Gabbert fails to deliver as 49ers lose fourth straight

Drew Stanton had a really bad game. Blaine Gabbert‘s was still worse.

Sloppy play, costly turnovers and another erratic outing from Gabbert would sink the 49ers in their fourth straight game, as the Arizona Cardinals would escape an ugly Thursday night showcase with a 33-21 victory.

Gabbert threw two interceptions in 30 attempts, piling on another unimpressive stat line in what could be the performance that will force Chip Kelly’s hand on the stating quarterback conversion.

This story has been updated with additional material and quotes from the 49ers locker room at Levis Stadium.

Cornerback Chris Davis would add to the turnover count after losing a fumble on a kickoff return deep in his own territory. Defensive back Rashard Robinson contributed to the team’s forgettable performance with a costly penalty on a field goal attempt in the third quarter, leading to a touchdown by Johnson one play later.

All of San Francisco’s turnovers occurred deep within their own zone, happening on their 14, 22, and 24 yard lines, accounting for 17 of the Cardinals’ 31 points.

The three giveaways would prove to be the difference in the game, eliciting disappointment from Kelly following the final whistle:

“You’re mind is screening the turnover category. You’re not gonna win the football game, it’s very rare statistically when you look at it to be minus three and think you’re gonna with the game. … It took them 41-yards to get 17 points out of it. Against a good team like Arizona, that’s not going to cut it.”

Gabbert’s continually poor play elicited the displeasure of the Levi’s Stadium crowd, with a “we want Kap” chant during the third quarter, which Gabbert said he didn’t hear, as he finished the night  18-of-30 for 162 yards and two total touchdowns.

Stanton, a backup that has no realistic chance to start for any NFL team this season, was 11-for-28, gaining 124 yards with two touchdowns. Stanton didn’t throw an interception, and his 77.1 quarterback rating blasted the 56.1 rating bestowed onto Gabbert.

Gabbert’s grizzly outing now gives him a 58 percent completion rate on the season, with a quarterback rating of 73.1 across five games. With the pressure continuing to mount, the veteran starter didn’t shy away from acknowledging his current struggles:

“It’s extremely frustrating. I let this team and this organization down and I didn’t play good whatsoever. And that’s on me. I had two crucial turnovers that led to points for the Cardinals, and that was the difference in the game right there. I have to do a better job of protecting the football and leading this team to score more points and winning games.

Gabbert added:

I got to play better. There’s no question to that. I have to do a better job leading this football team, executing this offense, scoring points, winning games, the whole nine yards. It’s just the way it goes.”

The 49ers have now committed four of their season-wide six turnovers in the past two games. With a depleted defense and inefficient offense, their inability to protect the ball is just another self-inflicted in an already tough season.

With a slew of key injuries in the 49ers’ defense, Arizona opted to attack the unit on the ground, rushing the young running back David Johnson 27 times for 157 yards and two touchdowns. The losses of linebacker NaVorro Bowman and DeForest Buckner were felt as Johnson bruised his way to a 5.8 YPC.

The first half of Thursday night’s contest was a clinic in punting, with both team’s offensive inefficiencies turning the primetime showcase into a cringeworthy snoozer.

The 49ers continued their stereotypically ineffective drives, consisting of inaccurate deep balls from Gabbert to open receivers, and poor drops to set up tough third-and-long scenarios.

Gabbert did little early on to silence the mounting criticism regarding his play, missing big gains to Garret Celek and a wide open Rod Streater, who beat his man on a deep post route, to stall the 49ers offense.

The outing was so horrific that former 49ers right tackle — a starter two weeks ago — tweeted out a Twitter poll asking fans whether they’d rather have Gabbert at quarterback, versus Thad Lewis on one leg, or Kaepernick at 70 percent.

With David Johnson providing the only substantial gains for Arizona on the opposing side, Thursday night’s contest saw nine straight punts, and just 124 total yards of offense until deep in the second quarter.

Like Sunday night, the 49ers broke the scoring drought first, with an aerial attack anchored by the 49ers’ leading receiver Jeremy Kerley, who was picked up in a preseason trade for offensive lineman Brandon Thomas.

The dynamic slot-receiver continued his rapport with Gabbert by hooking up with the quarterback on all four of his pass attempts, gaining 54 yards before capping off his drive with a nine-yard score to the left corner of the end zone.

San Francisco looked to keep their momentum with a quick drive before the first-half whistle, picking up steam with a first-down by Carlos Hyde. But a costly taunting penalty from the lead back would start a downward spiral for the home team.

After backing his team up 15 yards, the 49ers were forced into yet another third-and-long deep in their own territory. Gabbert looked downfield to move the sticks, but was tipped at the line for an Arizona interception.

Despite having punted six consecutive times to open the game, Arizona would need just one play to notch things up at 7, as receiver Larry Fitzgerald broke Tramaine Brock‘s ankles on a redirect to the sidelines for a 21-yard score.

Turnovers in the red zone would continue to haunt San Francisco at the start of the third quarter as well, as Davis lost a kickoff return at his own 14 yard line for the second turnover in four drives for the 49ers.

San Francisco looked poised to escape the mishap with just three points in damage, but a costly penalty by Rashard Robinson on a field goal attempt would breathe new life into the Cardinals offense.

Arizona would cash in on their fresh set of downs on the next play, with running back David Johnson bouncing outside for a four-yard score.

Arizona’s offensive leaders in Johnson and Fitzgerald would pave the way for the Cardinals’ second-consecutive score, with Johnson ripping off a 23-yard gain early in the drive to set up Fitzgerald’s second long touchdown of the game with Brock in coverage, scoring from 29-yards out for a 21-7 lead.

With the game within their reach, San Francisco committed their third costly error of the night, as Gabbert was again picked off by former 49er Marcus Cooper at the start of the fourth quarter and Arizona hit their lone field goal of the evening four plays later.

Gabbert’s second mistake of the night would again elicit groans from the crowd, who had seen enough from the perennial starter.

Stanton led the Cardinals on one final touchdown drive during his next trip on the field, nailing the fourth nail of the season in the 49ers coffin.

Gabbert’s second touchdown would come in the form of a one-yard run late in the fourth quarter, but it would, at best, only earn him brownie points from the crowd as it was too little too late.

A safety from the Cardinals during the 49ers next trip on the field would put the cherry on top of what was a forgettable performance from San Francisco.


Shawn Whelchel is SFBay’s San Francisco 49ers beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @ShawnWhelchel on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of 49ers football.