Oh so close: Kaepernick stopped short of the goal line, and the 49ers lose for a record-setting 10th straight game

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By Morris Phillips

Ten-game losing streaks don’t always come with a crescendo, but the 49ers’ first-ever such skid came with a big finish, right there on the floor of Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium, two plays to end months of frustration—or not.

With the 49ers’ rallying—narrowing a 31-14, fourth quarter deficit to just a touchdown—and driving, they earned themselves two shots from the Dolphins’ 6-yard line to tie the game, and potentially end a losing streak dating back to the second week of the season.

On the first play, Colin Kaepernick’s attempt to connect with Torrey Smith on a slant sailed slightly behind the receiver, where Miami’s Byron Maxwell was lurking to possibly make a game-ending tackle short of the goal line.  But had Kaepernick made an incrementally better throw—and Smith come up with the catch—the fleet receiver may have scored in this instance.  Tantalizing because the normally-challenged Kaepernick had already belied his reputation for poor red-zone play by connecting with Smith on a perfectly-placed fade pass that started the 49ers’ fourth-quarter rally.

On their second shot—with two seconds remaining—Kaepernick dropped back to pass, then ran when no receivers came open near the goal line.  Running free momentarily, that moment ended fast when the quarterback was greeted by linebacker Kiko Alonso and trailing, menacing lineman Ndomukong Suh short of the goal line.

With the game decided, Kaepernick picked himself up off the turf and unbuckled his chinstrap, while Alonso jumped up and sprinted toward the Dolphins’ bench after flinging his helmet to the sky.  While the Dolphins exalted in their first six-game win-streak since 2005, the 49ers’ were forced to deal with a franchise first-ever, 10-game losing streak.  Ironically, after Week 5, both the Dolphins and Niners had identical 1-4 records.

“You have to get in the end zone,” Kaepernick said afterwards.  “Ultimately, that’s what it comes down to.  We had a pass play called, stepped up, thought we had a seam to get in there, and didn’t make it in.”

On Sunday, once again, the 49ers started fast only to see things unravel.  On their first drive of the day—after the Dolphins punted—the 49ers marched 62 yards, culminating in Carlos Hyde’s catch-and-run for an 11-yard touchdown.  In seven of the 49ers’ 10 consecutive losses, they’ve led in the first half, and did so again in Miami.

The Dolphins were missing three of their five starting offensive linemn on Sunday, and their absence showed on Miami’s initial possessions.  But after some adjustments, the Dolphins came up with a pair of second quarter touchdowns to lead at the break.  Ryan Tannehill’s 16-yard pass play to Dion Sims with 2:17 remaining put the Dolphins up 14-7 at the break.

According to Coach Chip Kelly, turnovers were the real reason the 49ers fell short, 31-24 on Sunday as opposed to any last gasp shortcomings.   Smith agreed, citing a ball that glanced off his hands and was picked off by Alonso in the third quarter.

In the second quarter, tight end Garrett Celek’s fumble led directly to a Dolphins’ touchdown drive that broke a 7-7 tie and gave Miami the lead for good.

Brady throws four touchdowns in return to the Bay, Niners lose for the ninth-consecutive time

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By Morris Phillips

As sure as grass and pigskin, Tom Brady’s return to the Bay Area as a football player—decades in the making—had the 39-year old superstar’s competitive juices flowing, yet it wasn’t always pretty—credit the 49ers’ defense—but was briefly spectacular.

With the 49ers trailing just 13-10 early in the fourth quarter, and attempting to build on five consecutive Patriots’ offensive possessions without allowing any points, time was still running out on the home team, facing Brady with second-and-goal from the five-yard line.  Pressure was the call on the play as Brady dropped back purposively looking to re-establish the Pats’ 10-point lead.

With two 49ers’ crashing through the middle, including top pick DeForrest Buckner lunging, then grabbing at Brady’s feet, the veteran quarterback spun away only to see defensive lineman Ronald Blair rushing free towards him with bad intentions.

So what did Brady do?  What could he do?

While falling backwards as not to have Blair send him to concussion protocol, Brady simply lofted a touchdown pass to Danny Amendola in the back of the end zone while the quarterback celebrated laying on his back.  Unique, ridiculous and—believe it or not–rehearsed, Brady delivered when little seemed possible.

“It depends on what coverage they are playing and we work on that drill every week.  He started scrambling and we all find a zone and try to get open,” Amendola said.

“Brady Vick,” Julian Edelman said, playfully describing his nimble quarterback.

Amendola’s touchdown allowed the Patriots to escape a tight ballgame late, and they went on to beat the 49ers, 30-17, sending the home team to their team record-tying ninth, consecutive loss, but even in the persistent rain, the 49ers—and Brady—at least provided something to watch.

The 49ers’ defense found effectiveness from a couple of sources: the nasty weather, and Brady being a little off in junctures of the game.  Brady targeted his Bay Area buddy, Edelman, 17 times, but only connected eight times with the shifty receiver, illustrating the number of passes he overthrew or missed.

