With Monday night’s red-hot offense looking like it had a Sunday hangover and too much Thanksgiving turkey, the San Francisco 49ers’ offense was thankful for the San Francisco 49ers’ defense, a defense that shut out the New Orleans Saints and delivered a 13-0 victory to put San Francisco at 7-4 and atop the NFC West.
“Our goal every week is to shut them out,” said linebacker Fred Warner. “It’s easier said than done. This one was really special because of the way we had to get it. It’s not like the Saints were behind the 50 all game. They were right there sniffing the goal line multiple times. For guys to stand up, time slows down in those moments. You’re looking at your teammates in the eyes and saying, ‘We have to pull this off.’ These are the ones you remember forever.”
This is a defense that came into the game with three straight second-half shutouts and continued the streak, while one-upping themselves with a complete-game shutout.
“That’s just a testament to our fight,” said cornerback Charvarius Ward. “We just need one blade of grass. No matter where they are on the one, two or three yard line. We just have to fight. We’re going to continue to fight, not let them get in the end zone no matter how close they get to it.”
And at times, they got close. Early in the fourth quarter, Saints’ running back Alvin Kamara was at the one-yard line when 49ers’ safety Talanoa Hufanga hit Kamara – and it wasn’t exactly a soft hit – and forced a fumble. Then chaos ensued, as the ball went airborne and everybody wanted it. 49ers’ linebacker Dre Greenlaw got it.
“I looked in the air, I saw the ball like 30 feet in the air, and I thought, ‘Oh, snap. I’m trying to go get the ball,'” Greenlaw said. “Then I saw one of their guys catch the ball as I’m trying to react to go get it, and then he drops it. It was like Christmas, I was just right there so I had to grab it and yeah, it was a crazy, crazy series of players.”
Since training camp, this defense has drawn comparisons to the 2019 unit that took the 49ers to the Super Bowl. But, it’s possible, it’s even better.
“We’re on our way for sure,” said pass rusher Nick Bosa, who recorded his 11.5 sack of the season on Sunday. “We made it far that year and every single year, we want to get better. I think we have the guys who can do it definitely. And everybody who’s still here is a lot better since that year, so we definitely could be better.”
Ward, who in his first year in San Francisco, said this defense is different than any he’s played on.
“…[W]e’ve given up zero points in the second half four games in a row…” said Ward. “We’re just some dawgs.”
The Monday night win in Mexico City, the travel and the Thanksgiving holiday seemed to take a toll on a 49ers’ offense that looked ready to break out less than a week ago.
With an embarrassment of riches in offensive weapons, it was wide receiver Jauan Jennings who was the 49ers’ offensive star on Sunday.
“Jauan’s clutch for us,” said 49ers’ head coach Kyle Shanahan.
Clutch is the right word for a receiver who is a key blocker and a third-down specialist. He prefers Third-and-Jauan to Third-and-Jennings, but either is accurate.
“It’s hard to play man against Jauan,” said 49ers’ quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. “He’s big, he’s quick. He’s physical. When he gets the ball in his hands, he’s hard to bring down. Not trying to pump him up too much there. But no, he does a lot of good things. He separates at the top of his routes and as a quarterback, it’s easy to read his body language and things.”
Late in the second quarter, Jennings had one 13-yard and two 12-yard receptions. One of those 12-yard receptions came with a late hit by Saints’ CB Chris Harris Jr., adding even more yards.
“I think Jauan made him fall on that route too,” Garoppolo said. “I’m not positive on that, but I just saw the release from Jauan and I mean, it was filthy. That’s a good damn nickelback right there. So, for Jauan to do that to him, that was a hell of a route, man. Yeah, I think I’d get annoyed trying to tackle Jauan. It’s hard, man. It’s not easy bringing a big guy like that down. And all of our guys play like that, and I think it just wears out teams.”
Jennings knows his style of play can make opponents particularly weary, so to speak.
“I’m a physical guy, a physical receiver,” the 2020 seventh-round draft pick said. “And I’m going to impose my will on a defensive back, and I think it got to him on that particular play.”
The drive ultimately ended in a five-yard Jennings touchdown catch to put San Francisco up 10-0.
“Oh man, it felt awesome,” Jennings said. “That whole entire drive, I was just locked in, focused on making the plays. When the opportunity comes my way, I just want to make them.”
Banged Up Offense
After a first half of the season that saw injury after injury, the 49ers have been relatively lucky the last few weeks, with Shanahan having no postgame injuries to report. That changed on Sunday.
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was hit six times, and though Shanahan did not have him on the postgame injury report, the 49ers’ QB1 may not be in the clear yet.
“Jimmy, he took some hits today,” Shanahan said. “I don’t have anything exactly on him, but I know he is sorer than usual, so we’ll check him up in here and see how he is tomorrow, but he had a very gutty performance…”
In the third quarter, Saints’ DL Malcolm Roach hit Garoppolo’s left knee – the same knee he had surgery on after a torn ACL in 2018 – and was called for roughing the passer. Garoppolo was hobbled enough that backup quarterback Brock Purdy began warming up, but Garoppolo stayed in the game.
“It is football, but I mean, there’s just, you have to be smart as players, look out for one another,” Garoppolo, who was clearly unhappy with the hit, said after the game. “I mean, there’s no place for that. But, no, I’m alright. A little sore, but nothing bad.”
Meanwhile, the 49ers fear that running back Elijah Mitchell – who just returned from a knee injury last week – has suffered a MCL sprain, but Shanahan said it is not as severe as the one suffered in Week 1.
Shanahan said OL Spencer Burford has an ankle injury, but the team believes it’s lateral, and not a high-ankle, which is better. Running back Christian McCaffrey left the game with knee irritation, but he did return to action. That’s definitely something to keep an eye on this week.