SANTA CLARA, Calif. — From a shadowed corner graced by a framed photograph of 49ers great Joe Montana, Jimmy Garoppolo pretended he wasn’t listening.
He stared into his phone with a sheepish grin while defensive back Richard Sherman stood on a podium just around the corner lampooning those who have criticized Garoppolo this season.
About a minute into Sherman’s rant to a room full of reporters and cameras, Garoppolo finally looked up from his device.
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“He’s going off for me,” Garoppolo said from his hidden nook.
There was reason for Sherman, the voice of San Francisco’s fierce defense, to speak with such passion regarding Garoppolo after Sunday’s 37-8 win over the Packers . The quarterback had just thrown for 253 yards and two touchdowns and flashed the kind of big-play ability his detractors have at times doubted.
Garoppolo found receiver Deebo Samuel for a 42-yard touchdown pass before halftime and reliable tight end George Kittle for a 61-yard score in the third quarter.
Those chunk plays underlined Garoppolo’s progression this year, as well as an important schematic shift toward incorporating more downfield heaves. The 49ers have found increasing success complementing short crossing routes and out routes with deeper post routes for huge gains. Typically on those plays, they’ve looked to Samuel, a breakout rookie, and Emmanuel Sanders, a veteran midseason trade acquisition. Kittle can also stretch secondaries when he is not causing problems underneath.
The 49ers’ run-first offense will probably continue being conservative moving forward so the team’s elite defense can determine outcomes. But a viable deep passing game to mix into the fray would make it extremely difficult to beat San Francisco (10-1) in the postseason.
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“You hear some of the noise, the things said about (Garoppolo), and it’s frustrating,” Sherman said. “You have people nitpicking. They’re like, ‘You ran for 300 yards, he didn’t throw a lot.’ Then he throws for 400, and they’re like, ‘I think he got outplayed by Kyler Murray.’ Kyler Murray barely had 100 yards passing. You start to laugh at these things, but you’re like, the goal posts keep moving with it. … What else can the guy do? He’s helping his football team win football games, and he deserves a ton more credit for that.”
Garoppolo is enjoying the rewards of shrewd maneuvers by the San Francisco front office.
Rather than acquire then-Steelers malcontent Antonio Brown this past offseason in a desperate attempt to better their passing attack, the 49ers opted to draft Samuel, deal for Sanders and let Kittle continue to blossom.
Samuel benefited from the defensive attention placed on Kittle, the team’s leading receiver, underneath him on his touchdown reception against the Packers. During the prior drive, Kittle turned consecutive crossing routes into gains of 18 and 22 yards. With the Packers cognizant of Kittle as he cut to the outside from the slot, Samuel broke free via a simple over-the-top pattern beyond poorly positioned defenders.
Samuel is up to 523 receiving yards and three total touchdowns in his debut season. He has given San Francisco a dangerous wide threat who can develop alongside Garoppolo in the coming years while also providing a significant lift this campaign. His performance Sunday came with an injured shoulder that limited him in practice throughout the past week.
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“He’s fun to watch,” Kittle said. “He just said, ‘Screw it, I’m going to run across the middle, catch the ball and outrun everybody.’ When you’ve got a guy like that on the outside who’s not scared … it helps me a lot.”
Added Garoppolo: “Week after week, he shows up in big moments.”
Kittle, who played through a broken ankle, is another player who elevates his game in important situations.
His third-quarter score, which came right after the Packers had cut the deficit to 23-8, essentially put away the contest. The tight end joked that he gets exhausted from designed deep routes, so he was pleased to have one end in a touchdown.
“We had the boot(leg) on and I felt no one around me,” Garoppolo said of his perspective. “Great play design by the coaches. We’d been holding onto that one for a while.”
Garoppolo’s strong passing performance against Green Bay came a week after he tossed a game-winning 25-yard score against the Cardinals. Shanahan described his signal-caller’s effort as “pretty flawless” and was satisfied with the way the Packers were kept off-kilter by the variety of passes and runs.
San Francisco is becoming confident it can use the occasional downfield shot to mix up its offense in the playoffs. There might not be a way to stop the 49ers from winning the Super Bowl if they indeed find that balance.
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