But according to New England coach Bill Belichick, the 49ers also found effectiveness in crashing safeties Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea at the snap, and outnumbering the Patriots in the run game repeatedly.  Did it show in the final numbers?  Not so much, as LeGarrette Blount became the latest opposing runner to surpass 100 yards rushing (124) against the Niners’ run defense.  But during the second half stretch where the Patriots struggled to mount drives, the strategy worked, and Belichick took note, even mentioning that along with the safeties, the 49ers also brought corner Tramaine Brock right behind one of the safeties on several snaps.

Veteran problem solvers like Brady and Belichick can only be fooled for so long, and that was the case on Sunday.  After those five, fruitless possessions, the Patriots closed the game with 17 points, scoring on three of their next four possessions.  But the 49ers’ offense may have been just as much to blame as the defense.

“He’s going to make the plays he’s going to make, and that’s what he did today.  He’s Tom Brady,” 49ers’ linebacker Ahmad Brooks said.

Colin Kaepernick started well on Sunday, completing 8 of 9 passes for 117 yards a touchdown in the first half.  But again, after halftime, Kap struggled with accuracy, missing on 13 of his final 21 throws.  Whether fatigue, or shifting defensive principles after halftime, Kaepernick has struggled after halftime in all of his starts, especially with pass accuracy.

Consequently, the 49ers did little to take advantage of how close the score was heading into the fourth quarter, punting on six, straight possessions after they climbed within three points before halftime, and only changing that pattern with a late, meaningless touchdown.

While both teams entered Sunday’s contest with issues pressuring opposing quarterbacks, only the 49ers’ issues continued.  Kaepernick was sacked five times—by five different Patriots—while Brady was dumped just once.  Experience, shifting schemes, or happenstance, the Patriots helped themselves in this regard, while the 49ers did not.

Afterwards, Brady lauded the experience of playing professionally in the Bay Area for the first time, and mentioned his pre-game conversation with 49ers’ assistant Tom Rathman, one of Brady’s favorite players as a youth growing up in San Mateo.

“They have a great organization, they always have,” Brady said of the 49ers and the experience of being back home.  “They inspired a lot of kids here in the Bay Area in my time growing up, and I was one of them.”

Edelman, the Woodside High graduate, second Brady’s thoughts, saying “I was a huge fan.  I still like to see them do well, just not when they play us.  It was a great experience.”

The 49ers travel to Miami next week to take on the suddenly-hot Dolphins who have won four straight.  When you’ve won just one ballgame all season, all challenges seem daunting, and this one no less.  In fact, the Dolphins have more in California (twice, at the Chargers and Rams) then the 49ers (once).

 

Up-and-down Kaepernick, and spotty defense lowlight the 49ers’ seventh, consecutive loss to the Saints

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San Francisco 49ers running back Mike Davis fumbles the ball near the goal line as New Orleans Saints inside linebacker Nate Stupar (54) and free safety Jairus Byrd, bottom, look on during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 6, 2016, in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

By Morris Phillips

On Sunday, Colin Kaepernick provided hope with an eye-opening first half that had the 49ers within reach of the Saints, and in position to rally and end their six-game losing streak.

But in a second half littered with miscues and poor throws, Kaepernick and the 49ers wilted in a 41-23 loss that again placed the microscope squarely on the team’s controversial quarterback, and their historically-poor defense.

Kaepernick finished 24 of 39 for 398 yards in his best performance of the season.  But he set up the Saints with a first half interception that was a big piece of the visitors’ start that saw them lead 21-3 in the second quarter.  And with the 49ers driving in the third quarter with a shot to chop into the Saints’ 31-20 lead, Kaepernick missed on seven straight passes, most of which were simply errant throws, as the game slipped away early in the fourth quarter.

“I thought there were some throws in the pocket that if we could’ve completed them then we’d have stayed on the field and kept some drives alive,” Coach Chip Kelly said of Kap’s afternoon.  “But I also thought he did some really, good things, fit some balls in there.  A couple of balls to Vance McDonald were big plays to us.  Tried to take advantage of some of the things he did, but again, I think the story for us offensively, we fumbled on the 1, we fumbled on the 10, and then we didn’t convert on a fourth-and-1.”

Kelly’s rapid-fire postgame recap was not only comprehensive, succinct, it did the math as well.  The 49ers lost by 18 points in a game where they were driving—and failed—to score at least 21 other points.  But that merely reveals the other issue.  The 49ers’ struggling defense may have had its worst day yet.

The 41 points scored by the Saints and the timeless Drew Brees were the most by an opponent in the 21-game history of Levi’s Stadium.  For the seventh straight week, the 49ers allowed a 100-yard rusher in the Saints’ Mark Ingram.  And Brees did his thing, persistently testing the vulnerable San Francisco back seven downfield, and coming up with 323 yards passing and three touchdowns for his efforts.

