NEW ORLEANS — A 10-0 lead out the gate had the 49ers angling for a Superdome upset. They even had a live audience to fuel them for the first time this season.
Add in Drew Brees’ unexpected exit at halftime, because of a rib injury, and the 49ers should have been living it up in the Big Easy.
Instead, the 49ers muffed two punts, quarterback Nick Mullens struggled to revive the offense, and a short-handed team sustained its third straight loss, this time in 27-13 fashion to the NFC-leading Saints.
This was, in the end, the expected path the 49ers (4-6) were to take into their bye.
“I thought we had an opportunity today, big time,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “We should have had the lead going into the second half. Couldn’t get anything going. Didn’t get much out of run game today and those (four) turnovers are what killed us.”
Mullens’ play will draw the most scrutiny because it comes with the job description, and because of his two interceptions that foiled potential scoring drives.
Without a running game to assist him, and with so many first-string players out injured, the offense had little chance to keep pace with whoever the Saints played at quarterback, and that included Brees, super-sub Taysom Hill and second-half starter Jameis Winston.
“We blew an opportunity there,” Shanahan added.
Muffed punts secured the 49ers’ demise, and those came after the Saints muffed a punt return in the first quarter to spark the day’s trend.
Here are the highs, lows and all you need to know:
RUN GAME GROUNDED: Jerick McKinnon had only 13 yards on his first 13 carries in a starting role likely to be reclaimed by Raheem Mostert after the bye. McKinnon averaged just 1.8 yards per carry (18 attempts, 33 yards).
Making matters worse, McKinnon’s pass protection faltered on multiple occasions, he got hammered at the 14-yard line on a kickoff return and he left with a nerve-stinger injury.
Even worse than all that, the 49ers lost another running back to injury: JaMycal Hasty’s rookie season ended with 10:32 remaining in the game when he broke his left collar bone. He’d gotten tackled for a 5-yard loss after catching a checkdown pass from Mullens.
The 49ers entered without their top three rushers: Mostert (ankle), Tevin Coleman (knee) and Jeff Wilson (ankle). Shanahan expects Mostert and possibly Coleman to return for their Nov. 29 game at the Los Angeles Rams.
MULLENS’ MOMENTS: Mullens’ two interceptions were big in harming a second-half comeback.
A third-down lollipop got picked off by safety Malcolm Jenkins to spoil a third-quarter drive in Saints’ territory. It was heralded as the Saints’ play-of-the-game on their postgame video screens.
Mullens’ grand finale was a fade pass to Kendrick Bourne that got picked off in the end zone by Patrick Robinson with 2:25 left.
Mullens had multiple passes batted down at the line, and he finished 24-of-38 for 247 yards with a touchdown and a 68.6 rating. Hindered by a quadriceps injury, Mullens came out for one play, the last of the third quarter as C.J. Beathard replaced him and underthrew Richie James on a deep route.
SPECIAL TEAMS OOPS: The 49ers’ special teams started out hot with Marcell Harris’ recovery of a muffed punt. But then the 49ers yielded a 75-yard kick return.
The worse was yet to come. The 49ers’ muffed a second-quarter punt at their 21-yard line, when it hit off Ken Webster after Trent Taylor called for a fair catch and let it hit the ground. James’ muffed a fourth-quarter punt return, leading to the Saints’ final touchdown and James was the last 49er to leave the bench once the final seconds expired.
BREES’ EXIT: Brees’ final throw increased his NFL record to 565 touchdown passes, but that came near the end of the first half, not in the fourth quarter. A rib injury forced him out at halftime. Although he was not sacked, he did get hit on a second-quarter play by Kentavius Street that was originally ruled a sack, until officials questionably negated it with a roughing-the passer penalty on Street.
Brees was 8-of-13 for 76 yards with the lone touchdown. As the second half started with Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill alternating at quarterback, Brees paced the sideline with his hands on his hips as teammates left him alone. Brees finally put on a cap with 4:19 left in the third quarter.
Winston was 6-of-10 for 63 yards in relief.
GREAT START: Not only did the 49ers seize a 7-0 lead on Mullens’ 4-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Aiyuk, that 75-yard drive ate up the game’s opening 7 minutes, 17 seconds. Mullens was 6-of-7 for 47 yards. Bolstering the drive was a Saints penalty (C.J. Gardner-Johnson lowered his helmet into Kendrick Bourne) and Mullens’ lone incompletion, which nearly was an interception by Jenkins.
Overall, Aiyuk got targeted a career-high 14 times, catchign seven for 75 yards.
GREAT GRAB: Tight end Jordan Reed made a one-handed catch of a third-down pass barely above the turf, and Reed stumbled ahead for an 8-yard gain, a yard short of a first down. Reed headed for the 49ers’ oxygen tank after that athletic maneuver. He finished with five catches for a season-high 62 yards.
LEAD KILLERS: The 49ers’ 10-0 lead evaporated because, well, an array of negative issues. It started with a 75-yard kick return that set up a 49-yard field goal. Then, after a muffed punt return, and after a muffed officiating call that erased Kentavius Street’s sack, the Saints pulled even on Alvin Kamara’s 2-yard touchdown run.
Street was called for a roughing-the-passer penalty once he plowed into Brees at the 49ers’ 29-yard line. Three plays later, Kamara took a toss from Brees and scored.
The 49ers could not answer those scores before halftime, and a fourth-and-1 try resulted in a 2-yard loss by McKinnon at the Saints’ 43 with 1:50 left in the half. The Saints’ response: another Kamara touchdown, this on a 3-yard catch for a 17-10 halftime lead.
MR. THIRD DOWN: Rookie defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw came through twice to foil the Saints on third down. In the first half, he made a pass defense, and, on the first series after halftime, he made the initial hit that denied Taysom Hill a third-and-2 conversion.
BALL HOGS: Through two series (and a muffed punt), the Saints had just 2 yards, 3 points and 2:29 time of possession. After yielding a 75-yard kick return, the 49ers buckled down and forced the Saints to settle for a 49-yard field goal. Keying that series were Kinlaw’s third-down pass defense and D.J. Jones’ tackle of Alvin Kamara for a 6-yard loss.
SAFETY SHIFT: Tarvarius Moore joined Jimmie Ward as the 49ers’ starting safeties, following Jaquiski Tartt’s season-ending toe injury last game. Moore played deep as the free safety and Ward was closer to the action – perhaps too close on one play in which his hit that forced Tre’Quan Smith out of the game.
Ward, who has two career interceptions, dropped what would have been No. 3 in the second half.
As for Moore’s start, Marcell Harris previously had been Tartt’s replacement the past 2 1/2 years. Harris came through on special teams and recovered a muffed punt in the first quarter to give the 49ers the ball near midfield. Harris recovered a second fumble in the fourth quarter and he played a hybrid linebacker role in place of Azeez Al-Shaair some.
Backup safeties Johnathan Cyprien (hamstring) and Jared Mayden (quadriceps) got hurt on special teams.
FORMER 49ERS: Linebacker Kwon Alexander had four tackles and Emmanuel Sanders a 5-yard reception, and all that came in the first half.
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Author: Cam Inman