The 49ers looked poised to move forward Sunday afternoon against the Miami Dolphins with QB Jimmy Garoppolo back at the helm returning from injury, but the team took another step back with a 43-17 loss, as injuries found new ways to plague the already-depleted roster.
Jimmy Garoppolo’s return to signal caller Sunday was short-lived. Garoppolo, who hadn’t played since suffering a high ankle sprain in Week 2 against the NY Jets, practiced throughout the week and was excited to get the team back on track Sunday. However, the struggling 49ers QB went 7/17 with 77 total yards, 2 interceptions, and a passer rating of just 1.4 before being benched at halftime for previously third string option CJ Beathard. It was Garoppolo’s worst start in history.
It was clear from the get that Garoppolo was still bothered by the ankle, with a lack of any strong foundation in his planting foot pushing his mechanics off and making it impossible for him to generate any power in his throws. This was especially apparent in his second pick, with less than 30 seconds to go in the first half, which was floated into the Dolphins secondary far from any Niner receiver. 49ers Head Coach Kyle Shanahan could be seen on the sidelines in disgust, as this set up a Miami field goal that pushed the score to 30-7 before halftime.
Still, Garoppolo did not use the injury as an excuse for his poor performance. “I felt it. I wouldn't say it affected everything,” he said in the postgame press conference. “It's one of those things you’ve got to deal with. It's tough. It was a tough one today. You just want to be out there with the guys, wanted to get the win today, obviously didn't and it was just a lot of things didn't go well for us.”
In order to protect Garoppolo from further injury and embarrassment, Shanahan elected to give CJ Beathard a chance in the second half. However, the 49ers were never able to get anything going, as penalties extended Dolphins drives in the third quarter and a tired offensive unit were unable to muster enough for the W.
Raheem Mostert, who himself returned from injury on the day, was the lone bright spot in the team, registering 90 yards on 11 carries. Kyle Juszczyk scored his first rushing touchdown since playing for the Baltimore Ravens in 2016. Niners fans from recent years will have recognized Matt Breida wearing #22 on the Dolphins, who caught up with Juszczyk in the tunnel during warmups to take a picture together and reminisce on seasons past.
The 49ers offensive line struggled to maintain protection all day as the Dolphins were able to get pressure early and often, registering five sacks and six tackles for loss. The defensive line fared a little better for the Niners, holding the Miami run game to just 2.8 yards per rush.
With so many holes in the Niners secondary, Dolphins QB Ryan Fitzpatrick was especially impressive on the day, throwing for 350 yards, three TDs, no interceptions, and an overall QBR of 99.1. CB Brian Allen, who the 49ers signed from their practice squad over the weekend, struggled greatly, and Fitzpatrick was able to find a ton of success targeting whichever Dolphins receiver was matched up with Allen. After four consecutive drives of Fitzpatrick bringing the hurt to Allen, CB Akhello Witherspoon, who was suited up for Sunday’s game but held out as he recovered from an injury of his own, approached the 49ers Defensive staff midway through the second quarter and alerted them he wanted to give it a shot.
While losing any player to injury and finding a solid replacement is a daunting task for any team, the 49ers discovered Sunday that it is only half of the battle. “We’ve got to get healthier so we can get out there and practice more, because I saw some guys get tired that made it really tough to throw the ball there for the second half,” Shanahan said. WR Deebo Samuel made his return last weekend, however with just four total practices under his belt since the Super Bowl last season, he struggled for fitness as the game went on. WR Brandon Aiyuk is still getting his legs underneath him, and even Kittle seemed to tire towards the end, lacking the same high-end route-running ability fans have come to expect from him. Easing players back in was an issue for the Niners all day, especially at the quarterback position, and cohesion and morale suffered as the game went on.
The 49ers established an identity last year as a run-it-down-your-throat team that played superb complementary football, but this has not been the case this season. “Last year when our defense would step up big, we’d get the ball and go down and score. Right now, we're kind of struggling with that,” QB CJ Beathard told reporters after the game. “When we turned the ball over last year, defense would get a stop and end up holding them to three points, at least. This year it's just we're not playing as a good complementary football and we saw that today. It stuck out."
“At the end of the day, we’re just not playing complementary football,” Kittle echoed. “If our defense gets a stop, we have to go down and score, that’s just what we have to do if we want to win games.”
The 49ers have a rough run of games ahead, hosting divisional rival Los Angeles Rams at Levi’s Stadium next weekend, followed by Patriots away, Seahawks away, Packers at home, and Saints away. “We have a stretch right here, if we play like that, it’s not gonna be a very fun month for us,” said Kittle. “So we gotta get it turned around quick, and I know that we have the guys to do that.”
As Shanahan and the 49ers begin to lose the benefit of the doubt, the team will undoubtedly use this embarrassment to fuel their drive in practice this week as they get set to take on the Rams at home next Sunday at 5:20 PM PST.