Ingram’s had big days in his career, but probably few like this where he needed just 15 carries to reach 158 yards rushing.  On his 75-yard touchdown run in the first half that put the Saints comfortably ahead 28-10, 49ers’ safety Antoine Bethea was left flailing along the sideline for a back who’s not known for his afterburners.

“It was a mishap on defense and, at the end of the day, we need to get him down,” Bethea admitted.

“We just need to correct things.”

Those corrections will be in tight focus in the next two weeks in which the 49ers will see Carson Palmer, David Johnson in Arizona, then return home to face Tom Brady and the Patriots.  Unfortunately for the 49ers, the record for points allowed in a season set by the Baltimore Colts in 1981 (520 points) looms for a defense that allowed more points than their league-worst 31.3 average on Sunday.

GAME BEHIND THE GAME: The Mike Davis fumble (pictured above) that short-circuited the 49ers’ opening drive of the second half, and kept them from opening the half with momentum, and potentially climb within 31-27, when they trailed 28-10 in the second quarter, highlights all that ails a football team that hasn’t won since opening day, and will undoubtedly experience challenging days going forward.

Davis, the second year back from South Carolina, was forced into the game earlier in that drive when DuJuan Harris was temporarily knocked from the game after a hard tackle courtesy of safety Kenny Vaccaro.  Harris ran the ball well in the first half, and went for a game-best 19 yards on the play he was hurt.

Harris was replacing Carlos Hyde, the team’s starter, and the prototypical Chip Kelly back in that Hyde has size, physicality and he can execute all the protection packages when he doesn’t get the ball.  Harris is smaller, a capable runner, and less of protector.  Davis, also a smaller back, maybe quicker, but not a physical guy, and clearly not the team’s first option in short yardage situations, or protection packages.

But Davis came on for Harris, and played well.  First, the young back ran for four yards on second and 10, then on third and 6 from the Saints 34-yard line, Davis picked up a blitz up the middle, allowing Kaepernick to complete a pass to Jeremy Kerley for a 17-yard gain.

On the next play, Kaepernick spotted Davis circling out of the backfield and the smaller back made the catch and stuck his helmet in the fray for a nine-yard gain.

But on the next play, second and one from the Saints’ 8-yard line, Davis found a crease and ran to the one-yard line.  There he was leg tackled by safety Jairus Byrd, then a split second later, impacted around his chest by linebacker Nate Stupar.  Typical of NFL defenders as the second-engaged tackler, Stupar reached around Davis and executed a picture-perfect strip, allowing the Saints to recover a fumble at the most critical point on the field.

The point?  The 49ers would have preferred Hyde or Harris at that juncture of the game, and that place on the field.  Neither was available. Davis was off the bench cold, then suddenly involved heavily in a fourth consecutive play.  Under Kelly, the 49ers no longer employ a fullback, key for short yardage and goal line situations.

And Kaepernick, while having a good game, has never been a good, red zone-passing quarterback.  Reference the Super Bowl, and his throwing style which lacks a lofting, lower mileage option, and his overall lack of success in scoring opportunities near the goal line.

49ers’ losing streak hits six in dismal, home loss to the Buccaneers, reports surface that Staley could be traded

 

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San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) fumbles the ball as he is hit by Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Jude Adjei-Barimah during the second half of an NFL football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 23, 2016. The Buccaneers recovered the fumble. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

By Morris Phillips

The 49ers haven’t won since opening night, they’ve given up the most points in the NFL, and every running back in the league is checking their remaining schedule to see if they’ll get a shot at the league’s worst run defense in 26 seasons.

The last time the 49ers lost six straight in 2008, Coach Mike Nolan didn’t survive the fifth, and was fired after the team fell to 2-6, after a 2-1 start.  Interim coach Mike Singletary and offensive coordinator Mike Martz were in charge that following week when the 49ers appeared poised to break the skid, only to fail on the game’s last play from the two-yard line where fullback Michael Robinson got the call and was stuffed, instead of Frank Gore, who would go on to become the franchise’s all-time leading rusher.

Like these, those were low times.  But under Singletary, and 28-year old Shaun Hill, the 49ers rallied, winning five of seven to close that season.   In 2008, things got better, and hope was retained heading into 2009.

This time, without Hill and Singletary of all people, things could get worse.

During the 49ers’ loss Sunday to the visiting Buccaneers, the 49ers squandered a 14-0, first quarter lead only to trail at halftime, 17-14, and after three quarters, 27-14.  The Bucs struggled early, unable to run against the 49ers’ defensive front seven, who briefly rallied after being run over by LeSean McCoy and the Bills the previous week.

Tampa Bay didn’t abandon the run down two touchdowns, instead they redoubled their efforts and finished with 513 yards in total offense, including 249 yards on the ground.  The previous week in Buffalo, the 49ers gave up 312 yards on the ground, but this may have been a lesser showing with Jaquizz Rogers (154 yards) and Paul Barber (12 carries, 84 yards) benefitting from numerous, missed tackles.

