SANTA CLARA, Calif. - In a daunting division race, against a daunting opponent, the San Francisco 49ers (2-2) needed to find a way to beat the undefeated Eagles Sunday.
They did, 26-21, but still found a way to make it interesting, thanks to three non-offensive touchdowns in the first half that were the totality of Philadelphia’s scoring.
”(The win) was good for my morale,” Jim Harbaugh said, with a belly laugh following two straight mistake-filled losses. “But we’ve got to keep going.”
The 49ers, who had been outscored 52-3 in second halves through their first three games, outlasted the Eagles 13-0 after the break after a pair of punt-team touchdowns and a pick-6 nearly set their season off the rails in the first half.
[RELATED: COX BECOMING KEY MEMBER OF 49ERS Defense]
It was a role reversal to the extreme - the Eagles (3-1) came in having outscored opponents 74-24 in the second half - thanks to San Francisco’s defense that pitched a shutout to Chip Kelly’s high-powered offense. The 49ers’ scrutinized offense out gained Philadelphia’s 407-213.
”The defense turned in a real gem,” Harbaugh said. “And they were getting off the field early in the possessions. A no-huddle attack, you don’t give them the first, the second first down.”
The Eagles didn’t get past the 49ers’ 40-yard line until late in the fourth quarter with a chance to take the lead. Take away that 15-play drive that culminated in San Francisco’s critical goal-line stand in the final minutes and Philadelphia did not manage a drive longer than six plays. Two third-quarter turnovers led to 10 points for the 49ers, who got their first win in Levi’s Stadium.
San Francisco won the time of possession battle 42:17 to 17:43.
The defense focused on communication during the week of practice, especially in the secondary. In last week’s loss to the Cardinals, a pair of third-quarter touchdowns to rookie wideout John Brown were a result of communication break downs. This week, against Philadelphia’s no-huddle attack, the ability to communicate coverages was at a premium.
”A big thing for us, if we can line up and communicate well, we’ll be fine with this offense,” strong safety Antoine Bethea said, who made his 100th-straight start Sunday. “Every week you’re going to get better out there practicing, communicating with one another in the film room, seeing different plays and just knowing how each other is going to react off one another. That’s something that we’ll continue to get better at throughout the year."
Offensively, the 49ers came into the game knowing they would need to rely on Frank Gore, who put together a revelatory 174-yard performance from scrimmage, that included 119 on the ground. San Francisco moved to 12-0 since Harbaugh took over when Gore’s rushing yards hit triple digits.
“Well I think a lot of people had a great effort and certainly no more thank Frank. That first touchdown play was a play we really needed,” Harbaugh said.
Gore’s receiving touchdown coming on the opening play of the second quarter started out ugly, but resulted in elation. Colin Kaepernick (17 of 20, 218 yards, two touchdown passes, one interception) rolled left, and committed the cardinal sin as a quarterback. He threw all the way across his body to the other side of the field.
“The speed, the angle, the way he got into the angle was something. I didn’t think he was going to get it in. But he’s a savvy player and made a Frank Gore play,” said Harbaugh.
Gore took advantage of a defense that had its eyes fixated on the play-making quarterback, and leaked out to the right into no-man’s land. Kaepernick found him and Gore beat a defensive back with a stiff arm en route to the 55-yard score, the longest TD reception of his 10-year career, and the longest reception of any running back this season. It gave the 49ers a 10-7 lead.
“That was just Kap,” Gore said. “He did a great job running around, keeping his eyes down the field. Coach (Tom) Rathman told me all week, he keeps telling me all the time when I fake the ball, stay alive for Kap to keep the play alive and get me the ball and he did.”
”I really didn’t see Frank, so I didn’t see where he was going with the ball,” Harbaugh said. “He did and he knew what he was doing. Great play. Great play by Colin, great play by Frank.”
After a third-down sack of Kaepernick on their first drive pinned the 49ers at the 2-yard line, the Eagles Trey Burton pushed Dan Skuta into Andy Lee’s punt, allowing wideout Brad Smith to fall on it for the game’s first touchdown. The 49ers marched 14 plays resulting in Phil Dawson’s 29-yard field goal, to make it 7-3.
From there, things became chaotic for San Francisco.
On its first possession after Gore's score, Kaepernick threw an interception to safety Malcolm Jenkins, who weaved for a 53-yard score to give Philadelphia the lead back at 14-10. And Darren Sproles returned a punt 82 yards to the house following the 49ers’ next series.
Suddenly the Eagles had an 11-point lead in a game that appeared to be avalanching against San Francisco, despite solid play from its defense.
The 49ers would get another field goal from Dawson before the break, making it a one-score game, 21-13.
But things swung back towards Harbaugh’s team when Bethea forced a Zach Ertz fumbled recovered by Perrish Cox at the 23-yard line. Eight plays later, the 49ers made it a one-point game thanks to Stevie Johnson’s first touchdown grab with his new team, a high-difficulty 12-yarder in the front of the end zone on third-and-11.
Johnson had to reach high for the pass while falling out of bounds, and managed to drag his toes to solidify the touchdown.
”That was something by Stevie and he wasn’t feeling real good either,” Harbaugh said. “He woke up this morning, had a bug and he sucked it up. There were a lot of examples of that today.”
From then on, the defense clamped down on Philadelphia, save for its long drive that nearly resulted in a comeback. With 3:12 left, down 26-21 following Dawson’s third field goal, Eagles wideout Jeremy Maclin made one of the plays of his career. On third-and-14, he made a 22-yard one-handed grab against the sideline that kept his team alive. The 49ers challenged, in part to slow things down after the Eagles moved the ball down field so effectively, and because they weren’t sure he made the catch.
Maclin did, and the 49ers had to hold at the goal line to prevent the Eagles from taking the lead with less than two minutes left after San Francisco had burned all its timeouts.
On third down from the one, Bethea pressured Nick Foles and forced him to throw it away in the back left corner of the end zone. On fourth down, the Eagles rolled right, and the 49ers had the perfect defense called, thanks to coordinator Vic Fangio’s preparation during the week. The ball fell helplessly incomplete.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever planned two plays inside the two with the game on the line,” Fangio said. “But I will tell you this, the two calls that we made on third down and fourth down, we practiced on during the week during those situations.”
The effort was far and away the 49ers’ most complete of the season, despite those three Eagles touchdowns that came on costly mistakes. Fangio’s defense held Foles to 195 yards, after he came into the game leading the league in yardage through three weeks. LeSean McCoy, last season’s leading rusher, finished with 17 yards on 10 carries.
“It’s satisfying,” Fangio said. “If we would’ve won today, 45-42 and they were all on us, that’s satisfying, too. All it means is that we’re 2-2. Our record’s going to fall somewhere between 14-2 and 2-14. We just have to get on to the next one. Who knows what next week’s will look like.”
E-mail Niners Digest: NinersDigest@gmail.com
Follow Editor in Chief Chris Biderman on Twitter.