There were plenty of bouquets headed the way of 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan.
His offense had racked up 467 yards and averaged 8.6 yards per play in a 33-22 win over the Chicago Bears Sunday at Soldier Field. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said Shanahan was “on fire” with his play-calling and called it a perfect storm.
There was some of that to be sure, but even more than that this was a game 49ers players took upon themselves to prove a point. At 3-4, they’re not done yet.
Three plays summed up the reality that for all the X’s and O’s and strategy, sometimes it’s players taking matters into their own hands that make the difference between winning and losing.
There were three such plays in the second half that were symbolic and helped the 49ers get back on track after a dubious start:
1. The Deebo screen
Chicago opened the second half with a 25-yard field goal by Cairo Santos for 16-9 lead and then had the 49ers in a third-and-19 from their own 16, courtesy of an illegal block above the waist penalty by Kyle Juszczyk.
Shanahan dialed up a simple quick screen to his left, meant for nothing more than to give Mitch Wishnowsky a better chance at giving the 49ers defense good field position on his first punt of the day. A classic pre-punt play. Nothing bold or daring about it.
Instead, Deebo Samuel took the pass, found a crease and raced 83 yards to the 1-yard line. It was originally called a touchdown but reversed on replay because he had been pushed out at the 1-yard line.
DEEBO SAMUEL. 83 YARDS. #FTTB
— NFL (@NFL) October 31, 2021
“You give it to Deebo, just trying to flip the field and get it close to fourth down, but for him to hit it like that, everyone picked up their blocks, which gave him a clean lane,” Shanahan said. Deebo, he was battling his calf all week, for him to finish that out and get as close to the end zone was awesome.”
Samuel credited the offensive line and his fellow receivers — Mohamed Sanu and Brandon Aiyuk helped block and screen off potential tacklers.
“It starts with the O-line,” Samuel said. “It was a quick little pop screen and the whole left side of the offensive line has got to get out and be lead blockers. I was just following them. It popped open and I just handled the rest.”
Said Garoppolo: “Deebo really just gave us that spark on third down. That was a huge play in the game.”
2. The Jimmy G improv
Samuel’s big play wouldn’t have meant much had the 49ers not finished off the drive in the end zone. Guard Laken Tomlinson was penalized five yards for a false start and pushed the 49ers back to the 6, and Mitchell gained four yards to the 2. Garoppolo then threw wide to Aiyuk in the end zone, bringing up third-and-goal.
The play Shanahan sent in called for Samuel to carry the ball with Garoppolo in the shotgun. Samuel didn’t get the message. So Garoppolo ended up taking the ball himself to the left and diving in for the touchdown. Joey Slye missed the extra point, but the 49ers were within 16-15.
The hometown kid runs it into the end zone for the touchdown
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) October 31, 2021
Shanahan said that in the event of a missed assignment by the ballcarrier, as was the case with Samuel on the play, then quarterbacks are taught to run to the same spot where the play was designed. Which is exactly what Garoppolo did for the first of his two touchdowns.
“We were late in the play clock, there was some motion, the O-line couldn’t really hear right,” Garoppolo said. “There was a lot going on there. I knew where the play was designed to go. I tried to give it to Deebo. I said, `Go, go, go.’ We both kind of froze for a second. Sometimes it’s plays like that, they’re not perfect but whatever it takes.”
3. Mitchell’s push the pile touchdown
On the next possession, the 49ers defense forced their first punt of the day and Aiyuk returned it 21 yards to the 49ers’ 48-yard line.
The 49ers drove to the Chicago 16-yard line, and Mitchell, who finished with 137 yards on 18 carries, ran 11 yards to the 5. Then came a no-frills, basic handoff into the middle of the line designed to get a couple of more.
Keep on pushing!
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) October 31, 2021
Mitchell quickly disappeared into a scrum of 49ers and Bears jerseys., But somewhere within that mass of humanity, Mitchell was still moving forward, as were his linemen. There was pushing from behind as well. With a lot of help, Mitchell kept his legs driving until he crossed the goal line. The touchdown and two-point conversion pass from Garoppolo to Aiyuk put the 49ers up 23-16 with 14:11 to play. They wouldn’t trail again.
Center Alex Mack described what it was like being in the middle of things.
“Just keep driving your feet, waiting for the whistle,” Mack said. “I lost track of which way we were moving. I had no idea if we had turned sideways and were going askew. You’re just hoping we were going the right way and keep driving and hope the best happens. For us to get that on that play, it’s a big moment.”
A moment that Shanahan thought showed what his team was all about when faced with an obstacle after a four-game losing streak.
“I think you could see a lot in one play what our team’s feeling right now,” Shanahan said. “We knew we had to hunker down. We knew we had to battle this week. We knew it would be a fight against a really good team and you could see just how important it was to all 11 guys out there because we needed all 11 to get him in the end zone.”