Three takeaways after 49ers bobble, fumble, stumble into ugly win, go 3-0 for first time since ’98

(Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)

Turning the ball over five times in the first half isn’t a fantastic recipe for success, but as the 49ers found out on Sunday, when you have an elite defense against a backup quarterback, you can survive it. They did just that in a 24-20 win which gives the 49ers their first 3-0 start to the season since 1998.

More importantly, the 49ers won a game that they would not have won in seasons past. It was an ugly, clench-your-teeth victory; a “dogfight,” exactly like Arik Armstead told KNBR it would be.

Defensive brilliance nullifies offense’s rampant turnover issue

In the first half, the 49ers turned the ball over four times (two interceptions, which bounced off the hands of Matt Breida and Dante Pettis – a route which he said he didn’t run as well as he should have – and two fumbles, one by Raheem Mostert, and one on a snap to Jimmy Garoppolo). Thanks to a bit of defensive brilliance, however, the 49ers stumbled into the first half up 6-3.

That was accomplished without forcing a turnover and with both of the Steelers’ field goals coming with field goal position from inside the 49ers’ half. Then the second half begun with an interception by Mason Rudolph, which, just like Andy Dalton’s interception last week, came when the 49ers’ defensive line pushed the quarterback out of the pocket.

James Conner was limited to just 43 yards, and after a brutal fumble turnover which bounced off the chest of a motioning Richie James Jr., the 49ers defense stood up again, with Arik Armstead forcing his own fumble turnover from Conner.

Once the offense secured a game-winning touchdown (caught by Dante Pettis, see below), the defense stood the Steelers up yet again. They forced an incompletion, stopped Mason Rudolph on a scramble attempt, then sacked him, and forced a fourth down incompletion.

Pettis, yes Dante Pettis, won the game with a catch in traffic, and Garoppolo was Favre-like

Jimmy Garoppolo didn’t walk off the field the pristine-jersey-wearing quarterback you see in your gameday pamphlets. He got hit – hard – and often. But whereas the preseason Garoppolo was a tad skittish, the Garoppolo we saw on Sunday was as tough as the 49ers like to credit C.J. Beathard for being.

His one sack was a brutal one, allowed by Mike McGlinchey, and he spun away from a couple others. While he did have two interceptions on the day, putting the full blame for both on him would be a poor reading of his performance. The first, while not a good throw, was bobbled by Matt Breida, and the second came as Garoppolo was hit as he threw and Dante Pettis ran a poor route (as he admitted after the game) and was hit just before the ball arrived. The one turnover that could be blamed on him was a fumbled snap, but it’s his and Pettis’ clutch finish to the game that mattered most.

Head coach Kyle Shanahan praised Pettis’ running of the route after the game.

“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,” Shanahan said. “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 looked like that’s why we scored.”

Garoppolo finished 23-for-32 with 277 yards, two INTS and that touchdown to Pettis, while Pettis had four receptions (most of anyone not named George Kittle) for 20 yards and the TD. What impressed most was the pair’s ability to excel after that interception in a way that seemed unlikely in years past.

Ahkello Witherspoon leaves on a cart, and Jason Verrett gets torched

Witherspoon left the game on a cart, but later returned to the sideline. He was replaced by Jason Verrett, who was immediately beaten twice (first on a defensive pass interference call), the second, for a touchdown. As Shanahan put it after the game, “He just got beat.”

Verrett was quickly replaced by Emmanuel Moseley, and the 49ers closed out the game without any serious issues on the defensive end of the ball. Witherspoon’s worst play of the day (though it was worse on the part of Tarvarius Moore) came on the 76-yard touchdown to Juju Smith-Schuster. Witherspoon missed a tackle and was followed Moore, who took a terrible angle and allowed Smith-Schuster to go free.

Other notes:

  • In his first game as the 49ers’ starting left tackle Justin Skule was called for three penalties (two holding calls, one “illegal blindside block”) and was beaten badly by the Steelers’ Bud Dupree, who stuffed Raheem Mostert in the backfield.
  • Jeff Wilson Jr. is the 49ers’ punch-it-in guy. Just as he did last week, Wilson secured a pair of rushing touchdowns in the red zone. He rarely features outside of the red zone, but his physical run style sees him.


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