Something has to give at quarterback
49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said the same things this week that he said the previous week about his plans for the quarterback position against the Giants. Rookie C.J. Beathard started, with Jimmy Garoppolo as the backup.
But no matter which quarterback Shanahan went with, the Niners needed a much better performance than they've gotten for most of the first nine games in order to get a victory. Through those nine weeks, 49ers quarterbacks had a 29.3 QBR, third-worst in the NFL, ahead of only the Browns (22.8) and Bears (25.9). Beathard actually had been worse than Brian Hoyer, who was released to make room for Garoppolo. Hoyer had a 32.8 QBR in his six starts; Beathard was at 24.4 after his first three starts.
What's more, the 49ers had managed to score just 30 points in Beathard's three starts (10 in each game).
None of that appeared to bode well for the Niners but the fact that the Giants hadn't exactly been successful stopping the pass this season. After holding opposing quarterbacks to a 48.5 QBR (lowest in the league) in 2016, New York was allowing opposing passers to post a 57.2 QBR this year, 28th in the NFL.
As it turned out, the Giants' shoddy pass defense was just what the doctor ordered as Beathard posted the best performance of his young NFL career. He finished 19-of-25 for 288 yards with two touchdowns and an interception for a career-high passer rating of 123.4. He added an 11-yard touchdown run to register a QBR of 92.5. Most important, he was the one to take a knee in the victory formation for the team's first win of the season.
Beating the blitz
From the moment Beathard took over as the starting quarterback, opponents had blitzed him relentlessly. Opponents sent five or more pass-rushers after Niners quarterbacks on 35 percent of their dropbacks this season, the second-highest rate in the league. In the three weeks since Beathard stepped in, only the Eagles blitzed less than 33 percent of the time.
And Beathard had not fared well when facing additional pressure. Against the blitz, Beathard had been under pressure 53 percent of the time and completed just 46 percent of his passes for 230 yards, with a touchdown and an interception, for a passer rating of 57.9. He'd been sacked on seven of those dropbacks.
"We’ve gotten blitzed definitely more than I’ve ever had in my career," Shanahan said. "Most of it is run blitzes to try to stop your run and dare you to do some things. You have to make people pay, and that’s the only way to scare people out of stuff and I think we’ve struggled to make people pay. The whole way I look at offense is, what are you doing to us. I’m going to try to find a way to scare you out of that, and until you do, people are going to continue to do that.
"I think that’s where we haven’t been able to dictate what the defense is doing, and that’s the goal. I don’t want to just bang my head against a wall and do stuff over and over. I want to find the weakness of the defense and attack that and make them change to open up other stuff. We haven’t done that consistently enough.”
The 49ers did it far more consistently on Sunday. When the Giants sent five or more pass-rushers, Beathard was 6-of-8 for 160 yards with an 83-yard touchdown pass. The Niners completed three passes of 40 or more yards on the day, tying for the most they've had in a game since 2001, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Beathard even managed to score his rushing touchdown with additional rushers coming after him.
Working the seams
The 49ers' defense has been one of the best at slowing down opposing tight ends this season. The 378 receiving yards they've yielded to the position was the ninth-lowest total in the NFL entering Sunday. But they figured to get a big test this week in the form of Giants rookie Evan Engram, who led the team with 34 receptions for 412 yards and four touchdowns.
Engram looked to be even more of a headache considering the injuries the Niners are dealing with. Rookie Adrian Colbert stepped in at free safety and was charged with helping against Engram, and the Niners also needed help from strong safety Eric Reid and some of their linebackers.
Another matchup between the numbers worth watching was New York slot receiver Sterling Shepard against the Niners' nickel corners. K'Waun Williams returned from a quadriceps injury to help in those efforts.
The 49ers had an up-and-down day in this category. Shepard torched the Niners to the tune of 11 catches for 142 yards while Engram was kept in check with six catches for 31 yards, though he did score a touchdown.