Here are the 49ers’ grades after their 26-24 road loss to the Redskins.
QUARTERBACK: B. The 49ers seemed mentally beaten down early in the game when Brian Hoyer was the quarterback. Hoyer in particular looked shell shocked from weeks and years of being the Cinco de Mayo piñata. He looked like he expected to lose the game. The Niners needed to bench him, and they did, for C.J. Beathard. And the rookie quarterback played well, even though his numbers weren’t great (his passer rating was 72.1). But he gave the Niners a spark, and led them back from a 17-0 deficit. He seemed energetic, excited, fresh and optimistic, unlike Hoyer, who seemed totally drained. The rest of the players raised their games once Beathard entered the huddle. Sometimes a rookie quarterback can have that effect on his teammates. They know he’s green and untested, so they pick up their play to help him out. Beathard made the Niners competitive against the Redskins, and he will make the Niners much more interesting the rest of the season. I’m looking forward to watching him play.
RUNNING BACKS: B. Carlos Hyde gained only 28 rushing yards. He was not effective running the ball in the middle of the field. But he was effective running near the goal line (he scored two touchdowns) and catching passes (he caught five passes for 47 yards). He might be a better receiver than a running back – he has very good hands. But the Niners used him too much. They should have given some of his touches to Matt Breida, who averaged more than five yards per carry. He deserved more than four carries, which is all he got.
WIDE RECEIVERS: C-minus. The leading receiver was Aldrick Robinson, who caught two passes for 66 yards and one touchdown. The rest of the receivers were non-factors. Marquise Goodwin had 26 receiving yards. Trent Taylor had 11 receiving yards. And Pierre Garcon had 55 receiving yards on 12 targets. He really struggled to get open. And he helped lose the game by committing an offensive pass interference penalty on the 49ers final drive. That was a killer.
TIGHT ENDS: D. George Kittle caught four passes for 46 yards, and is on pace to finish the season with 56 catches and 565 receiving yards. Those would be good numbers for a rookie tight end. But he also is on pace to finish the season with 13 drops – he dropped two more today. He needs to learn to secure the catch.
OFFENSIVE LINE: F. Trent Brown committed two false starts. He’s one of the most talented offensive tackles in the NFL, but he’s unfocused. His teammate, Brandon Fusco, is extremely focused. He just has no talent. He can’t drop anchor and hold his position in pass protection – he gets pushed backward like he’s wearing roller skates. Kyle Shanahan should stop calling straight drop-back passes and start moving the pocket on obvious passing downs, like third-and-five, simply because Fusco is so bad.
DEFENSIVE LINE: D. This unit played well against the run for the most part – Washington averaged only 2.8 yards per carry. But the defensive line generated almost zero pressure on Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins. The only player who sacked Cousins was rookie Solomon Thomas, who didn’t play well. He was way too aggressive crashing down the line of scrimmage to tackle the running back. The Redskins noticed this in the first quarter, and waited until the fourth quarter to use Thomas’ aggression against him. On first-and-goal from the seven-yard line, the Redskins ran the zone read, and Thomas sold out to tackle the running back. But the running back didn’t have the ball. Cousins had it, and jogged into the end zone for the touchdown. Thomas guessed wrong. So much for that Stanford education.
LINEBACKERS: F. Ray Ray Armstrong and Brock Coyle are backups at best. Both got exposed today. Coyle ran the wrong direction during a screen pass in the first half even though he was starting at the play. Coyle saw Cousins dump the ball to running back Chris Thompson, and Coyle still ran away from him. Hard to fathom. But Armstrong was even worse than Coyle. Armstrong got juked in the backfield by Thompson, who ran 39 yards on that play. And Armstrong gave up a 51-yard catch to Vernon Davis late in the game. Armstrong was supposed to be in man-to-man coverage, but he took his eyes off Davis and stared at Cousins while standing still. That play looked like a glitch in a video game. The Niners need Reuben Foster back.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: C. The pass coverage wasn’t good, and the third-down defense was atrocious. But the defensive backs weren’t that bad. They held the Redskins top-four wide receivers to just 88 yards. The players who really hurt the 49ers in the pass game were the Redskins running backs and tight ends, who mostly took advantage of San Francisco’s linebackers.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C. Trent Taylor returned one punt 39 yards and set up the offense with a drive that started from midfield. But the Niners didn’t score on that drive because Robbie Gould missed a 47-yard field goal.
COACHES: B. Give Kyle Shanahan credit for benching Hoyer. That was the right move. It took guts bringing in a rookie quarterback to make his NFL debut on the road when he probably hadn’t practiced much during the week. A lot of coaches would have stayed with Hoyer. Shanahan made a difficult decision, and it kept the Niners in the game.
But the Niners could have won had Shanahan not made a critical mistake in the third quarter. On third-and-five, the Niners had the ball in field-goal range at the Redskins 20-yard line. Shanahan needed to make sure his offense didn’t go backward, and he knew pass protection was an issue – it’s been an issue all season. He needed to call a pass which allowed Beathard to roll out of the pocket. But Shanahan made Beathard drop straight back, and the Redskins sacked him for an eight-yard loss, and the 49ers missed the field goal. One bad play call by Shanahan essentially gave away three points in a game the Niners lost by two.
Still, Shanahan mostly coached well. He was much more effective than his defensive coordinator, Robert Saleh, who couldn’t figure out how to generate a pass rush or improve the Niners’ third-down defense. He was just a spectator. Too bad Shanahan couldn’t bench Saleh, too.