Photo by George Walker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Well, that started about as poorly as could possibly be expected, and boy did it end that way. An egregious turnover display left the 49ers with a 41-33 loss, with a losing record and no more playoff hopes. They’ll finish sub-.500 for the third time in four years under Kyle Shanahan.
While other teams need to win to make it *officially over*, this team will not be making the playoffs at 7-9. It’s over, as it has seemed for most of this season.
After a week of Shanahan talking about the importance of limiting turnovers, San Francisco turned the ball over with a pair of fumbles twice in the first six minutes, both inside their own 25-yard line, both resulting in immediate touchdowns from Dallas. One was Richie James Jr. on a punt return. The other was Nick Mullens.
But there’s a reason the Cowboys are 4-9. Their defense is putrid, and their offensive line, once such a massive strength, has been worn down this season. That combination breathed life into this game for perhaps longer than should have been the case.
The 49ers run game found its footing early, and so, too did Mullens, who actually threw a ball or two away, at least in the first half. He wasn’t getting much, if any help from his right side of the offensive line, which was Justin Skule playing right guard for the first time (and getting bullied his fair share of the time), and Mike McGlinchey finding himself whiffing and/or on the ground on at least a handful of times. McGlinchey also had a late personal foul penalty.
Trent Williams held again, too, after an early Ross Dwelley false start. That duo has the most penalties on this team. Williams is now up to eight on the year, with five holding calls and three false starts, and Dwelley has four holding calls and three false starts.
In the first half, those mistakes didn’t much matter, as the 49ers’ defense, despite losing Jimmie Ward, was stellar. They found pressure at a rate they really haven’t been able to find this year and it was a result of a clear, effective defensive line game plan.
San Francisco’s best unit on the defensive line was Kerry Hyder, Arik Armstead, Javon Kinlaw and Jordan Willis. What’s unique about that look is that it featured Armstead where he is best; on the inside.
As an interior player, Armstead doesn’t have to load up from the outside. He gets immediately into the face of defenders, and with his literal and positional flexibility, it provided the 49ers with the opportunity to use stunts.
Stunt after stunt after stunt. Armstead jumping outside from inside, inside to outside, and the same with Willis and Kinlaw on the other side. That recipe, along with a few blitzes featuring a just-returned K’Waun Williams began to provide a consistent method for pressure.
Armstead, who entered Sunday with 1.5 sacks on the year, had a pair of them in the first half.
But here’s the thing; none of that really matters. It’s all about Nick Mullens and turnovers. Any of that positivity was washed away unceremoniously in the second half.
Entering this game, that was all Kyle Shanahan stressed.
“Nick, first and foremost, if he wants to stay out there, he’s got to stop turning the ball over,” Shanahan said Wednesday.
Well, Mullens didn’t exactly hold onto the ball. After Mullens’ first-half fumble, with the game tied at 24-24 and a chance to take the lead, he threw a classic Mullens interception; too late, too slow, and to the wrong guy. It was his sixth-straight game with an interception, the longest such streak in the NFL.
But Dallas only followed that up with a field goal. There was hope!
Joking, joking. Mullens kept the 49ers’ tank going as strong as could be hoped, throwing yet another interception two possessions later. A bad-tackling display saw Dallas’ Tony Pollard twist the dagger with a 40-yard touchdown to put up Dallas by 10 with less than three minutes remaining. Pollard finished with 132 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
San Francisco should have had a fumble forced by Javon Kinlaw for a recovery, but it was nixed despite a challenge. That had the 49ers finish with a season-worst -4 turnover differential.
Since Week 3, the 49ers have lost every single game in which they had a negative turnover differential, and won every game in which they had a positive turnover differential. This was another data point in the sad dataset that is this season.
Oh, and before it was over, with San Francisco attempting an onside kick, CeeDee Lamb added insult to injury, returning the onside kick for a touchdown. It’s important to laugh.
It’s also important to laugh when Kendrick Bourne catches a meaningless but entertaining Hail Mary to end the game. Don’t worry, it didn’t affect line (-3 for the 49ers coming in).
As this team heads firmly towards the draft, and perhaps a new franchise quarterback, their division rivals, the Seattle Seahawks, clinched a playoff spot. This season has been a brutal fall from the grace of last season, but we can all finally stop pretending like this team can, or should pursue a playoff berth. You should probably count out a George Kittle or Jimmy Garoppolo return.