The 49ers will head into the bye feeling pretty good about themselves, as they should. Without Carlos Hyde, Anquan Boldin and both starting cornerbacks, they earned a 17-16 victory over a team that came to Santa Clara with a record of 6-2.
They also have the Falcons to thank … former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, most of all. Atlanta’s new head coach said his defense would be “ready to rock” after catching wind of Kyle McLorg’s report that the 49ers replaced Colin Kaepernick with Blaine Gabbert this week because they were facing the Falcons at home, and he coached like someone who was going with his gut more than his head. Quinn’s hands told the story.
Quinn’s identity is still on the defensive side. He pumped his fist like a fan after he thought his guys stopped Bruce Miller on 4th-and-1 halfway through the fourth quarter. The officials rightfully gave the 49ers a first down on the play, so Quinn challenged, despite the strong chance that he’d lose a timeout and the 49ers hadn’t even crossed midfield yet. Officials like reversing spots as much as home plate umpires like changing ball/strike calls, so of course the spot stood after review.
That wasn’t even Quinn’s worst decision of the fourth quarter. After Jimmie Ward stopped Justin Hardy at the 2-yard line on 3rd-and-goal with 3:42 remaining, Quinn defiantly stuck three fingers in the air. Instead of going for a 20-17 win, Quinn chose a one-point deficit and the chance to prove that his defense is soooooo ready to rock, bro. Perhaps he caught his team by surprise — and who could blame them, since Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman and Jacob Tamme had combined for 24 catches and 265 receiving yards — because the Falcons took 42 seconds(!) to kick a 19-yard field goal.
The Football Gods frown on decisions like this. Quinn believed there was a better chance that his defense could keep the 49ers from earning one first down than his offense gaining two yards, even though the Falcons had a six-minute edge in time of possession at the time.
After it looked like Jim Tomsula’s 49ers were going to out-conservative Quinn’s Falcons with two vanilla running plays, they sent Blaine Gabbert on a bootleg run to the right, and he slid in safely. First down. Then the 49ers gained ANOTHER first down on the ground, hammering home the point that the 49ers were right to make the switch to Gabbert when they did.
Gabbert’s 49ers debut goes pretty well
The stats weren’t great (15-for-25, 185 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions), but without the inordinate number of drops from guys like Jerome Simpson and Torrey Smith, we might’ve seen a 20-for-25, 230 yards (or so), two touchdowns, one pick line. We learned today that Gabbert is MUCH better at throwing to a receiver’s back shoulder than Kaepernick, who ended up getting a couple snaps in this game.
If you didn’t watch this game (and based on how the stands looked at Levi’s, a lot of people either stayed home to watch the game on TV or spent this afternoon doing something else), Gabbert took a big hit from Philip Wheeler, who was called for roughing the passer, and had to go through whatever the NFL calls their “concussion protocol.”
Kaepernick came in and handed it to Shaun Draughn for no gain, then he floated a decent pass to Vance McDonald … who dropped it. (It’s amazing that Kaepernick still trusts McDonald after three years of evidence to the contrary, isn’t it?) The pass was a bit high, but McDonald should’ve come down with it fairly easily. The 49ers then called timeout to get Kaepernick — who smiled in a way that didn’t mean “I’m happy with what’s going on” — out of the game, and Gabbert went on to become the “hero.”
Gabbert has to be extremely pleased. Only one of his two interceptions could be blamed on him, and his horrible career record as a starter got a boost. Plus, as the 49ers move further away from the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Gabbert’s chances of starting next season under center ahead of a rookie quarterback get better with each win … provided Gabbert keeps playing capably and stays healthy.
— Kaepernick might have beaten these Falcons, too — Atlanta played a lot like Baltimore did when they came to Santa Clara, with lots of dumb penalties and other assorted mistakes — but Gabbert’s accuracy was a definite departure from what we’ve seen over the last several weeks.
— 49ers running backs: 27 rushes for 90 yards.
— You’re thinking, “Hey, that’s pretty mediocre.” But Freeman rushed for 12 yards on 12 carries after six straight strong games.
— The 49ers are 3-2 at home, where their defense has looked much, much better this season than it has on the road.
— NaVorro Bowman played extremely well, but what about Marcus Cromartie? The practice squad corner made plays on Freeman when the Falcons ran, and he did a very nice job against Jones. In fact, based on today’s game and today’s game alone, Cromartie and Dontae Johnson looked like the guys who should start each week.
— Jaquiski Tartt made some outstanding plays, and Ward also looked strong. The 49ers defensive back who seemed to do the least was Eric Reid. Tartt, Reid and Bowman were in the vicinity when Jones caught that one deep ball.
— Jerome Simpson couldn’t catch a thing today, but he had a very strong helmet spike after tipping that pass to Phillip Adams.
— Based on the second half, when Andrew Tiller either got every snap or the majority of snaps, the 49ers are finally ready to move on from the Jordan Devey era. Took them long enough.
— The moral of today’s story: If you play quarterback for the 49ers and you want to throw to a tight end, choose Garrett Celek. Don’t target McDonald. Ever.
— As the 49ers go into the bye week, one has to wonder if they’re going to stay in limbo for quite some time. They need a star in the first round of next year’s draft, and they’re staring at 5-11 or 6-10, since they get to play the Lions, Bears and Browns. But they accomplished what they hoped to do this week — they stopped the tsunami of negativity that was soaking the franchise, and they get 14 days to pimp every good thing about this victory on social media before flying to Seattle and getting another road trip reality check.