and while it came on a five-man pressure, Shanahan said the 49ers refrain from that tactic more because it leaves an already suspect secondary more vulnerable.
2. Lackluster offense: The 49ers settled for a go-ahead field goal with 2:46 to go and failed to score a touchdown altogether in the fourth quarter. They also had no touchdowns in the three aforementioned losses they blew late leads under C.J. Beathard. Mullens and Beathard combined for a 45.1 passer rating in the fourth quarter of those four defeats (18-of-34, 191 yards, two interceptions).
Mullens has moxie, he has the locker room’s support, he’s completing 70.5 percent of his passes (43-of-61, 512 yards, 4 TDs, 2 INTs, 0 sacks) and he has only two starts to be prematurely judged. His demeanor, plus an ability to race through progressions (see: his touchdown pass to Matt Breida) and avoid sacks (none in two starts), really impress Shanahan.
As for arm strength being a potential flaw, Shanahan noted: “John Elway’s got the arm strength to be late. If you’re not, you’ve got to be on time. Nick went to the right read on that … it was the right read, maybe just a hair late. When you’re a hair late, you’ve got to put a little bit more on it, which I think he could have. He didn’t.”
3. Third-down factor: Both the 49ers offense and defense regretted their final third-down plays Monday night. Offensively, Mullens settled for a 3-yard completion to Kendrick Bourne on third-and-6 from the 15 to force Robbie Gould’s 36-yard field goal at the 2:46 mark. Defensively, Smith’s holding penalty on Saquon Barkley coming out of the backfield (on third-and-12) resulted in an automatic first down at the 49ers’ 41.
The 49ers are 1-of-12 on third-down offensively while opponents are 9-of-16 in the fourth quarter en route to those four losses.
4. Injury issues: This is another common thread in those four collapses. At Los Angeles, the offense struggled after losing left tackle Joe Staley (knee), among others. At Green Bay, Greg Mabin allowed a touchdown in place of Jimmie Ward and the Packers eventually won on a walk-off field goal. At Arizona, third-string safety Tyvis Powell gave up a last-minute touchdown pass in place of Jaquiski Tartt and Antone Exum. And, against the Giants, D.J. Reed allowed a last-minute touchdown pass immediately upon replacing the injured K’Waun Williams (stinger).
“That’s part of the whole NFL: usually when someone gets hurt and someone comes in, it usually is a little bit of fall off,” Shanahan said.
All players are expected to be healthy when the 49ers resume practicing next week after the bye, including Williams, Reuben Foster, Jaquiski Tartt, Pierre Garcon and Marquise Goodwin, the latter of whom got cleared again Tuesday for potential concussion symptoms.
5. Accountability: Who’s to blame? Some will start at the top with Kyle Shanahan, mock how he came to the 49ers after a 28-3 collapse in the Super Bowl and has since lost six games with the 49ers when blowing fourth-quarter leads, including two last season.
Some — OK, many — want defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s job, so at least they can call blitzes, try new personnel and eliminate communication issues.
Some will target the players, be it a pass rusher that can’t get sacks, a cornerback that’s been repeatedly torched (see: Ahkello Witherspoon), a nowhere-to-be-found safety, or perhaps a quarterback that doesn’t have the closing ability.
Mullens took accountability, reflecting most on that final third-down pass to Bourne and saying: “I just feel like I could’ve been better, put the ball where it should’ve been. I didn’t, or I was late to it.
“But, yeah, it was just frustrating,” Mullens added. “In the NFL, Coach Shanahan always talks about the moments of truth. That is a moment of truth if you ever see one. I didn’t get the job done.”
Manning, by contrast, did, to which Giants coach Pat Shurmur said: “He hung in there, made some really good throws and got us in the end zone. That’s the mark of a quarterback.”