These are not your 2018 49ers. Or your 2017 49ers or your 2016 49ers, etc. etc. These are not the San Francisco that lost several games in a row by less than three points. These are not the San Francisco 49ers who can’t close out a win.
No, these are the San Francisco 49ers who can commit five turnovers in a game – yes, FIVE – and still beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, 24-20 (granted it was against the now 0-3 Steelers without Big Ben, but let’s go with it).
“I thought we played extremely well at some times and played extremely bad at some times,” said head coach Kyle Shanahan. “Anytime you have five turnovers in a game, that means you didn’t play that well. But, you take those away, and every aspect of the game decides that…It reminded me a lot of the Arizona game we had last year, we had a game versus Arizona where it was like 30 first downs to 10, and like 500 yards to 200, but we ended up losing the game because we had all those turnovers. Today was very similar, so it looked like we were going down that same (road), but the defense, they stepped it up big. Just getting the ball, those two turnovers to start. I think they both were in the redzone, or backed up. Pittsburgh was already in the redzone when they got it, held them to two field goals. Offense got going in the second half, but then we got that fumble down there in the redzone to end, for the defense got the ball right back. It was huge.”
For the first time since 1998, the 49ers are 3-0. Their defense is incredible. Their offense has its moments. Their QB is coming into his own.
Jimmy Garoppolo finished the day 23-of-32 for 277 yards, one TD, and two interceptions – both of which bounced off his receivers’ hands and into the open arms of the Pittsburgh Steelers – specifically, newly acquired DB Minkah Fitzpatrick and T.J. Watt.
What the stats won’t show are the passes Garoppolo completed while getting hit, his pocket presence and that perfect game-winning touchdown to wide receiver Dante Pettis. The same Dante Pettis who seemed to have fallen out of favor with his head coach to start the season but sure stepped up the way Shanahan has been pushing him to today.
“…I know it didn’t come out right away,” Shanahan said. “We tried to hurry up and snap it really quick. I know we had a guy in the flat and Dante running a stick route right on the goal line. It looked like he beat the guy on the inside and, from what I saw, I think the corner tried to fall back in and Dante just stepping back to it, from what I saw, was huge. Because it’s not like it was a play that got him wide open or anything. He ran a real good route, but they had two guys fall back in and just to have the aggressive hands like that in that situation was, looked like that’s why we scored…”
“I’ve been extremely impressed with how he’s responded since the first week of the season. He’s taken the challenge. He’s been working as hard as anyone on our team. He had a really good week last week and he came back and was even better this week.”
For his part, Pettis wants to be the guy with the chance to win the game.
“…This is what we work for,” Pettis said. “If you don’t want to be in that moment, if you don’t want the ball right there, you shouldn’t be playing sports. That is kind of what you live for.”
It was not a pretty win. In fact, it was downright ugly. That being said, the 49ers’ defense was able to hold the Steelers to just six points off the five turnovers, which made all the difference.
“…[W]hen our offense gave up a turnover and put us in a hard spot, we took it as Murphy’s Law,” said cornerback Richard Sherman. “We took it as Murphy’s Law, and you want to slap Murphy in the face, and we did that today. We took Murphy’s Law- everything that can go wrong, will go wrong. You take it with a smile, and you go out there and persevere, and that’s what we did today as a defense. That’s what our offense did and that’s what our special teams did today. That’s what we did as a full team.”
With just under seven minutes left in the fourth quarter, the 49ers had 3rd and 7 from Pittsburgh’s seven-yard line. Down by three, it looked as if they would score. However, a late snap caused the ball to hit wide receiver Richie James and the Steelers to recover.
On the ensuing drive, defensive lineman Arik Armstead forced a fumble and DeForest Buckner recovered it. Buckner had a team-high eight tackles by the way. Oh, and a sack. That fumble recovery gave the 49ers the ball and the Garoppolo to Pettis game-winner put the Niners at 3-0 as they go into their bye week. Game. Set. Match.
There is plenty to clean up and plenty of work to do, but for the first time in a long time, the 49ers look like contenders.
“…Everyone knows how well Cincinnati went, but the game today and the game in Tampa, those are games that we have not been able to win here…” Shanahan said “And, to have two games like that where things don’t go perfect, says a lot about the character of the guys in there. I think we have been better in how we’re playing, but it also says, our guys are mentally a lot stronger. They were pretty relentless through everything. They didn’t waiver at all. They were excited at halftime. They were excited in the third, and obviously, they were really excited when we got back in.”
Rookie Justin Skule played well at left tackle in place of Joe Staley. Other than two penalties, he was not noticeable, and that’s a good thing.
Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, who has been having an impressive third season, left the game with a foot injury. No official update yet as to the severity.