“We just got to limit the mistakes we’ve been having.  We’ve been doing the same things too consistently, with the turnovers and stuff, the missed tackles, allowing big runs to happen on defense,” safety Eric Reid said.

The 49ers appeared to be in better shape with Jaquiski Tartt and Jimmy Ward returning to bolster the secondary.  But neither started on Sunday, then defensive lineman Arik Armstead, linebacker Aaron Lynch, and corner Rashad Robinson were lost to injury during the game.  Armstead’s injury looked to be the most painful, and most troubling since the 2015 first round pick has dealt with a nagging shoulder issue since training camp, and appeared to reinjure the shoulder against Tampa Bay.

Meanwhile, for Tampa, big, productive receiver Mike Evans was injured on a play early in the game in which he was blocked in the stomach and chest on Gerald Hodges interception that set up the 49ers second touchdown.  But Evans returned, finishing with eight receptions and two touchdowns, while Armstead, Lynch and Robinson did not.

Such is the 49ers’ fortunes these days, so poor they rival the teams porous play.  While the defense has been abnormally poor, it must be noted that injuries have been mounting on that side of the ball starting with lineman Ian Williams in training camp, and starting linebackers Ray Ray Armstrong and NaVorro Bowman after the season began.

Offensively, Colin Kaepernick had another uneven performance, completing less than half of his passes and being sacked four times.  While the veteran quarterback kept plays alive with his fast feet, those plays didn’t amount to much as Kaepernick threw for just 143 yards in a game that the 49ers were in catchup mode for the entire, second half.

In the absence of the injured Carlos Hyde, Kaepernick was the team’s leading rusher, with 84 yards on nine carries.  But Kap’s rushing total wasn’t the recipe to success.

“It comes down to execution, not shooting ourselves in the foot, and making plays,” Kaepernick said.  “On our two, touchdown drives, we had players making plays on the field.  And we have to be able to continually do that throughout the game because defenses are talented, things are going to be close, and we have to be able to make those plays, and ultimately that’s what’s going to be the difference in these games.”

With the 49ers mired in last place in the NFC West, reports surfaced that veteran tackle Joe Staley may be traded during the season.  The team’s remaining schedule looks tough with games at Chicago, and at home against the Jets looking like the only two in which the team could be favored, or have a chance to win.

A rally like the one in 2008 appears unlikely, and the appearance of a franchise quarterback may not happen anytime soon, even if the team draws a top-3 pick as their current record would suggest.

Coach Chip Kelly appears safe if for no reason other than he just got here.  But things must be improve, and the team’s attitude will be close monitored.

“I think anger doesn’t help you,” Kelly said.  “You have to find a solution.  If you continue to get mad, get angry, it’s not going to help you.”

The 49ers will enjoy a bye week before returning to the field at home against the New Orleans Saints and prolific passer Drew Brees on November 6.

After lackluster effort in loss to Arizona, the 49ers get a much-needed break

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Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson (31) runs from San Francisco 49ers linebacker Nick Bellore, bottom, and defensive end Taylor Hart (96) during the second half of an NFL football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

By Morris Phillips

Nobody looks good on Thursday night football.  Not the winner, and certainly not the loser, in this case the 49ers, who fell 33-21 to the Cardinals at Levi’s Stadium.

Whether it was the abbreviated week, the shortened preparation and recovery time, or just the static nature of the team’s offense, the 49ers stunk up the joint in dropping their fourth straight, after opening the season with an impressive win over the Rams.

But the victorious Cardinals didn’t look much better.  Just better than their opponent.

“The biggest thing was whatever it took to get this win,” Arizona defensive lineman Calais Campbell said.  “Find a way to get it done and try to figure it out from here.”

Campbell was a big part of the small part of this football game that was smartly executed, that being the Arizona defensive effort.  The Cardinals made life miserable for 49ers’ quarterback Blaine Gabbert, picking him off twice and sacking him seven times.  After the 49ers took an early 7-0 lead, all lanes closed, as the turnovers and mistakes doomed the home team’s effort, which saw them trailing by as much as 31-14 after David Johnson’s two-yard touchdown with 4:44 remaining in the game.

While the 49ers struggled on both sides of the ball—allowing 157 yards rushing to Johnson alone—Gabbert was the lightning rod for the team’s failures, as the calls for Colin Kaepernick intensified as the game went on.  Gabbert finished 18 of 31 for 162 yards and one touchdown.  He targeted deep threat Torrey Smith once without a completion, and ran the ball himself 10 times, just two examples of how unfocused the team’s attack was on Thursday.

But make no mistake this wasn’t just Gabbert’s fault, Carlos Hyde didn’t run well and briefly lost his cool drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, the blocking up front wasn’t effective, and the team as a whole failed to take advantage of Arizona’s snail-like start to the game in which they punted on seven consecutive possessions to start the game.

