SANTA CLARA, Calif. — As soon as the ball crossed the goal line for what would turn out to be the San Francisco 49ers‘ final touchdown in Sunday’s win against the Detroit Lions, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo immediately ran to receiver Pierre Garcon to congratulate him.
Thing is, Garcon was not the one who had scored the touchdown. That achievement belonged to running back Matt Breida, who had just weaved his way more than 100 yards in total running, for a 66-yard score. It was the longest run of his career and the longest by a Niner since 2014.
But it was Garcon’s blocking on the play that was impossible to ignore.
“It was incredible,” Garoppolo said. “I was behind him the whole way, trying to catch up to him. They were running really fast though. Those are the little things that go unnoticed. He might have had one catch before that point and he was blocking his ass off like that.”
For a team that, two games into this season, has struggled to finish — whether with touchdowns in the red zone, sacks or tackles — Garcon’s effort should offer a reminder of how it ought to be done. The Niners didn’t finish Sunday’s game on a high note, far from it after nearly squandering a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter.
They did, however, do just enough to avoid the 14th 0-2 start in franchise history and improve to 1-1 on the season before two daunting road trips to play the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers. If the Niners are to overcome those two tough tests, getting more plays like the one from Garcon would be a good place to start.
“He’s a monster,” tight end George Kittle said. “He’s an angry football player and you can’t ask for much more.”
One play after Breida broke a 20-yard run off the left side on a simple outside zone run, Niners coach Kyle Shanahan dialed up the same play to the right side.
After Breida burst through the first group of defenders, he cut back to his left where Garcon was running free on the back side of the play. That’s when what Shanahan calls Garcon’s “fullback” instincts took over and Garcon looked for someone to block.
Conveniently, Garcon found Nevin Lawson in Breida’s path and shoved him to the side as Breida circled behind him. Garcon didn’t stop there, though. As Lawson continued to pursue Breida, Garcon continued down the left sideline and re-engaged Lawson at about Detroit’s 22-yard line. From there, Garcon locked his arms inside Lawson’s and pushed him the rest of the way back into the end zone as Breida followed behind patiently.
“If he’s running, you’re running,” Garcon said. “He’s obviously trying to defend the end zone and you just push him. And Breida used me to make the block work, it’s just you know you got your assignment because there’s just one guy left. You’re just making sure your guy don’t make the tackle.
Finally, Breida cut back inside and over the goal line to give the Niners a 27-13 lead with less than a minute left in the third quarter. The run energized the Niners’ sideline as teammates ran to congratulate both the runner and the blocker.
Garcon said the block was one of the most memorable of his career.
“I just enjoy going hard,” Garcon said. “I think the guys feed off of the energy. When you see a guy running hard, playing hard, you’re like ‘Oh, OK, that’s how it’s supposed to be done. I want to play like that.’ I just enjoy going hard because I come from a small school and a place where not too many guys are where I’m at and they’d do anything to be where I’m at because they just want that opportunity. I have that opportunity to try to represent for them because they see me going hard and they still get excited. Like, ‘I see you blocking, I see you running hard, running through defenders.’ It’s fun, it’s exciting and it gets their adrenaline going.”
For a young 49ers team that, by its own admission, is still learning how to win, Garcon’s block could serve as a coaching point for better days ahead. To a man, most Niners in the locker room after the game were unsatisfied by the team’s ability to put the Lions away.
“A win’s a win, but it feels like a loss to me,” cornerback Richard Sherman said. “I think it’s a good learning lesson for a young team that we needed. It’s a humbling lesson. Thank goodness we got the win out of it, but it’s a lot of good tape, lot of good learning from this. I think it’s gonna be a humbling experience for a lot of our players.”
In 2017, the Niners set an NFL record by losing five consecutive games decided by three points or fewer. On Sunday, they won a game that a year ago they might have lost. But as the competition gets better and the 49ers mature, it’s little things like Garcon’s block that could turn out to make the biggest difference.