SANTA CLARA — Kyle Shanahan dedicates a small part of his play-calling sheet to third and long situations, but most of the options at hand amount to waving a white flag.
“Usually I get in I-formation and run the ball out of frustration,” Shanahan said.
With the outcome of Saturday’s matchup against the Rams on the line at Levi’s Stadium, Shanahan couldn’t fold.
On third down and 16, the 49ers head coach gave quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo the chance to take a shot and he launched a 46-yard completion to wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders that set up a last-second, game-winning field goal by kicker Robbie Gould.
Instead of surrendering and playing for overtime, the 49ers’ offense raced by the checkered flag and gave the team a chance to lock up the No. 1 seed in the NFC next week when San Francisco travels to play the Seattle Seahawks.
After failing to convert on any of their previous 50 attempts from third down and at least 16 yards, the Garoppolo-to-Sanders connection marked their second successful try on the same drive.
“I think we struggle on third down largely of the day,” Shanahan said. “We’ve just got to get longer distances I guess.”
Moments after Garoppolo found wide receiver Kendrick Bourne over the middle on third and 16 with 1:57 left to play, the 49ers caught Rams safety Taylor Rapp off guard by sending Sanders streaking over the middle on a play that moved the offense into field goal range.
“Truthfully it was just a great call,” Sanders said. “I would say I did something, but I just feel like I had to run. The ball was there and I just tried to secure the catch.”
Before the snap, Sanders lined up in front of Rams all-pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who nabbed his first interception with Los Angeles earlier in the game before tipping a ball in the air that led to Garoppolo’s second turnover.
The 49ers were unlikely to challenge Ramsey on the final drive, but as Sanders took off from the line of scrimmage, he sprinted by the cornerback and found himself open over the middle. With the Rams playing two high safeties, the three-time Pro Bowler said he expected safety Taylor Rapp to account for Sanders on a downfield route.
Rapp’s help never came as the safety dashed toward the sideline before making a failed effort to turn around and catch Sanders in the open field.
“I played my technique, trusting that (Rapp) was going to be over the top,” Ramsey said. “And he wasn’t.”
Two weeks after Garoppolo delivered a late strike to George Kittle on a ridiculous catch-and-run from the 49ers tight end against the Saints, the quarterback was involved in another dramatic play that led to another walk-off field goal.
Garoppolo’s throw to Sanders was spectacular for a variety of reasons, but it was made more impressive by the fact the 49ers’ signal-caller was under significant pressure.
Five of the Rams’ six sacks came in the second half and as Garoppolo waited to heave the ball up for Sanders, he was hit on his throwing arm by a Los Angeles pass-rusher.
“I knew we had a post on, so I just wanted to give him an opportunity,” Garoppolo said. “My arm got hit as I threw it, so I got a bit nervous, but he made a great play — it was awesome.”
Garoppolo’s throw on the post pattern was placed perfectly, but it was also into wide open space that gave his receiver time to adjust to the ball. The 49ers only had the opportunity to convert because of another difficult throw earlier in the drive that Garoppolo made into a tight window over the middle of the field.
With 1:57 to play and San Francisco backed up inside its own 20-yard line, Garoppolo threaded a spiral to Bourne who split a pair of Rams’ defensive backs to come open beyond the first-down marker.
“We had a couple different options on it, but I saw a little window in there and I didn’t know if I was going to have any other windows,” Garoppolo said. “Just let it rip.”
The 49ers entered their final drive of Sunday’s game 0-for-20 on third down conversion attempts of at least 15 yards this season, in large part because their head coach and play-caller keeps his team from taking unnecessary chances.
But with a win up for grabs and no choice but to put their foot on the gas pedal, the 49ers slammed it.
They’ll head to Seattle riding high.