“I don’t think anybody played well on offense. Nobody.  I don’t think we protected well enough, I don’t think we threw it well enough and we had too many drops and two interceptions,” Coach Chip Kelly conceded.

Most glaring was the 49ers inability to take advantage of early momentum, a problem on Sunday as well in the loss to the Cowboys.  In both games early 49ers’ leads meant too little, and were all but forgotten after halftime of both losses.  In this one, the Cardinals punted seven times to start, but they finished with 26 points after halftime while punting just twice.

All of that with the absence of normal starter Carson Palmer, who was replaced by Drew Stanton, who frankly wasn’t that good.  Stanton completed 11 of 27 passes for 124 yards but didn’t turn the ball over.  While both Stanton and Gabbert had the national television audience and the crowd at Levi’s squirming with their incomplete passes, Stanton at least had the support of his teammates, who didn’t panic with the slow start.

Defensively, the 49ers missed emotional leader NaVorro Bowman, who underwent surgery and will miss the remainder of the season.  In his place, Nick Bellore had nine tackles and was serviceable, but no match for the elite running of Arizona’s Johnson.  Behind Bellore, the 49ers’ secondary had their hands full with wily veteran Larry Fitzgerald, who caught a pair of touchdown passes despite facing frequent double teams.

Both teams entered the game in last place in the NFC West at 1-3, and the Cardinals’ win allowed them to look ahead confidently with games against Seattle, Minnesota and the Jets coming up.  For the 49ers, not having to admit the shortcomings to the media after the game might be a reasonable, short-term goal.

“I’ve got to play better,” Gabbert admitted.  “I have to do a better job executing this offense.  That’s the way it goes.”

“We’re going to get this thing right.”

The 49ers travel to Buffalo following their extended week of preparation.  They’ll face the Bills, who also are looking for improvement after a slow start to their season.  They did get good news, getting defensive standout Marcell Dareus back from suspension, then shutting out the Patriots on Sunday, who were playing without Tom Brady for the last time.

49ers jump to a quick start, then get pushed around by the Cowboys and lose for the third, straight game

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By Morris Phillips

Holding an early 14-0 lead, and facing a team without three, offensive stars, the 49ers figured to be in fine shape on Sunday at home against the Cowboys.  But instead, just the opposite was true, as the Cowboys fought back before halftime, then seized control in the second half on their way to a 24-17 win over the 49ers.

Now 1-3 for the second, straight season, the 49ers have to win Thursday against Arizona or fall into an unenviable hole, and they’ll have to do it without emotional leader and defensive standout NaVorro Bowman.

Bowman suffered a lower leg injury during the second half without there being a physical event with another player.   With an MRI scheduled for Monday, the team could be without Bowman for an extended period of time.  Whether they have Bowman or not, the 49ers have to find a way not to get pushed around physically as the Cowboys did to them in the second half.

Or better handle adversity, which against the Cowboys started with a questionable roughing the passer penalty.  That penalty on Jaquiski Tartt led to Dallas’ first touchdown three plays later.  With rookie quarterback Dak Prescott corralled by two defenders, Tartt rushed in with a push to Prescott’s chest prompting a critical flag.

“We talk about it all the time, penalties that keep drives alive are things that hurt you,” Coach Chip Kelly said.  “I didn’t see it.  They said they blew a whistle.  I didn’t hear a whistle on the field.  I know no one on our side heard a whistle on the field.  If they called it, it happened.”

More adversity would follow in the form of Bradley Pinion’s short punt, and a second, lengthy Cowboys drive that tied the game before halftime.   Prescott hooked up with receiver Brice Butler on a 4-yard scoring play with 12 seconds remaining in the half to get the Cowboys even at 14.

The 49ers started the game on a roll, converting seven straight third down opportunities, a week after they failed in each of their first, ten such situations at Seattle.  In the second half, quarterback Blaine Gabbert couldn’t replicate that early success, throwing short on two, critical third down plays, as well as a costly interception when speedster Torrey Smith broke free deep in the fourth quarter, and the 49ers needing a go-ahead score.

“I have to throw him to the middle of the field, I have to throw him to the hash and I just cut it a little too early and missed him wide,” Gabbert said when asked about the pivotal play.

The Cowboys played without Tony Romo, and All-Pros Dez Bryant and offensive tackle Tyron Smith.  With those three out, everyone in the stadium from Kelly to the peanut vendor knew the 49ers had to stop the Cowboys’ run game then zero in on the inexperienced Prescott.  But the Cowboys’ talented offensive line—even without Smith—won out, first in their speedy comeback, then late when the 49ers were without Bowman for the games’ final 20 minutes.

On the Cowboys first play after Bowman departed, rookie back Ezekiel Elliott enjoyed his second, longest run of the afternoon, a 23-yarder that went right at Bowman replacement, Nick Bellore.  Elliott would finish with 138 yards rushing on 23 carries, including the Cowboys go-ahead score late in the third quarter.

