The Union Democrat

49ers’ Garoppolo’s best might be required in Cincinnati

- By ERIC BRANCH

If not for Aaron Rodgers' long last-second completion and Carlos Dunlap's long left arm, Jimmy Garoppolo would be known as the clutch leader of an 8-4 team.

Instead, he's a captain of a 6-6 group and there is familiar grousing about Garoppolo this week after the 49ers' late-game drive ended at the 3-yard line in their 30-23 loss at Seattle last Sunday.

In Week 3, Garoppolo directed a 75-yard touchdown march, capping it with three straight 12yard completion­s, to take a onepoint lead over the Packers with 37 seconds left. But it was forgotten when Rodgers had completion­s of 25 and 17 yards to set up a field goal in Green Bay's 30-28 walk-off win.

Similarly, Garoppolo masterfull­y led a two-minute drill in the din of Seattle on Sunday with the 49ers needing a touchdown to force overtime. After starting at the 2-yard line, Garoppolo began by completing 7 of 7 passes for 105 yards, a statistica­l oddity made possible by two penalties, and the 49ers had a 1st-and-goal at the 7 with 38 seconds left.

Of course, that didn't work out either. Garoppolo's final pass to wide-open receiver Trent Sherfield was tipped away by Dunlap and the 49ers fell to .500 entering their visit to Cincinnati on Sunday.

Garoppolo, who threw two ugly intercepti­ons against the Seahawks, acknowledg­ed the latest loss lingered.

“It definitely bothered me,” he said. “It's more than just the 24 hours after the game.”

The near-misses against Green Bay and Seattle mean Garoppolo has yet to have a signature 2021 moment. But the QB who is often asked to play a complement­ary role might be required to be the leading man against Cincinnati.

The 49ers could be without their leading rusher, Elijah Mitchell (concussion, knee), and leading receiver, Deebo Samuel (groin), neither of whom has practiced this week. And considerin­g the versatile Samuel doubles as a dynamic backfield threat, the onus could fall on Garoppolo to keep up with the Bengals' potent attack featuring quarterbac­k Joe Burrow, last year's No. 1 pick, and three wide receivers on pace for more than 70 catches: Ja'marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. The Bengals, who rank seventh in the NFL in scoring, also have running back Joe Mixon, who ranks second in the NFL with 978 yards.

Even with a healthy backfield, the 49ers might have been tempted to lean on Garoppolo.

Cincinnati's defense has been stout against the run — they rank fourth in the NFL (92.5 yards per game) — but have allowed 256.9 passing yards per game, sixthmost in the league.

“They're very talented — good at stopping the run,” Garoppolo said. “They kind of crowd the box a little bit and make it tough on you.”

Garoppolo could make it tough on the Bengals, if he limits his mistakes. He's thrown three intercepti­ons in his last 53 attempts after just one in his previous 112. The recent rash of errors has been troubling because each intercepti­on has qualified as a headscratc­her.

Garoppolo earned a sideline scolding from head coach Kyle Shanahan after his over-themiddle throw in traffic in a win against the Vikings on Nov. 28 was easily grabbed by safety Harrison Smith. Against the Seahawks, Garoppolo didn't see All-pro linebacker Bobby Wagner, who caught his short pass in the first quarter on which it appeared he was the intended target. In the third quarter, Garoppolo airmailed a deep over-the-middle pass intended for double-covered tight end George Kittle, which was easily corralled by safety Quandre Diggs.

Garoppolo said his final intercepti­on was the most troublesom­e because he eschewed an easy completion to take an ill-advised risk.

“Instead of taking the checkdown and keep the ball moving,” Garoppolo said, “I got greedy.”

His bad decision was one reason the 49ers didn't score in the game's final 31 minutes of a rugged loss. Now, they will take their scoring drought to Cincinnati, where Garoppolo's best might be required for the 49ers to avoid a similar fate.

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