An inspiring defensive outing was not enough to outweigh costly turnovers and average quarterback play, as the Niners lose more key players to injury in a 23-15 loss to the Washington Football Team in Week 14.
49ers fans would recognize Alex Smith under center for the Washington Football Team Sunday, even with the franchise’s reluctance to choose a new mascot still feeling rather unfamiliar.
On the first series for San Francisco, WR Deebo Samuel re-aggravated a hamstring injury that kept him out for three weeks earlier in the season. He did not re-enter the game and is unlikely to return this year.
Niners QB Nick Mullens looked poised early on to stick to head coach Kyle Shanahan’s game script, which focused on a strong running presence and one-two-punch featuring RBs Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr. The 49ers got on the board first when Wilson Jr. punched in a one-yard rushing touchdown at the end of the first quarter.
49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh had his side of the ball dialed in early, holding Washington to just six offensive points in the first half. After CB Jason Verrett picked off Smith at the two-minute warning, Mullens would get the ball back with a chance to push downfield and extend the 49ers lead before halftime.
On the subsequent drive, facing pressure on third down, Mullens fumbled as Washington DE Chase Young, who was everywhere on the day, recovered the loose ball and ran it back 47 yards to the house to put Washington up 13-7 before the second quarter expired.
Despite losing Fred Warner in the first defensive series to a neck stinger and possible concussion, the defense continued exactly where it left off in the first half, and would not allow the Washington offense in the endzone all day. The 49ers defense held the Washington Football Team to 193 total net yards of offense on the day and just 12 total first downs.
Mullens continued his chaotic, up-and-down play in the second half, but could not sustain much positive momentum, and threw a pick-six on a clear miscommunication with FB Kyle Juszczyk as the 3rd quarter expired.
On the next 49ers possession, Mullens and the offense would drive 75 yards on 11 plays, culminating in a Juszczyk score on a beautiful play design by Shanahan, scheming the fullback wide open amidst a perplexed Washington defense. After a 2-pt conversion by WR Kendrick Bourne, the 49ers found themselves down one score, 23-15, with ten minutes left and a fighting chance.
“Yeah, I did after the pick six,” head coach Kyle Shanahan replied when asked if he considered replacing Mullens after his second costly turnover with QB CJ Beathard. “I wanted to give CJ a chance to warm up during the next drive and during the next drive, Nick made some big third downs and we went down there and scored. So after he took us on the scoring drive, I changed my mind.”
The 49ers defense would get the ball back for their team four more times with a shot to tie it before the game ended, but the offense could not do anything of substance, suffering at the hands of costly drops and untimely penalties.
With such high expectations for the season, 49ers fans will be disappointed to be all but eliminated from this year’s playoffs. Shanahan has done everything in his power to help this team find success, but rising concerns about quarterback play and sub-par performances at the position have limited his ability to be as effective as football followers are used to, making it easier for defensive coordinators on opposing teams to game plan against the Niners offense.
DE Chase Young was stellar throughout, finishing the day with a touchdown, six total tackles, and two tackles for loss, leading a Washington defense that scored two touchdowns on 49ers takeaways.
“I thought Nick missed a few open throws today where he could do better, but I think the main thing was just the turnovers,” Shanahan told reporters after the game.
“You have to be relentless, resilient, and always keep fighting and that’s what I’ll always do,” Mullens said in his postgame. “No matter what the situation is, focus on the details, keep fighting, focus on the next play and just keep pushing to be better.”
The 49ers' playoff hopes are all but extinguished now, and the team will need a heavy hand from the football gods if they hope to continue playing on into the winter months.
The Niners will do what they can in Dallas this Sunday against a reeling Cowboys outfit at 10 a.m. PST.
Top image: Christian Petersen/Getty Images