“They got a Hall of Fame tight end, they got an outstanding running back, they have three other offensive lineman I think are really good so I wouldn’t shortchange them from a talent standpoint,” Kelly responded when asked about the 49ers inability to capitalize on the absence of Dallas’ key three players.  “I know Dez didn’t play, but it wasn’t like if Dez is out, there’s no one else to go to.”

Gabbert finished 16 of 23 for 196 yards and a touchdown pass to Jeremy Kerley to open the scoring.   But that 33-yard pass was Gabbert’s longest of the afternoon, and he failed to get the ball to Smith, who caught one pass for three yards and had no chance on the ball that was picked off by Dallas’ Morris Claiborne.  Gabbert’s QB rating of 57 illustrated how limited the team’s attack was under his leadership, but Kelly insisted that his quarterback played well, and dismissed suggestions that Gabbert be replaced by Colin Kaepernick.

Prescott extended his rookie record of 131 passes without an interception, and finished 23 of 32 for 245 yards and two touchdowns.  While the rookie never wavered when trailing by two scores, the 49ers were guilty of not putting an extra layer of pressure on Prescott with a third, first half score or by forcing a key turnover.

The 49ers will get a second opportunity to do just that on Thursday against the Cardinals, who will be without injured Carson Palmer, and led instead by backup quarterback Drew Stanton.

 

O’Neil schemed defense outshines Chip Kelly’s offense in season-opening shutout of the Rams

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By Morris Phillips

SANTA CLARA–Los Angeles’ professional football renaissance–23 years in the making–will have to wait one more week.  The 49ers saw to that.

A stifling defense effort, packed with strategical wrinkles courtesy of new defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil, kept quarterback Case Keenum and dynamic running threat Todd Gurley under wraps for 60 minutes in the 49ers 28-0 victory.

The Rams, bereft of points, had to settle for first downs instead, managing just 10 of those on the night.  Keenum failed to keep his offense on the field, throwing for just 130 yards and converting 3 of 15 third down opportunities.  Forced to beat the 49ers through the air with Gurley (17 carries, 47 yards) bottled up, Keenum failed miserably. Afterwards, the veteran quarterback tabbed by coach Jeff Fisher over Sean Mannion and No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff, credited the 49ers and their crafty looks.

“Especially on third down, a lot of looks we hadn’t seen before,” Keenum said.

Maybe the most effective of those looks schemed by O’Neil had safety Eric Reid crashing the line of scrimmage in search of Gurley and others. While credited with only three tackles, Reid was a focal point, along with linebacker NaVorro Bowman, for a defense that swarmed to the ball and was rarely caught out of position.

“He is physical and he is fast,” O’Neil said of Reid.  “He did a good job of timing it up. We tell our guys that we are only going to blitz the guys that are going to win.  Eric is a guy that can go win.”

While Reid starred along with Bowman, the San Francisco defensive line with emerging stars  Arik Armstead and Quinton Dial did the dirty work, staying in their lanes to combat Gurley, and getting enough penetration to bother Keenum. Armstead was declared a guy to watch early on in training camp, but rarely played in the pre-season because of a shoulder injury.  On Monday, O’Neil deployed his 6’7″ disrupter sparingly, but effectively.

“We had a game plan for how to use me in the game,” Armstead said.  “I  played a lot of passing situations and I rotated in there on first and second downs, too.”

Dial played directly in front of Bowman and kept him “clean” as radio color man Tim Ryan described.  But Dial did even more, deftly splitting double-teaming linemen in run situations.  First round draft pick DeForest Buckner rotated with college teammate Armstead, giving the 49ers an edge in combating the Rams’ top offensive tackle Rodger Saffold.

“I think that’s a good thing about the players we have on our team.  We can give you different personnel and give you different looks.  Guys can play their positions well.  It’s definitely going to pay dividends for us in helping us disguise our looks for opposing quarterbacks,” safety Antoine Bethea said.

The shutout was the team’s first since 2012, and they protected it fiercely as the satisfied Levi’s Stadium crowd headed for the exits in the fourth quarter.  The Rams longest drive of the night–11 plays–brought them to the 49ers 24-yard line.  But with no interest in a face-saving field goal attempt, Keenum was flushed and scrambled unsuccessfully on 4th-and-10 with 2:41 remaining.

For O’Neil, it had to be a redemptive moment.  Picked after several higher profile coordinators rejected the 49ers, the former Browns OC accepted the unenviable task of working opposite Kelly’s high octane offense that frequently leaves its defense fatigued from too many stints on the field.  But on Monday, the mix was just right as Kelly was politely upstaged in his debut.

On Sunday, the 49ers travel to Carolina with, for now, the NFL’s top-ranked defense for a more telling meeting with Cam Newton and the reigning NFC champion Panthers.

 

 

Protest and perform: Kaepernick stance continues in San Diego as the 49ers close the pre-season with a win

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By Morris Phillips

Colin Kaepernick might not have been red, white and blue enough for Chargers’ fans, but he appeared to be red and gold enough for the 49ers’ coaching staff on Thursday night.

