SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- With two minutes to play, the Eagles were this close to being 4-0: the back end of the ball rested on the two-yard line. From just over five feet away -- think of Darren Sproles, supine -- the visitors would have two cracks at the end zone.
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The 49ers were that close to falling to 1-3, to losing three straight for the first time in the Jim Harbaugh era. That, one local wag predicted in the San Francisco Chronicle, would result in the Niners’ head coach occupying an even hotter seat than Dennis Allen, his winless Raiders counterpart. It would amplify murmurings that the team had lost its discipline (through three weeks, the 49ers led the league in penalties), its moral compass (this club has also led the league in arrests since the beginning of 2012) and its offensive identity. With Harbaugh’s alma mater losing to Minnesota on Saturday, and embattled Wolverines coach Brady Hoke Googling “realtors, Ann Arbor,” it would have stoked the Harbaugh-to-Michigan fires.
Instead, the Eagles never got any closer. With 49ers strong safety Antoine Bethea getting very large in his windshield on 3rd-and-goal -- you need to get a bigger piece of him than that, LeSean McCoy -- Nick Foles overthrew tight end Brent Celek, who’d been mauled upon his release by OLB Ahmad Brooks and never really got open.
On 4th-and-goal Foles faked a handoff then “sprinted” right, looking for any one of three receivers. But tight end James Casey was blanketed by corner Perrish Cox, while wideout Riley Cooper was erased by nickelback Jimmie Ward. With linebacker Aaron Lynch closing, Foles let go another throw that never had a prayer.
Should the 49ers, now 2-2, escape their doldrums and reclaim their former place among the league’s elite teams, people will rightfully point to that epic goal-line stand, when a reconstituted defense missing several starters twice repelled one of the NFL’s most potent attacks.
For their part, the 49er defenders who executed those plays credited Vic Fangio, their phlegmatic, Jack Klugman-esque defensive coordinator, whose powers of divination had been on full display during Friday’s practice.
Fangio’s defensive calls on those two critical downs, “were the only two calls we really went over on Friday,” recalled Cox, who declined to share exactly what those calls were, saying merely, “it worked out perfect.”
Of course, this game wouldn’t have come down to a goal-line stand were it not for the 49ers’ manifold imperfections on offense and special teams. Flipping the script of their previous two games, come-from-ahead losses to the Bears, then Cardinals, Colin Kaepernick started slow, then improved. Kind of. His line -- he completed 17-of-30 passes for two TDs and a pick -- reflected the uneven game he turned in. For every brilliant play -- his designed run that moved the chains on 3rd-and-13; his scrambling, 12-yard touchdown laser to Stevie Johnson midway through the third quarter -- there was an overthrow or brain cramp.
Meanwhile, and for the second straight week, the Niners special teams were especially bad, yielding a blocked punt for a touchdown, followed by an 82-yard punt return to the house by the ever-dangerous Sproles. The 49ers found themselves in the surreal situation of trailing 21-13 at halftime despite the fact that its defense had yielded 73 yards -- and zero points -- on 27 snaps.
Fangio was having a much better afternoon than the last time he faced Chip Kelly’s frenetic no-huddle attack. On Oct. 2, 2010, he coordinated the Stanford defense that allowed 626 yards in a 52-31 blowout in Eugene. This time, his charges were better prepared. Two days before the game, he’d subjected his guys to stresses that were downright unreasonable, cranking up the tempo of the scout team. By the time the DBs hustled back toward the line of scrimmage, after defending a deep pass, the scout team would already have another set of receivers lined up.
Fangio deliberately delayed getting the calls in, forcing his guys to focus on communication, and “making us scramble to get in place,” said Bethea.
The simulation succeeded. A week after feasting on Washington -- the Eagles’ QB threw for 325 yards and three TDs in that 37-34 OT win -- Foles passed for a paltry 195 yards in Levi’s Stadium, 84 of those coming on that fourth-quarter drive that died on the two-yard line.
While McCoy remained shockingly silent -- the NFL’s leading rusher from last season has gained 39 yards on his last 29 carries -- the 49ers’ bell cow running back rediscovered his mojo. Rather, offensive coordinator Greg Roman returned it to him. Without his top two tight ends to set the edge in the 49ers’ rushing attack, Roman tried to wrongfoot the Cardinals in Week 3 with an array of four- and five-receiver sets. Backburnered, Gore carried six times for just 10 yards, and his number was called just once in the second half of San Francisco’s 23-14 loss. After the game, he cut short a discussion with reporters, too upset to continue.
The Niners coaches learned from that mistake, feeding Gore early, often, and even after tight end Vernon Davis left the game in the third quarter with a bad back. Gore finished with 119 yards on 24 carries.
“It’s who we are and I’m happy to be back to that,” declared right guard Alex Boone, after the win. “That is our identity and we need to run the ball like that every week.”
In truth, the team’s identity is evolving. The calamity of a 1-3 start was averted, first and foremost, by the 49ers defense -- which is not the 49ers D that helped propel this team to three straight NFC title games. Cox, who was strong in coverage and recovered a fumble San Francisco turned into seven points, is filling in for Tramaine Brock. Bethea, who had seven tackles and the game-sealing interception -- and who forced that fumble -- was signed in the offseason to replace Donte Whitner, who hasn’t been missed. Rookies Ward and Lynch made critical contributions. This defense, which looked to be in midseason form against the Eagles, gets suspended sackmeister Aldon Smith back on Nov. 10, and could welcome All-Pro linebacker Navarro Bowman back not long after.
Things may yet go sideways for this team. Fangio put the win in perspective: “All it means is, we’re 2-2. Our record’s gonna fall somewhere between 14-2 and 2-14.
“Who knows what next week’s gonna look like?”
Nobody. It is, however, looking more and more likely that much like last season, when the 49ers started 1-2, reports of their demise were greatly exaggerated.