First, let’s put things in perspective… an ugly Win feels much better than a pretty Loss any day of the week.
Despite 5 turnovers (3 fumbles and 2 INT’s), the Niners somehow pulled out an improbable win against a proud and gritty Steelers team who came to play on Sunday. The 2 INT’s came early in the game on the Niner’s side of the field. Both passes should have been caught by Breida and Pettis but the ball bounced off their hands into the Steelers hands. And, both times, the stout Niner Defense held and limited the Steelers to 2 Field Goals. The 3 Fumbles were lost in the Steeler’s Red Zone, so a potential 9 to 21 points were flushed down the drain. Following are the winning percentages of teams having turnovers based on the 2017 NFL season:
0 turnovers – 73.4 % chance of winning
1 turnover – 56.7 %
2 turnovers – 40.7 %
3 turnovers – 18 %
4+ turnovers – 0 %
The Niner Defense forced 2 Steeler turnovers so statistically speaking, they had an 18 % chance of winning.
But win they did thanks largely to the Niner Defense who have clearly arrived and are playing like a playoff team. The Front 4 is nine players deep, the LB duel of Kwon Alexander and Fred Warner are playing like Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, the CB’s (Ahkello Witherspoon and Richard Sherman) rivals any team’s best CB’s, and the Safeties are young but quickly learning. DeForest Buckner had 8 tackles (7 solo), Kwon Alexander had 7 tackles (6 solo), and Fred Warner had 3 tackles (3 solo). But, I give this week’s game ball to Arik Armstead. He was the disrupter who allowed DeFo, Kwon, and Warner to finish the tackles. I was not a fan of Arik but he is now playing on the Edge and it has become clear that this is his best position. Arik is now playing both the run and pass defense equally well. To give you an example of how well the Niner Defense is playing, they held the Steelers to a mere 76 total yards in the first half. The Steelers did finish with 239 total yards for the game but if you take away the only 2 big mistakes that the Defense made (76 yard TD pass to Smith-Shuster and a 39 yard TD pass to Diante Johnson), they limited the Steelers to a total of 124 yards. They held James Conner to 43 yards on 13 carries and Armstead forced the key Connor fumble late in the game. It’s time to find a good nickname for the Niner Defense… How about “Gold Busters” !!!
On Offense, although they turned the ball over an unacceptable 5 times, they moved the ball up and down the field despite the fact that Garoppolo was pressured all day long. He was pressured 8 times but sacked only once. He finished with 277 passing yards on a very good 23-32 (71.9 %) and throwing the winning TD to Pettis with 1:20 left in the game. I believe that this was Jimmy G’s best effort as a Niner given that he was facing a very tough Steeler defense. He stayed strong in the pocket and threw some very accurate passes under pressure including the game winner. With Joe Staley out, Justin Skule had a solid game at Left Tackle as the Offense stats indicate. Hopefully, he will improve by experience and hold down the fort until Staley returns. After being in Shanahan’s Dog House all season long, Dante Pettis is now on the right track as his practice ethics have improved dramatically and it is now showing on game day. He showed his emotions after catching the game winner. The running game held their own producing 159 yards with Raheem Mostert being the leading ball carrier with 79 yards on 12 carries. Additionally, the Niners have found their badly needed Red Zone power runner in Jeff Wilson. He now has scored 4 TD’s, 2 each in the last two games. Not bad for a guy who was promoted from the Practice Squad two weeks ago when Tevin Coleman went down with a high ankle sprain. The Offensive player of the Game was Kyle “Juice” Juszczyk. He had 3 catches of which 2 were highlight reel plays. The first on a long pass where is stretched and went parallel Superman to make the catch. The second one where he caught the ball, broke a tackle and stiff armed Minkah Fitzpatrick to the ground. The Niner sideline went wild. But, the real reason that Juice deserves the Offensive game ball is that he was a monster blocker for Garoppolo and for the RB’s. He made key blocks all day long. Not too many teams run the 22 Offense (2 RB’s and 2 TE’s) but the Niners do this on a consistent basis. There are only a limited amount of things a team can do with a 22 Offense with the run being the primary focus. So even though the opposing defense knows that a run is coming at them, the Niners consistently gain yards. As George Kittles said, “That’s our run game. We’re going to try to run through your throats and run through face, and, hey, if you can stop it, try — try your best shot.”
Richard Sherman said that this team needed this kind of ugly game as it demonstrates that the Niners have a lot of improvements to work on to get them to that next level. But, by winning when they should have lost also shows the commitment and character that this team has.
The one area of concern is that Ahkello Witherspoon went down with a foot injury in the second half. Jason Verrett came in and got burned badly on his first two plays. He was called for pass interference, then on the very next play got burned for a 39 yard TD. Depending on how much time Ahkello is expected to be out, the Niners may be back in discussions with Jacksonville for a possible trade for Jalen Ramsey. Stay tuned….