Kaepernick again refused to stand for the national anthem before the game, this time kneeling with teammate Eric Reid, during Steven Powell’s singing of the Star Spangled Banner.  The Chargers celebrating their 28th annual “Salute to the Military” had 240 members from each of the four branches of the military on the field for the anthem, displaying flags as Powell, a Naval officer sang.

Before and after the anthem, Kaepernick was greeted with boos and strong language, but in a statement before the game, he remained resolute.

“I’m going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed,” Kaepernick stated.  “To me, this is something that has to change.  When there’s significant change and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, this country is representing people the way that it’s supposed to, I’ll stand.”

Reid, a native of Baton Rouge, Lousiana has been publicly supportive of his teammate, while expressing concern for his hometown, a flashpoint for violence between the police and the black community over the summer.

Less controversial was Kaepernick’s play on the field in his lengthiest and best stint of the pre-season.  The 28-year old quarterback started, led the 49ers to a touchdown on their initial 16-play, 85-yard drive that consumed more than half of the first quarter.  DuJuan Harris culminated the drive with a one-yard run, while Kaepernick completed 6 of 8 passes on the drive, and contributed two productive run plays. 

Kaepernick would go on to play the entire first half, finishing 11 of 18 for 103 yards.  He played behind a backup offensive line, and against San Diego’s second string defense, but impressed by moving the team, and not suffering any sacks or turnovers. 

Blaine Gabbert, the presumed starter for the regular season opener on September 12, sat out as announced before the game.  Kaepernick was followed by sixth-round draft pick Jeff Driskel and free agent signee Christian Ponder.

The 49ers led at halftime, 9-7, after Kaepernick led the team on a late drive before the half that ended with Jeff Dawson’s 32-yard field goal.   Driskel’s stint was marred by two interceptions as the Niners fell behind 21-9 in the third quarter.  But Ponder was at the controls in the fourth when the club scored 22 points and regained the lead.

Among those that impressed, running back Kelvin Taylor had nine carries for 56 yards and the final score of the night, a 10-yard run with 55 seconds remaining that put the game away.  Marcus Rush’s interception off a deflection set up that final score.  Rush, the former Michigan State linebacker continued his impressive pre-season play with the pick, and a forced fumble.

Je’Ron Hamm led the 49ers with four catches for 65 yards.  Jeremy Kerley, a trade acquisition from the Jets in the last week, caught two passes and returned a punt.  Kerley appears to be the needed veteran presence among the receiver corps with Bruce Ellington felled by a season-ending injury two weeks ago.

The 49ers must reduce their roster to 53 in the coming days, and Kaepernick’s presence among that final group isn’t assured.  Most prognosticators believe the team will retain the veteran as their most experienced and capable backup, but his considerable contract, and the anthem controversy, make that far from a sure thing. 

The team reported no new injuries after the game, although Aaron Lynch was briefly hobbled in the first half.  Lynch started at outside linebacker, but will not be available to play or appear at the team facilities during the first four weeks of the season due to a league-mandated suspension.

Gabbert, NaVorro Bowman, Reid and Joe Staley were among a group of 17 presumed starters and key reserves that did not suit up or play.

The 49ers open the regular season on September 12 against the Rams at Levi’s Stadium.

Kaepernick makes season debut, but does little on the field in 49ers’ loss to the Pack

Kap scrambles

By Morris Phillips

SANTA CLARA–Colin Kaepernick’s big shot—and likely his only opportunity—to be named the 49ers’ starting quarterback came and went with a whimper.

The 28-year old who spent the off-season recuperating from thumb, knee and shoulder surgeries, then experienced arm fatigue in training camp, made his 2016 debut on Friday against the Packers, and he didn’t do much to impress in slightly less than a quarter of action.

After watching Kaepernick complete two of six passes, two of which were batted at the line of scrimmage, along with some nifty scrambling on broken plays, only one conclusion could be drawn: maybe Kaepernick’s ability to unseat Blaine Gabbert as the starter may have been too much to ask.

According to Kaepernick, the starting job remains up for grabs.  Afterwards, he was plotting his gameplan for the final exhibition.

“I think next game we have to be more productive, put points on the board,” Kaepernick said.  “Ultimately, that’s what you want to do as an offense and as a quarterback.”

The 49ers’ ran seven plays on Kaepernick’s first possession, then went three and out twice. The quick, fruitless possessions put pressure on the 49ers’ defense, who allowed Green Bay to score early in the second quarter. The Pack would go on to add two more touchdowns in the second half, and win 21-10, to improve to 3-0 in the pre-season.

The 49ers possessed the ball 20 minutes, 31 seconds, losing the time of possession battle nearly two-to-one, and threw for just 61 yards while falling to 1-2 with one final exhibition on Thursday at San Diego.

