Will Vragovic / Stringer
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers drubbed the visiting 49ers, 27-9, Sunday. The loss puts them at an NFL-worst 2-9, giving them the best statistical chance for the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NFL draft.
Here are five thoughts from San Francisco’s loss.
A disastrous Saturday night festered into the game
The biggest news of the weekend preceded Sunday’s game. On Saturday night, former 49ers linebacker Reuben Foster was arrested for domestic violence involving the same on-and-off-again girlfriend, Elissa Ennis, from his former domestic violence charge, which was later dropped. The 49ers took swift action this time, releasing Foster about four hours prior to kickoff Sunday.
The implications of losing Foster, one of San Francisco’s most talented young players, outweighed the result of Sunday’s game. But the 49ers did nothing to wash away the aftertaste of Foster’s release, laying an egg against one of the NFL’s worst teams, despite having 13 days to prepare with the bye.
With exception to Matt Breida’s 14 carries for 106 yards, there were few bright spots among the 49ers. The pass rush continued to yield little pressure. The pass protection was exposed. The 49ers did not finish drives. Richard Sherman was picked on for the first time all year.
Kyle Shanahan issued a statement to his team entering the bye week, challenging his players to ruminate on what they wanted out of the final six games of the 2018 season and beyond. The 49ers hardly looked motivated Sunday.
An all-time bad Buccaneers defense dominated the 49ers offense
The Buccaneers entered Sunday on pace to produce one of the worst seasons in NFL history. Prior to Week 12, they allowed 32.9 points per game, the second-worst mark ever. They also allowed touchdowns on 88.9 percent of drives in the red zone. For reference, the NFL’s worst unit surrendered touchdowns on 67 percent of red zone trips last year.
They entered Sunday without safety Justin Evans, cornerback MJ Stewart, and linebacker Lavonte David. Yet the 49ers offense, playing without Marquise Goodwin (personal matter) and Pierre Garcon (knee), struggled all game long.
Nick Mullens, who was sacked three times and hit six times in the first half, never found a rhythm. He missed his first three throws and fumbled on another attempt, which the 49ers recovered. He consistently faced pressure, then struggled to elude it and find open receivers. Mullens completed 18 of 32 pass attempts for 201 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions. His first interception was thrown into double-coverage with about eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, giving the Bucs their first defensive turnover in eight games. One drive later, San Francisco’s final of the day, Mullens threw his second interception in no-huddle offense.
The 49ers converted one of eight third-down opportunities into first downs. They failed to punch the ball into the end zone on the one-yard line in the second quarter. Two straight rushes for no yards, then a false start on fourth down, forced the 49ers to settle for a field goal.
George Kittle was held in check for the first time in five weeks. He caught six passes on 12 targets for 48 yards, a chunk of which came on the final drive in garbage time.
The two bright spots were Breida and rookie Dante Pettis, whose four-catch, 77-yard, one-touchdown day is the best performance of his young career so far.
Nonexistent pass rush puts 49ers defense at disadvantage
The lack of pass rush is the most repeated complaint among this 49ers team because the issue is so glaring. After recording eight sacks two games ago, the 49ers produced none last week. They added just one sack Sunday, but it was unconvincing, with Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston simply falling to the ground to avoid being hit.
This may have been San Francisco’s most discouraging pass rush performance because of the sheer number of missed opportunities. When the 49ers did pressure the backfield, which happened several times, they whiffed on Winston. He went 29 for 38 with 312 passing yards and two touchdowns. He did not turn the ball over for the first time this season.
Two first-round picks, Solomon Thomas (two tackles) and Arik Armstead (one tackle), were ineffective — heard this before? — in the passing game. Activating preseason standout Jullian Taylor (two tackles) did little to revitalize a moribund pass rush.
All eyes point to the 2019 NFL Draft, and a potential No. 1 pick, for the 49ers to improve in this department.
Rookies receive much-needed reps
This season will not feature the 49ers competing in the playoffs, but there is plenty of value remaining in the final five games. Most of that lies within the rookies and young players acquiring game snaps that had not been available until Sunday.
Taylor, who shined in the preseason, was activated Sunday for the first time all season. Rookie cornerback Tarvarius Moore appeared in the third quarter and later played for Sherman in the fourth quarter with the game out of reach. Rookie strong safety Marcell Harris logged some garbage-time snaps. And Pettis, partly enabled from Goodwin’s unavailability, played the best game of his career.
The 49ers need these players to develop if they want to reach success in the near future. That will only happen with game repetition.
The 49ers missed their best remaining opportunity for a win in 2018
After today’s performance, there is little reason to believe the 49ers will win another game in 2018.
This recent three-game stretch featured all last-place opponents, including the Raiders, Giants, and Buccaneers. The 49ers beat just the Raiders, gave away a late lead in a four-point loss to the Giants, and were routed in Tampa Bay.
San Francisco will travel to play Seattle, winners of four of its past six games, in Week 13. The 49ers then have three straight home matchups with the Broncos, Seahawks, and Bears before traveling to play the Los Angeles Rams in the season finale.
On paper, you’d think the 49ers’ best chance for a win will come at home against Seattle or Denver, though there is not much reason for optimism after Sunday’s 18-point loss to a Tampa Bay team that had lost four straight entering Week 12.