The 49ers have become known as one of the NFL’s best rushing teams under coach Kyle Shanahan.They were the NFL’s second-ranked rushing team when they went to the Super Bowl in 2019, allowing them to play a complementary style by controlling the clock and strangling offenses with their ferocious pass rush and sticky coverage.
This year’s team is very different.
That was evident during Sunday night’s last-second loss to the Green Bay Packers, 30-28, as San Francisco welcomed fans inside Levi’s Stadium for the first time since the same two teams squared off in the NFC Championship game in January 2020. Raheem Mostert had 220 rushing yards and four touchdowns in a historic performance that sent the home team to the Super Bowl.
The 49ers this time managed just 67 rushing yards against a much different Packers defense. Sure, they were without Mostert and his top backup, Elijah Mitchell, who entered the weekend doubtful to play with a shoulder injury.
But they were unable to get much going with third-round pick Trey Sermon, whom the team traded up for in the draft, which led to Jimmy Garoppolo having to throw 40 times for just the fourth time in his career. Sermon finished with 31 yards on 10 carries, and had minus-1 yard on three runs by halftime.
In fact, tight end George Kittle was San Francisco’s leading rusher at halftime. He had one carry for 9 yards. At the end of the first half, when the 49ers were trying to score deep in Packers territory, they were doing it from shotgun without a halfback in the game.
It spoke to their depth issues at running back, but also a lack of trust in Sermon. Backups Jacques Patrick, Kerryon Johnson and Trenton Cannon, who were all signed over the last two weeks, were in uniform but weren’t used on offense. It took a 1-yard run from rookie quarterback Trey Lance to get on the board. Sermon scored a touchdown in the second half after he found a semblance of a rhythm thanks to adjustments at halftime.
49ers offense struggles
Schematically, the Packers loaded the edges and took away the 49ers’ calling card: the outside zone running game.
“They were loading the box,” Kittle said. “They did all they could do to take away our double teams. They set up defenses to let us get our double teams but they were setting the edge with two guys so there’s not really much we can do there.”
The double teams that Kittle mentioned are paramount to the offense’s success. When they work, Kittle will double team edge players with the tackles, or other tight ends, or fullback Kyle Juszczyk. Once the defender is blocked, Kittle, or a teammate, advances down field to block a defender in the next layer of the defense.
When done correctly, running backs have wide-open running lanes. And fast running backs, like Mostert and Mitchell, can get big chunks of yards at a time. The success of the run sets up just about everything Shanahan likes to do. Defenses are often so fearful of the running game play action becomes lethal and Shanahan’s offense can get rolling.
But taking away the running game made the 49ers one-dimensional. San Francisco’s 67 rushing yards were their fewest since their miserable three-game losing streak last season against the Seahawks, Packers and Saints during the first three weeks of November. They averaged 52 yards in those games.
“When you have three to five play drives, you can’t really get the ball rolling or anything like that,” Kittle said. “So you can’t really call the plays, you can’t run the game you want to run, and you end up having to take more shots than the way you wanted to.”
To Kittle’s point, the 49ers Sunday night had five possessions with five plays or fewer. They had 10 possessions total. And when they did start moving in the second half, they had a backbreaking turnover from Garoppolo that gave the Packers a field goal.
That, of course, was massive in the two-point loss.
Garoppolo didn’t appear to know the rule regarding the play. It came on a botched screen and he tried to throw the ball away. But he was being pressured by a defender and ended up spiking the ball backwards. A backwards pass is a fumble, by rule, not an incompletion.
“Just got caught in between throwing it,” Garoppolo said. “I was trying to throw it away. The guy hit my arm and unfortunate call by the refs there for a fumble.”
Garoppolo had bright spots. His final drive was brilliant. He converted key third downs to Kittle and Deebo Samuel in the face of pressure. He went through his progression and found Juszczyk on his last read as a check down. The Pro Bowl fullback rumbled through multiple defenders and crossed the goal line for the go-ahead score, sending Levi’s Stadium into its first frenzy of the season.
But the 49ers left Aaron Rodgers 37 seconds of game time. The touchdown play came with 12 seconds left on the play clock while the game clock was running. The 49ers could have snapped it later, but they were focused on scoring.
“You always worry when Aaron’s on the other side,” Shanahan said afterwards. “That’s why we didn’t use any timeouts. We were hoping to take it down but it was a hell of an effort by Juice to get in.”
Adams stars for Packers offense
Rodgers hit star receiver Davante Adams with 25 yards, just over the outstretched fingers of linebacker Fred Warner, who was playing underneath in zone coverage.
“That one stings probably the most, knowing that I was that close to — I could have sealed the game on that one play,” Warner said. “I look at myself and see how could I play that better. There was a few plays I wanted back in that game. That’s for sure one of them.”
Adams torched San Francisco’s patchwork secondary with 12 catches on 18 targets for 132 yards with a touchdown. No other Green Bay player was targeted more than four times.
But that shouldn’t be a surprise. Most defenses struggle to slow Rodgers and Adams. The issue with San Francisco’s defense was about personnel. The 49ers went into the year with oft-injured Jason Verrett as their top cornerback. When he was lost for the year with a torn ACL after Week 1, the team turned to 33-year-old Josh Norman, who left the game Sunday in the second quarter with an apparent chest injury. Slot cornerback K’Waun Williams suffered a calf injury in the first quarter and didn’t return.
After finding Adams for 25 yards on the first play of the final possession, he located Adams in a soft spot, again, for 17 yards. Rodgers spiked the ball and Packers’ veteran kicker Mason Crosby hit a 51-yard field goal, down wind, as time expired to give the Packers a victory.
“It’s a good character-builder, this one,” Garoppolo said. “We got to take a long look in the mirror as an offense, just what we can do better, how we can start faster. It was one mistake here, one mistake there, guys, starting with myself, if we eliminate just half of those it’ll lead to better football early and we won’t have to play from behind the eight ball like we were tonight.”
The loss could be pinned on the defense, sure. But San Francisco’s offense began the game with three punts and an interception on their first four series. It was another slow start, just like last week in Philadelphia. The 49ers made it to halftime down 17-7, despite the game feeling like a blowout, and made it a 3-point game with a touchdown drive to open the third quarter.
The 49ers outscored the Packers 21-13 in the second half — and lost by 2. They couldn’t contain Rodgers and Adams, but few teams can. Had the offense performed better in the early going, they’d likely be looking at hosting the Seahawks next week with a perfect 3-0 record.
Instead, San Francisco finds itself at a respectable 2-1, looking up at the undefeated Cardinals and Rams in the most competitive division in the NFL.