LAS VEGAS — The 49ers shot back over the Raiders in their eventual 37-34 overtime thriller from a second-half deficit, but that epic game had an important footnote: Brock Purdy had a rough patch late in the third quarter on Sunday.
First, the rookie quarterback missed a deep go-ahead touchdown chance for 49ers tight end George Kittle, and the Raiders intercepted his underthrowd pass. Purdy then looked for another chance to regain control of the 49ers, missing back-to-back strikes on Jauan Jennings and Kittle in the fourth quarter.
Three shots into the field, three misguided throws. Purdy was in unfamiliar territory — this was actually the first time the 49ers had lagged in his four games as a starting quarterback — and his initial reaction to it wasn’t constant.
The 49ers had reached a critical point in their hot season, in which they now recorded nine straight wins. With the playoffs approaching and significant seeding implications, Purdy needed to show he could correct course on the fly. That will be necessary for the 49ers to keep winning as the stakes increase exponentially over the next month. Sustained success in the NFL means asserting yourself in the game of adjustments and counter-adjustments, and Purdy certainly had work to do on that front in the heat of Sunday’s fight.
First up, 49ers QB coach Brian Griese delivered a recalibrating message.
“Griese did a great job on the touchline,” said Purdy after the game. “When I felt a little off schedule with things, I just felt centered again. Like, “Hey man, you did that over and over again. In games, in training, nothing changes. The situation is a little different, but just do your job.’”
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This job is relatively easy, but it’s certainly not easy. Purdy needs to hit his receivers on time and in rhythm, especially on the crossing routes that are the lifeblood of coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense. These patterns essentially set up everything else in the attack’s arsenal. And it’s been a challenge for Purdy, who’s been playing through an angled injury in recent weeks, to rack up the practice reps necessary to seamlessly deliver those bread-and-butter games.
But Sunday’s crunch time required Purdy to hit those plays, and he responded by connecting with Brandon Aiyuk five times in the 49ers’ final two drives — mostly on slants with a razor-thin margin of error, with opposing linebackers to the end just handed throw window.
“I think it started with practice this week,” Aiyuk said. “How the ball came out, I think (the coaches) were on it because some things came out a little later or a little bit late. And he came out this week and fired the football. And that was shown again today.”
The darts to Aiyuk came right after Purdy picked up Griese’s re-centering message. He settled into his practice, and the 49ers quickly found their rhythm again.
“Since I’ve gotten healthier in training, it’s been nice to be more to the point with BA (Aiyuk) and all the receivers,” Purdy said. “And so in the end it was just nice to get things rolling as we keep syncing back to what we were doing in training.”
Brandon Aiyuk was Brock Purdy’s regular in Sunday’s win in Las Vegas. (Stephen R. Sylvanie / USA today)
Purdy finished 22 of 35 for 284 yards, two touchdowns and that interception. He led the game that would have been a game-winning drive by the end of regulation had kicker Robbie Gould not missed a 41-yard attempt to win it in the end. But the 49ers still prevailed in overtime after Nick Bosa urged Raiders QB Jarrett Stidham for an interception and return from Tashaun Gipson Sr., which set up a shorter, game-winning field goal attempt.
It was another resounding performance for Purdy, whose 112.4 passer rating is the highest of any NFL quarterback since his first start in Week 14.
“I thought that was great for him,” Shanahan said. “Especially there at the end we had to come from behind. He had a lot of plays today, but there were also a number that he missed. And that was the coolest part. There were some he would like to have back. … There were some mixed pieces. Come back, keep attacking, he was never shy with weapons. I made good decisions too. He fought the whole game and found a way to win.”
The 49ers were trailing 24-14 in the third quarter. The rest of the way they beat Las Vegas 23-10. This was another offensive explosion with Purdy at the helm — the 49ers have at least 35 points in three of his four starts — and it was exponentially more significant because the team’s vaunted defense struggled so badly this time.
The Raiders amassed a total of 500 offensive yards against the 49ers.
“I thought it was important for us to have a game where offense had to carry the team,” said 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk. “Similar to 19 when we played New Orleans. (The Raiders aren’t) quite the same team as New Orleans, but I think we needed that to give us that confidence going forward if we have to do that again.
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This 2019 season, the 49ers roared to a 48-46 comeback win over the Saints during a game that saw their defense similarly gouged. This win paved the way for them to become the No. 1 in the NFC. Alongside this, Sunday’s win put the 49ers second in the NFC (as Minnesota lost to Green Bay), and there’s still a chance Shanahan’s team can capture the coveted No. 1 spot as Philadelphia lost their second game in a row .
But an important part of that equation is outside of the 49ers’ control. The New York Giants, already seeded at No. 6 with no way to move up, would need to beat the Eagles next week for the No. 1 spot to come into play. The 49ers strive to only focus on the games they can control, and that starts with next weekend’s regular-season finale against Arizona and continues into the playoffs.
And in that context, the ability to consistently deliver robust offensive performance is of huge importance. The 49ers, despite having the best defense in the NFL, have already seen that unit stumble in three games – against Atlanta, Kansas City and this time against the Raiders. Successful complementary football requires offense to fill the gap in situations like this, and Purdy’s unit, despite struggling in Las Vegas, achieved that again.
Versatile running back Christian McCaffrey was a centerpiece again, amassing 193 all-purpose yards on 25 touches. The 49ers led the offense through McCaffrey, especially as the Raiders dialed in about a dozen aggressive blitzes.
Christian McCaffrey had a monster play with 193 yards total offense. (Gary A. Vasquez / USA Today)
“They brought the heat,” said Juszczyk.
The 49ers’ screen-pass play, tied to McCaffrey and rising offensive weapon Ray-Ray McCloud III, seared the Raiders’ aggressiveness.
So was the connection between Purdy and Kittle, who snatched an unscheduled touchdown from the quarterback in the second quarter. The game was destined for Aiyuk, but Purdy had to improvise midway as the Raiders came out in a surprisingly defensive look.
“We performed the play a couple of times on Friday for our Red Zone stuff, and I didn’t even come close to being the main reader,” Kittle said. “But we came out and it wasn’t the look we were up against in practice. Kudos to Brock for keeping his eyes peeled and finding me at the bottom of the endzone. It was fantastic.”
Despite this change of plan, Aiyuk saw no lack of action. He hauled nine passes for 101 yards, including the 49ers’ opening touchdown and a physical catch on an errant Purdy pass — triggered by a big hit on the quarterback — near the end of regulation.
“He went into full beast mode on this ride,” McCaffrey said of Aiyuk.
The 49ers certainly needed that tremendous performance from their wideout, which gets as many as 956 yards in the regular season — just 44 from the coveted 1,000-yard mark going into next weekend’s finals. And they also needed every drop of performance from McCaffrey, whose 121-yard rushing attack ensured Shanahan’s attack was balanced enough to move the ball around the stretch at will.
But they also undoubtedly needed Purdy, who impressed them even more than before with another strong performance – all given his most distinctive fights to date.
“He’s a super quiet guy,” Aiyuk said. “The moment is never too big for him. … He’s out there directing two-minute drives, signaling game calls. Today really showed us that this guy is on another level and can play safely.”
(Top Photo by Brock Purdy and Jordan Mason: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)