By Sam McPherson
The storyline is becoming a pattern for the 2017 San Francisco 49ers as the team’s defense plays its heart out to keep the squad in the game, and then at the last moment, the unit breaks down from exhaustion only to lose the contest. It happened again in Indianapolis on Sunday, as the 49ers lost in overtime to the Colts, 26-23, despite a heroic comeback and a stalwart effort from a beleaguered defensive group.
The loss drops the 49ers to 0-5, but their last four losses have come by a combined 11 points now. Three of the four defeats resulted in the defense just getting too tired at the wrong time of the game while giving up the winning points. It’s hard to blame the defense, considering all the injuries the team has experienced on that side of the ball, and Sunday’s spirited comeback from 14 points down in the fourth quarter can’t be praised enough.
When the offense gains 402 total yards and doesn’t turn the ball over, it’s hard to criticize it—even in a loss. Quarterback Brian Hoyer played his best game as a 49er, throwing for 336 yards and two touchdowns. Both those scores came in the fourth quarter, and the second one tied the game up with just 24 seconds left on a fourth-down play from the five-yard line. Wide receivers Marquise Goodwin (five catches, 116 yards) and Pierre Garcon (eight catches, 94 yards) had great games, as did tight end George Kittle (seven catches, 83 yards, one TD).
The two biggest problems were the lack of a running game and the inability to move the ball into scoring position for the potential win in overtime. The 49ers ran for only 66 yards on 22 carries, which contributed to the stagnant offense in the first three quarters that resulted in just nine points (all field goals). Then, after tying the game with two TD drives in the final quarter, Hoyer couldn’t move the offense (gaining just 17 yards) on the one overtime possession, giving the Colts their final chance to score and win the game.
Normally, giving up 447 yards to an offense led by a QB that wasn’t even with the Colts in preseason wouldn’t be worthy of this grade, but consider the Indy offense gained 116 of those yards in overtime—and the number doesn’t look so bad. The defense also made a huge interception at the goal line in overtime—a nice play by linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong gave the 49ers the chance to win the game as a result—while forcing three fumbles on the day even though all three were recovered by the Colts themselves.
The time-of-possession bug once again hit the defense in the late stages of the game, however, as evidenced by the two drives Indy put together in the extra session. Overall, the S.F. defense was on the field for six more minutes than the S.F. offense, and that really wears down an already-thin group suffering from a variety of injuries. Armstrong’s INT gave the 49ers life, but when the offense couldn’t score, it was clear S.F. was gassed on defense as the Colts marched down the field in eight plays to set up the game-winning FG.
Special Teams: B
Placekicker Robbie Gould was perfect on three FG attempts and two extra points, the last one providing the actual tying point near the end of regulation. Meanwhile, punter Bradley Pinion was again booming the ball, averaging 45.8 yards on six punts. The kick coverage teams smothered the Colts, so the only real downside was the kick-return units which couldn’t do much at all, either. A long return here or there might have given the offense an early boost that could have saved the defense some breathing time later in the day.
Despite not having much of a running game, the 49ers still kept the Colts defense off balance with 22 attempts. That was good strategy, and it paid off at the end of regulation when the S.F. offense was able to move the ball more effectively. Head Coach Kyle Shanahan is getting closer, obviously, to making some big noise with this roster. Perhaps a little more daring in overtime on offense could have paid dividends, but Shanahan knows Hoyer can throw the ball when he needs to do so. This is a process for the 49ers, and the team is clearly on the verge of something better than the record indicates. It could turn the corner any week now.
Up Next: Washington Redskins
San Francisco faces three straight NFC East teams in a row now, starting with the Redskins on the road in Week 6. The 49ers could be looking at an 0-8 start, as Washington, Dallas and Philadelphia all look like solid teams with playoff potential. The Redskins had a bye in Week 5, so they will be rested and at home for San Francisco. Washington is 2-2 with wins over the Los Angeles Rams and the Oakland Raiders. The Redskins lost to the Eagles and the Kansas City Chiefs. No doubt, this will be a tough game for the 49ers, on the road for the second week in a row, against good team that has had two weeks to prepare.