Teams with aspirations to make the playoffs and do some damage aren’t picky about how they win.
The 49ers, however, rely on a specific formula, and when games go sideways as they did Sunday in a 30-23 road loss to the Seattle Seahawks, disaster ensues.
It was all so neat and tidy during the three-game win streak that got them to 6-5.
Run the ball early and often. Play from ahead, especially in the second half. Don’t turn the ball over. Get a few takeaways. Dominate time of possession and let a fresh defense get after the quarterback.
No muss, no fuss and another one in the win column.
When you think about it though, pretty much any team that wins in those areas is also going to own the scoreboard.
The teams that are a cut above manage to win on the scoreboard when taken out of their comfort zone, which happened in a big way against Seattle. The end result is a 6-6 record that finds the 49ers currently in the seventh and final NFC playoff position.
The 49ers have been snakebit by injuries the past two years, and they knew going into the game they were going to be without two of their best players — do-it-all wide receiver Deebo Samuel and middle linebacker Fred Warner.
Then on the opening kickoff, return specialist Trent Cannon was inadvertently struck in the head by teammate Talanoa Hufanga. He got an ambulance ride to the hospital while teammates prayed on the field. Cannon had a concussion and will stay the night in the hospital for observation.
Cornerback Emmanuel Moseley departed in the first half with an ankle injury, and the Seahawks immediately went after rookie corner Deommodore Lenoir.
Unfortunate, but all the kinds of things teams deal with during the course of a season.
It’s true that Russell Wilson appeared to find himself after a rough stretch and Seattle (4-8) did more positive things in this game than they had virtually all season. Yet this was more about how the 49ers weren’t a good enough team to rise above their injuries and mistakes and come through in crisis situations. A successful season will include instances of winning games in a way to which a team is not accustomed.
It would all look different if Carlos Dunlap II hadn’t tipped Jimmy Garoppolo’s last pass on fourth and goal at the 3-yard line. Or if Sidney Jones had been called for pass interference or holding in the end zone against Trent Sherfield on third-and-goal.
Then again, the 49ers still would have had to kick an extra point to the tie game, and the way this one went on special teams, that was far from a lock for Robbie Gould.
.@travishomer4 took the fake punt 73 yards and they never even touched him
— Seattle Seahawks (@Seahawks) December 5, 2021
There was nothing comfortable about this game from the outset, starting with a 73-yard touchdown run by Travis Homer out of punt formation. It immediately sent a message that this game wasn’t going to be like the previous three when the 49ers looked very good from the outset.
“We just really felt like we were ready to go, and giving them that punt return gave them a lot of life,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said.
There were two costly Garoppolo interceptions and a lost fumble by Cannon’s replacement Travis Benjamin on a kickoff return.
With the 49ers up 23-14 in the second quarter, roughing the passer penalties on Arden Key and Charles Omenihu contributed to a Seattle scoring drive that cut the 49ers’ lead to 23-21, mistakes that gave life not only to the Seahawks but to the home crowd.
Tight end George Kittle, who caught nine passes for 181 yards and two touchdowns, called it “one of the wildest games I’ve ever been a part of” and it remains to be seen if the 49ers can win those kinds of games.
By the end of the game, all the crazy things that happened took a back seat to statistical indicators that showed the 49ers were taken out of their own playing style.
An offense that has owned third down was 3-for-12. A team that ran the ball 125 times the previous three games had 25 rushes and gained only 71 yards. A team that has dominated time of possession had the ball for 26:48 to 33:12 for Seattle.
Instead of winning the turnover battle, the 49ers and Seahawks were tied 3-3.
It was bound to happen after the way the 49ers controlled the line of scrimmage against the Rams, Jaguars and Vikings that an opponent was going to do everything in its power and dare the 49ers to win through the air.
That opponent was Seattle.
“They just crowd the line of scrimmage, crowd the box, bring linebackers up,” left tackle Trent Williams said. “Obviously teams will want to play us that way to try and stop the run.”
The turnovers, penalties (10 for 86 yards) and mistakes made it impossible for the 49ers to have their usual patience in terms of calling running plays.
“We knew it would be tough,” Shanahan said. “They don’t make it easy to run the ball, but I would like to get more play calls in, especially the runs. But we only had 48 total plays (going into the last drive), so it was going to be really hard to get that many runs.”
The 49ers actually wound up with more pass plays (30) than running plays (25), which is never part of a Shanahan game plan.
“We definitely blew it,” defensive end Nick Bosa said. “But we knew it was going to be this type of game whenever we play them. We have to do a better job of not giving the game away.”
Next up for the 49ers is Cincinnati on the road, followed by Atlanta at home and then Tennessee in Nashville.
If the 49ers can play to their formula, they can win them all, be 9-6 and squarely in the playoff picture. The loss to Seattle proved the 49ers are just another team when they deviate from the script.
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Author: Jerry McDonald