CHICAGO — After four weeks of ruinous, embarrassing play, the 49ers finally have a win. It was against a Chicago Bears team which was without its head coach, star edge rusher, and a rookie quarterback, but it broke San Francisco out of its self-imposed prison of errors and reignites their perhaps far-fetched, but still viable playoff hopes.
It was a 33-22 win defined by Jimmy Garoppolo making the basic throws, the running game working to a tee, no turnovers, and bad, but clutch defense.
Garoppolo’s homecoming goes according to script
The drop in performance from when Jimmy Garoppolo arrived in Santa Clara to now has been substantial, but it pales in comparison to the knock his confidence has taken. Garoppolo came in barely comprehending the offense, and was like a gunslinger, confidently winging it, rattling off five-straight wins.
After his torn ACL in 2018 and a shaky start in 2019, Garoppolo started to look increasingly comfortable, and was aided by the acquisition of Emmanuel Sanders. Then, the playoff run was dominated by the run game, and after being intercepted by Eric Kendricks against the Vikings, Shanahan seemed to take the ball out of his hands, and didn’t put it back in his hands until the Super Bowl.
He failed to come through late in that Super Bowl, and after an injury-riddled 2020, it felt like Garoppolo would never regain that confidence he lost, at least not with a coach who openly distrusts him so much that he drafted his replacement. And as the 49ers have started leaking that they will turn to Lance if this season continues to go awry, Sunday was a must-win for Garoppolo.
In front of hundreds of friends and family, Garoppolo started to show moments which harkened back to those moments when it seemed like he could have been the guy. We know at this point, he is not, and they came only after a tepid first half in which he missed a potential half-ending touchdown and a deep shot early to Brandon Aiyuk.
But Garoppolo was also let down by multiple drops and cowardly time management by Kyle Shanahan, which rewarded Garoppolo’s best throw of the season — a 50-yarder to Deebo Samuel — with just one attempt at the end zone.
It’s evident that Garoppolo’s time with the 49ers is nearing its end, but all signs are that if they are still competitive, he will retain the job.
And with a defense that struggled to hold its own against a Bears offense that is decidedly un-good, it was on the offense to carry this team.
Garoppolo wasn’t perfect, but it was an encouraging performance. He had multiple moments to provide optimism. There was the first half two-minute drill, when he found Aiyuk on back-to-back plays to move the chains, found Samuel on the deep shot and had his gritty, crucial (first) touchdown run. He also led the offense with a heavy dose of quick passes to score a touchdown to open the fourth quarter with another touchdown run.
Oh, and the running game worked, finally, and the ball got to both Samuel (six catches for 171 yards) and Aiyuk (four catches for 45 yards) more regulary.
Elijah Mitchell had about four of the explosive runs that Shanahan had been desperate for, including a 39-yarder to effectively ice the game. He had 18 carries for 137 yards.
It’s a game that might just do enough to remind the offense who they were supposed to be, especially given the success in pulling off explosive run plays, and at least extend Garoppolo’s hold over the starting job for a few more weeks.
Defense loses one player too many, but comes up when it matters
The Chicago Bears entered Sunday as the worst third-down offense in the NFL. They did not finish the game that way, converting 8-of-15 opportunities, but struggling in the second half.
No matter what the distance, it seemed San Francisco did not have an answer for Justin Fields, and the soft zone coverages they continued to run — discernibly to take away the deep ball threat which Fields has shown a knack for executing on — allowed him to get into a rhythm early.
There were far too many examples of the 49ers playing off and letting Fields burn them without consistent pressure coming from the defensive line. And when the defense did pressure him, Fields showed that supreme, innate talent and athleticism he has.
Fields set the escapism standard on Sunday. He had four rushes of at least 15 yards — Lamar Jackson is the only other quarterback in the as the only other quarterback in the league to have at least three rushes of 15-plus yards in a game. It was this one, in which he beat the entirety of the 49ers defense, that had Soldier Field losing its collective mind.
His day ended with a tipped interception, but Fields had some explosive moments on a day in which he went 17-for-29 with 175 yards and a touchdown, and ran 10 times for 103 yards.
It felt like the 49ers were utilizing a conservative defensive game plan which recognized that they were missing a copious amount of key players. They lost Jason Verrett for the season in the first game and Javon Kinlaw for the season earlier this week. He was joined on injured reserve by Jaquiski Tartt (knee). Maurice Hurst (calf) is out for a while, Dre Greenlaw is still at least out for a week, and both Azeez Al-Shaair and Dee Ford were late scratches with concussions.
But when it mattered, the defense came through. Nick Bosa has a couple of sacks, but it was Samson Ebukam, who has had a pretty impact-less season thus far, who came through with the deciding sack on Justin Fields on third down.
It forced Chicago to punt, and allowed the 49ers to wind the clock down to the two-minute warning and make it a two-possession game with two minutes remaining. This was not a good or even decent defensive performance, and it was still too penalized despite no pass interference calls, but it was just good enough.