The Union Democrat
Breaking down the 49ers’ defense’s 10 W.I.T. plays
Last week, a day after the 49ers' win at Chicago, head coach Kyle Shanahan explained “W.I.T” plays. As he reviews game video, Shanahan types those letters on clips that illustrate winning football.
“I always do (it) just for myself,” Shanahan said. “I write on plays. I just write W.I.T., which means `what it takes.' ... What it takes to win football games.”
This week, in the aftermath of a 31-17 home defeat to Arizona, Shanahan was forced to review endless clips of losing football that could also be labeled “W.I.T.” plays. As in: “What Is That?”
Yes, the 49ers defense had a perplexingly poor performance against a shorthanded opponent. Arizona, missing four key skillposition players, overwhelmed them with a performance that included big contributions from B-listers such as quarterback Colt Mccoy (who arrived with an 8-22 career record), wide receiver Antoine Wesley (0 career catches) and running back Eno Benjamin (7 career rushing yards).
Shanahan said the 49ers had more than 10 “what-it-takes” plays — teamwide — against the Bears. And they had at least 10 “what-is-that? plays” — just from the defense — against Arizona. The Imperfect 10:
• On the 49ers’ second defensive snap, on 2nd-and-7, cornerback Josh Norman stopped wide receiver Christian Kirk short of a first down after a short completion. Just kidding. Kirk easily broke through Norman's tackle attempt; 10-yard gain and a first down.
• Let’s stick with Norman, who won the award for the biggest what-is-that moment (The prize: A benching!). During his secondquarter unraveling, he raced to the visitor's sideline to jaw with Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury, went facemask-to-facemask with Arizona left tackles D.J. Humphries and tussled with 49ers safety Tavon Wilson, who exchanged shoves with Norman after gesturing to the 49ers bench to get his out-of-control teammate off the field.
That was curtains for Norman, 33, who was making 101st career start and is the oldest and most experienced member of their defense.
• The Cardinals’ first touchdown. It was a beautifully blocked play that had Vince Lombardi cheering from the grave. However, cornerback Emmanuel Moseley wasn't erased with a textbook block and should have been in position to stop running back James Conner around the line of scrimmage. Instead, Moseley drifted too far inside, couldn't recover and made a futile lunge at cleats on Conner's 13-yard dash to the corner of the end zone.
• The Cardinals’ fourth touchdown. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick was in position to stop Benjamin at the 15-yard line. But Benjamin lowered his helmet into Kirkpatrick's left shoulder. And Kirkpatrick went backwards onto the canvas, um, field. TKO and a 21-yard score.
• Benjamin, who weighs 207 pounds, had a less-celebrated domination of a defender on an innocuous up-the-gut run in the fourth quarter. He was apparently stood up at the line of scrimmage by 285-pound tackle Kevin Givens, but gave Givens a ride on a 5-yard run. It was a perfect example of what linebacker Fred Warner meant when he said the 49ers allowed too much “leaky yardage,” with ball-carriers routinely bullying defenders backwards instead of getting knocked back.
• First quarter, Cardinals facing a 3rd-and-18 on their 12-yard line in a scoreless game. A safe, let's- get- a- few- yards- and- punt call for the backup QB: a screen to Conner ... who gained 21 yards after linebacker Azeez Al-shaair whiffed on an open-field tackle three yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
• First play of the third quarter, Cardinals leading 17-7. The 49ers had scored just before halftime and had a bit of momentum. McCoy completed a pass to Wesley, who ran through a tackle attempt by safety Talanoa Hufanga for an extra 10 yards on a 25-yard reception.
• Shanahan said last week he showed one inspiring W.I.T. (what it takes) play to the team from the Bears game: running back's Elijah Mitchell 5-yard TD run on which the nearly the entire offense shoved him into the end zone. What a show of unity.
The definitive what-is-that play against the Cardinals? It came three snaps into the third quarter when Conner caught a screen pass two yards behind the line of scrimmage and wasn't threatened by a defender as he zig-zagged untouched into the end zone for a 45-yard score. What a show of futility.
(Personal aside: This play, with a running back cruising comically unchallenged into the end zone, reminded me of a Pop Warner game in the mid-1980s between the Santa Barbara Bills and Lompoc Chargers. Lompoc had Napoleon Kaufman, a future NFL player. Santa Barbara had one player who now writes about the NFL.)
• Cardinals 31, 49ers 17 with 8:17 left. The 49ers had scored 10 straight points, needed a defensive stop to continue the comeback and quickly forced a 3rdand-2 at Arizona's 37-yard line. What happened: Slot cornerback K'waun Williams blitzed and no defender was within six yards of wideout Rondale Moore as he caught a pass one yard beyond the line of scrimmage en route to a 9-yard gain.
• OK. No problem. Three plays later, the 49ers, who still had three timeouts, forced a 3rd-and-3 at their 47 with 4:41 left. What happened? The Cardinals, in essence, sealed the win in fitting fashion: Conner caught an overthe-middle pass, Hufanga hit him short of the sticks and Conner dismissed him for a turn-out-thelights, 6-yard gain.
Other observations from the loss to the Cardinals:
• The 49ers will face the Rams on Monday. It will mark the Rams debut of Pro Bowl pass rusher Von Miller, who has lined up primarily against right tackles this season.
This brings us to 49ers backup right tackle Tom Compton, who played the second half after Mike Mcglinchey suffered a seasonending torn quadriceps. It did not go well. Compton allowed a speedrush sack to Markus Golden and was at least partly responsible for another sack as defensive end Chandler Jones whipped him around the edge, forcing Jimmy Garoppolo to duck away from pressure and into the arms of Golden.
Garoppolo also ducked under a would-be sack after Jones eluded Compton and was forced into a throwaway after Golden beat Compton.
• Wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk (six catches, 89 yards, TD) had his second straight strong performance, although it did include a back-breaking lost fumble in the second quarter. He had three catches between two defenders, absorbing hellacious shots on two of those grabs.