Barber: Kyle Shanahan’s play-calling lifts 49ers over Cardinals 36-26
SANTA CLARA - Five minutes had elapsed in the second quarter of Sunday’s game at Levi’s Stadium, and the 49ers trailed the Arizona Cardinals 16-0.
To that point, the Niners had gained exactly 2 yards (not counting penalties) in three possessions. Their best offensive player, tight end George Kittle, was watching from a luxury suite in street clothes. Their second most dangerous receiver, wideout Emmanuel Sanders, was nursing a rib injury and seemed to be in some pain. The rest of the receiving corps was coming off a game in which it dropped the ball more often than a deadbeat dad. The Cardinals, feeling unthreatened, were stacking the box and shutting down San Francisco’s heralded run game.
In effect, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan had no real playmakers. So he fell back on the most valuable asset in his offensive system: his own play-calling.
“I feel like that’s when he gets most creative, and he finds a way to dial something up that has a chance to be a big play,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk said after the game. “I feel like when things aren’t moving very well, he doesn’t keep it very vanilla. He finds something that he thinks can really spark us.”
Shanahan did just that Sunday. He shook himself out of his own play-sheet doldrums and delivered the turnaround that led to an unnerving but important 36-26 win.
It all started with a screen pass to Richie James Jr. The second-year wide receiver is best known as the 49ers’ punt and kickoff returner. He is an afterthought in the passing attack, with five receptions entering the Arizona game. But when San Francisco got the ball at its 25-yard line with 9:03 left in the second period, Shanahan dialed one up for James. The receiver faked a jet sweep and continued running to the left flat. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo tossed it to him there, and James had clear sailing.
“There’s so much going on in that play,” Juszczyk said. “Your eyes are going everywhere and then all of a sudden there’s a guy sitting with a bunch of offensive linemen in front of him. It’s a pretty good design.”
Guard Mike Person and center Weston Richburg formed a 600-pound convoy for James, leading him miles downfield. Fifty-seven yards later, the 49ers were set up in the red zone.
The next play wasn’t nearly as dramatic, but it kept the momentum going. Garoppolo threw a pass to Juszczyk that picked up 14 tough yards, down to the Arizona 4.
“That’s another example of Kyle — he’s dialed up that specific play multiple times when we’re not really moving,” the fullback said. “It’s one that I’ve caught before, where I’m entering through the line of scrimmage like it’s an inside zone iso(lation) block. And then I try to slip that guy and run up the sideline. He didn’t bite too much on the iso.”
Just enough to give Garoppolo a window into a completion, though. Three plays later, the quarterback found tight end Ross Dwelley at the back of the end zone for a touchdown. That broke the ice. By the 11:07 mark of the third quarter, the 49ers had taken a 17-16 lead.
This was San Francisco’s third consecutive close game, and its second straight nail-biter at Levi’s, and there were a multitude of factors that influenced the final score. The good and bad of Jimmy Garoppolo. A breakout game from rookie wide receiver Deebo Samuel. Huge fourth-quarter defensive plays by ancillary plays Damontre Moore and D.J. Reed Jr.