While many teams use the third pre-season game as their regular season dress rehearsal, Coach Chip Kelly elected to sit several of his defensive stars, while limiting the time for both Gabbert and Kaepernick.

The Packers held 13 players out, most notably receiver Jordy Nelson, safety Morgan Burnett, and backup quarterback Brett Hundley. Aaron Rodgers played two series in the first half, his pre-season debut and likely his conclusion as well. Rodgers finished six of nine for 60 yards, leading the Pack on a 14-play drive that tied the score at 7 in the second quarter.

Gabbert started for the 49ers and led the team to a touchdown given a short field on their second possession. But Gabbert wasn’t much on the wow meter either, finishing two of three for 14 yards passing.

“Had some good drives, had some bad drives,” Gabbert said. “Shot ourselves in the foot a couple times and when you’re inconsistent on the offensive side of the ball, you don’t execute at a high level. It shows when you don’t move the ball, you don’t score points, drives stall. We put our defense in some tough positions and ultimately you lose the game.”

If any San Francisco unit bore watching on Friday, it was the offensive line where both guard spots appear to be still up for grabs with the September 12th season opener looming. Andrew Tiller had held the starting spot at right guard through camp, but was replaced in the starting lineup on Friday by Anthony Davis. Center Daniel Kilgore and right tackle Trent Brown flanked Davis, opposite left tackle Joe Staley and left guard Zane Beedles. Rookie first round pick Joshua Garnett played extensively, but may not be far enough along to unseat Beedles for the opener against the Rams.

Carlos Hyde saw his most extensive pre-season action but was removed when he exhibited concussion symptoms in the second quarter. Hyde finished with 30 yards rushing on four carries, including a 27-yard jaunt in the first quarter.

Bruce Ellington started in the slot receiver spot but was felled by a hamstring injury while fielding a punt, leaving his availability for the opener up in the air. If Ellington can’t go, DeAndrew White could be the starter at that critical spot.

“I don’t know what the medical diagnosis is nor am I going to talk about one of my friend’s injuries, who knows how severe it is. But I know DeAndrew and Bruce have been working their tails off all throughout the summer and training camp learning that position in the slot,” Gabbert said.

Veteran defensive starters NaVorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks and Antoine Bethea watched the game in street clothes, as did lineman Arik Armstead and Glenn Dorsey. First round pick DeForrest Buckner got the start at defensive tackle, but has yet to be teamed with former college teammate Armstead along the defensive front.

No timetable was given by Kelly, but the 49ers appear set in the secondary with Eric Reid and Bethea at the safeties, along with corners Tramaine Brock and first-time starter Jimmy Ward.

 

 

49ers win in Denver, quarterback competition still unsettled as Gabbert plays unspectacularly

By Morris Phillips

The 49ers quarterback competition tooks twists and turns in Denver on Saturday night.

Blaine Gabbert given the opportunity to run with the ball all the way up until the season opener on September 12, took a couple of baby steps forward. Colin Kaepernick, still working through arm fatigue, threw before the game and also made positive strides. And Christian Ponder, signed off the street and thrown into the fire with little preparation, looked like the second coming of Joe Montana.

Needless to say, after the 49ers’ 31-24 exhibition win over the Broncos, the competition has yet to be decided.

“I think he’s gotten better and better each day,” Kelly said of Kaepernick after he threw 40 passes, some up to 50 yards, before Saturday night’s game. “And we’ll just see. The biggest thing is how he responds, in terms of it there are any residual effects when he wakes up in the morning.”

Kelly went on to say that Kaepernick is expected to resume practice on Monday, and play in Friday night’s home game against the Packers. If so, the competition between Gabbert and Kaepernick could be decided at the conclusion of this upcoming week. As for sixth rounder Jeff Driskel and free agent signee Ponder, both appear poised to make extended appearances in the final two games, if for no other reason to ensure the team has its health at the position heading into the beginning of the season.

Ponder did turn heads against the Broncos entering the game late in the third quarter and leading the team on a pair of touchdown drives that turned a tie game into a 14-point 49ers’ lead. First he scrambled for a 22-yard touchdown run, then on the next possession threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Dres Anderson. Not bad for a guy for was prepared to run roughly half of the 40 offensive plays the team had installed for the game, not including his touchdown pass, which was reportedly drawn up on the sideline during the game.

The former Vikings’ quarterback didn’t play in the NFL in 2015, but his calling card, passing accuracy, didn’t escape in during the inactivity. Ponder, who was signed after Thad Lewis was injured in the first pre-season game, finished 7 of 8 for 86 yards, and appeared to be having the time of his life in his return to action.

Gabbert certainly didn’t wow anyone, but through two games he hasn’t taken a sack or committed a turnover. After several series of blah, blah, Gabbert led the 49ers on a scoring drive in the second quarter, culminating with four-yard run that put the team up 14-7 in the second quarter. Gabbert also put up decent, if not spectacular numbers, finishing 6 of 9 for 69 yards.