The San Francisco 49ers looked like a reinvigorated team on Sunday afternoon, as starting quarterback Blaine Gabbert breathed new life into an offense gasping for air, leading his team to a 17-16 victory at Levi’s Stadium.
It was a bold and heavily controversial move by head coach Jim Tomsula, who announced his decision to play Gabbert over struggling quarterback Colin Kaepernick earlier this week. But what seemed liked an improbable gamble paid out handsomely for the 49ers who snapped their losing streak with a hard-fought win at home.
Gabbert looked far removed from the problems that plagued his earlier career. He was nimble-showing that the 49ers have two mobile quarterbacks on their roster. He looked confident-standing stout amidst some heavy Atlanta pressure. But most importantly, he delivered the 49ers the one thing that has eluded them this season-touchdowns.
Even with his receivers dropping balls like hot coals, Gabbert slung his way to 185-yards on 15 completions, while adding in the first pair of touchdowns the 49ers have seen in over two games.Gabbert finished with two interceptions as well, although only one could be attributed rightly to the fifth-year veteran.
Although Tomsula wouldn’t commit to a starting quarterback for the team’s next game against Seattle, it’s clear that Gabbert has warranted himself another starting nod.
Despite his impressive showing, Gabbert remained humbled and tempered in his role moving forward.
“All I know is we got the victory today. We have a bye week coming up and we’re going to prepare for Seattle. That’s our next game up there. So whatever 11 guys we march out there on the field, we’re going to expect a victory.”
But while Gabbert will surely dominate the headlines, it was the effort of a stout 49ers defense that secured his unlikely victory.
Even without a myriad of starting cornerbacks to try to stop QB Matt Ryan and WR Julio Jones, the 49ers were able to hold the NFL’s fourth-ranked offense to just 16 points on 302 total yards throughout the contest.
Ryan finished with 303-yards and one touchdown on 30 completions, while Jones was hounded by call-up cornerback Marcus Cromartie all game, being held without a score despite earning 137 yards through the air.
Like their counterparts, the defense seemed to enter the game with new vigor around them. And-according to the defensive leader NaVorro Bowman- that too was contributed in part to Gabbert.
“We wanted to rally around him and not think, ‘Ok the backup quarterback is our quarterback.’ We still approached this game the same as if [Colin Kaepernick] was in there. We rallied around Blaine and he did a great job today to get us this win.”
Upfront, the 49ers had done what most teams in the NFL failed to do throughout the season-stop Falcons RB Devonta Freeman. The dynamic back rushed for just 12 yards on 12 carries before Atlanta abandoned the run game in the second half.
Ryan spoke about the job the 49ers did in taking away one of his biggest offensive weapons in Freeman after the game:
“I thought they did a great job kind of setting the edge on us. Their outside linebackers did a great job on spilling it to their inside linebackers. I think NaVorro Bowman is one of the premiere linebackers in this league and I thought he played really well today.”
The stout defensive effort anchored what was an impressive offensive turnaround by the 49ers, who looks to be energized by the new-look team this week.
It was a bold move by Tomsula to promote Gabbert into a starting role with the 49ers this week-the first time a new quarterback has seen the field in San Francisco since 2012.
And while Kaepernick’s time in San Francisco may be fading quickly, the prospect of reinvigorating his own career was not lost on the former tenth-overall pick.
“I’m so appreciative for this opportunity and I just wanted to go out there and compete. Lead these guys…I just wanted to go out there today and just have fun. You play well when you’re having fun and that was the biggest thing.”
Making his first start on the NFL turf in over two years, the Gabbert experiment got off to a shaky start. The fifth-year veteran was quickly chased off the field following two quick three-and-outs that netted just 11 total yards during his first two drives.
But Gabbert quickly put fears to rest, as the veteran would recover from his rough start to lead the 49ers to their first touchdown in over two games. Gabbert’s inaugural scoring drive opened up as the veteran found WR Quinton Patton on a crossing route over the middle, with the speedster digging into the Falcons secondary for 44-yards.
Gabbert would continue to lead the offense down the field, just missing an endzone plunge by inches on a nine-yard scramble. He wouldn’t be denied his score long, as he found TE Garrett Celek for the one-yard touchdown pass on the very next play.
The newly appointed starter would continue to show confidence at the helm of the 49ers offense, as he would continue on to lead a 41-yard drive-concluding with a 44-yard Phil Dawson field goal- on his next time on the field.
After seeing a lengthy touchdown drought sink his team, Gabbert would not be satisfied with just the one first-half score. The 49ers signal-caller would strike for a second time-aided by the strong running of Draughn- for his second touchdown just before the half with an 11-yard strike to Celek again.
Almost as impressive as the 49ers scoring outburst was their ability to keep the Atlanta offense at bay. The battered defensive group bottled up the fearsome Falcon’s running game, while not allowing much through the air as well.
After allowing just two field goals to Atlanta through 28-minutes of play, the 49ers seemed poised to head into the half with a 17-6 lead.
But quarterback Ryan took advantage of a lapse of effort in the 49ers defense, launching a 54-yard pass to Jones against the coverage of Bowman before finishing his drive off with a 22-yard dump off to Freeman to score in just over one minute, sending his team into the locker room trailing just four points behind San Francisco.
The two sides were unable to keep the offensive momentum going in the third quarter, but it was not empty of its share of drama.
After taking a shattering hit from former 49er LB Philip Wheeler, Gabbert was briefly knocked out of the game while being checked on by medical staff for signs of a concussion. This meant that demoted quarterback Colin Kaepernick would get his chance to see the field against Atlanta after all.
Kaepernick was in for just two plays-a handoff and a deep ball to TE Vance McDonald who dropped what should have been a big gain. But more telling was the mixed emotion that the Levi’s Stadium crowd showed, as they clearly did not want Gabbert to be taken from the game.
Gabbert wouldn’t be out for long though, as he would resume his lead duties before the end of the 49ers drive.
The game continued to be a defensive battle between the two teams deep into the fourth quarter, until Gabbert’s first real blemish on the day threatened the 49ers narrow lead.
After looking solid in his decisions all day, Gabbert tried to connect with tight end Vance McDonald on a vastly underthrown pass, leading to his second interception of the game.
Ryan and the Falcons threatened to steal the 49ers lead, but a third down stop by DB Jimmie Ward forced Atlanta to kick their third field goal of the day, cutting San Francisco’s lead to just one.
The decision to kick the field goal showed head coach Dan Quinn’s faith in his defense to get a stop after giving San Francisco the ball with three minutes to go.
But the 49ers run game showed that confidence was misplaced, as they plowed their way to the 42 yard line before taking a kneel to kill the clock for an upset win.