By Sam McPherson
For the first 30 minutes on Sunday against the Buffalo Bills on the road, the San Francisco 49ers were able to stay close to the home team on the scoreboard despite starting a rusty quarterback and fielding a defensive unit decimated by injuries. However, eventually both weaknesses caught up with the 49ers as the Bills pulled away in the second half on their way to a dominant 45-16 victory.
San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick made his first NFL game appearance in almost a year, and while he showed flashes of brilliance with his legs, it’s clear his passing skills are still in need of some work. As for the defense, a spirited effort in the first half just wasn’t enough to slow down the talented and multifaceted Buffalo offense.
Running back Carlos Hyde mostly was held in check by Buffalo, gaining just 52 yards on 14 carries. The Bills defense wisely focused on shutting him down and forcing Kaepernick to beat them. He wasn’t able to do that, specifically with his arm. Kaepernick completed just 13 of his 29 passing attempts, and while he didn’t turn the ball over, the 49ers QB demonstrated he still has problem with his accuracy through the air.
Kaep did run for 66 yards on eight carries, and that remains the strength of his game. But without a successful passing attack to take the pressure off Hyde, the offensive game plan just didn’t work very well, especially when the 49ers fell behind in the second half by large margins. The lone truly big play came on wide receiver Torrey Smith’s 54-yard touchdown reception, but S.F. was just 3-for-15 combined on third- and fourth-down conversion attempts, and that spelled doom for the team all game long.
It’s hard to fault the defense too much, considering the loss of leader NaVorro Bowman and all the other injuries right now. This grade merely reflects results, not the effort put forth by the 49ers defenders. However, results do matter in the NFL, and the Bills offense ran up 491 yards and scored six touchdowns on the S.F. defense Sunday. The 49ers did force two turnovers, but that just kept Buffalo from scoring 50-plus points on the day.
Bills RB LeSean McCoy ran for 140 yards on just 19 carries, while scoring three TDs. Buffalo QB Tyrod Taylor didn’t have to do much, but he still tossed two TDs of his own. Generally, the San Francisco defense just couldn’t stop the Bills: The home team converted 8-of-13 third-down attempts to help maintain possession for over 35 minutes of game time. No wonder the 49ers struggled more and more as the game went on.
Special Teams: C+
The kick return game didn’t help the offense with any spectacular returns, and averaging less than 20 yards per kickoff return is pretty bad. Meanwhile, kicker Phil Dawson nailed all three of his field-goal attempts, including a 47-yard kick and a 48-yard kick. Punter Bradley Pinion dropped one kick inside the 20-yard line and booted another one 57 yards, but his overall 34.6-yard average just is not very good.
The decision to start Kaepernick didn’t really give the team a boost like Head Coach Chip Kelly and the 49er Faithful might have hoped for in this game. Also, the lack of adjustments at halftime, particularly on offense, hurt the team’s chances. When you get outscored 28-3 in the second half, you know there’s a talent gap, but there’s also a lack of adaptability as a result of that talent gap as well. It’s hard to pin that on the coaching staff.
The 49ers are going to have a long season, especially on defense, without Bowman there to anchor the team emotionally. San Francisco’s roster needs to continue its rebuilding process before Kelly really will have enough to talent to consistently compete on a week-to-week basis.
With a 1-5 record now, the 49ers will return home next Sunday to host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a team that had a bye this week. That will be a tough assignment for San Francisco, but the 49ers do play much better at Levi’s Stadium than they do on the road.