Brock Purdy is prolific, but 49ers can’t win games on a young QB’s arm alone

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Brock Purdy has had a masterful road game, an impressive playoff game and a game that he gritted his way through despite a painful injury.

Still missing from the San Francisco 49ers quarterback’s resume after Sunday’s 31-17 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals: a classic, come-from-behind game.

Instead, Purdy threw a pair of bad-decision interceptions when the 49ers were trailing in the second half. The mistakes overshadowed his 365 passing yards and 57 rushing yards, both of them career highs.

The first miscue came late in the third quarter with the 49ers trailing by seven points but seemingly poised to score after driving to the Bengals 8-yard line. On first down, Purdy had the option of handing the ball to tailback Elijah Mitchell or tossing a shovel pass to tight end George Kittle. He ended up doing neither when Kittle was held up at the line of scrimmage, which caused him to scramble to his right and try to thread a pass to Mitchell in the corner of the end zone.

The throw, however, was tipped by Cincinnati linebacker Germaine Pratt, who gathered it in for an interception. Kyle Shanahan and Kittle suggested Purdy should have handed the ball to Mitchell at the outset.

“I think he might have predetermined it and tried to give me a shot on the shovel, but it wasn’t there,” Kittle said.

“Once I pulled it to go toss it to (Kittle), it wasn’t there,” Purdy said. “So I tried making something up and just scrambling to the right. At that point, I have to know that the linemen are downfield, and I just have to try to get what I can get. But to throw the ball in itself would be a penalty, and I have to be better.”

The second interception came on the ensuing series when, again on first down, Purdy didn’t see inside linebacker Logan Wilson lurking in the center of the field. Wilson easily picked off Purdy’s throw to Brandon Aiyuk and returned the ball to San Francisco’s 17-yard line. On the next play, Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow connected with his favorite target, Ja’Marr Chase, in the corner of the end zone to put Cincinnati ahead by 14 points.

Shanahan said Purdy simply misread the linebacker on the play by thinking that Wilson had cleared out of the passing window.

“He thought (Wilson) overran it and he didn’t,” Shanahan said.

After throwing no interceptions in the first five weeks, Purdy has thrown five in the last three contests, all of them on passes over the middle. That’s in addition to a second-quarter throw to Aiyuk on Sunday that Wilson probably should have intercepted but was dropped, as well as a late interception by safety Dax Hill that was wiped away by a penalty.

Purdy acknowledged he was trying to force some throws at the end of the game.

“Even when you’re trying to make something happen, be smart with it as well,” he said. “So definitely a fine line to it. And I had to learn the hard way today.”

The 49ers quarterback was missing several key elements he usually has at his disposal. For one, it was the second straight game the 49ers have been without left tackle Trent Williams (ankle) and receiver Deebo Samuel (shoulder), both of whom were hurt early in a Week 6 loss in Cleveland.

More fundamental than that, the 49ers defense got off to another slow — and soft — start, which contributed to San Francisco largely abandoning its running game in the second half. Purdy, in fact, led his team in rushing yards.

Kittle said he’s used to being the “tip of the spear” on the outside zone run plays that are the staple of the 49ers’ offense. He noted that the 49ers gained 8 yards on that play on the first snap of the game. But that was one of the few times they ran it due to penalties and the fact that they trailed from the end of the first quarter onward.

Kittle said that when the outside zone run disappears, all the plays that the 49ers have built off it — the play-action passes, the bootlegs, the quarterback keepers — disappear as well.

“When you have turnovers, when you have penalties and are playing behind the sticks, when you’re playing (from behind), it’s hard to run the football and get access to all those plays,” he said.

That left the 49ers having to lean even more heavily on Purdy.

The 49ers got behind early, which kept them from relying on their running game as much as they usually like to. (Kelley L Cox / USA Today)

As was the case last week when he largely went stride for stride with veteran Kirk Cousins, it looked as if Purdy might be able to keep pace with Burrow, who seemed fully recovered from the calf injury that hindered him early in the season and who threw three touchdowns and just five incompletions.

The 49ers offense was lifted by Purdy’s scrambles — all but one of his six carries went for 8 or more yards — and by a pair of impressive, across-the-body throws late in the game, the second of which connected with Christian McCaffrey for a 4-yard touchdown. Both Kittle (149 yards) and Aiyuk (109) went over the 100-yard mark, and after the game all the 49ers said the same thing when asked about Purdy.

“I thought he was one of the reasons we were in the game today,” Shanahan said. “Some of those throws he made out there were unbelievable.”

“We’re not in the game without Brock,” McCaffrey said.

“Brock’s the reason we’re in every single game,” Kittle said. “Brock’s the reason we win football games. He’s our quarterback. He’s a very skilled football player.”

At the same time, the 49ers haven’t been able to fully rely on Purdy to pull out a close win in the last two weeks and they probably shouldn’t expect to. Sunday’s game was his 16th start — including the playoffs — meaning he has yet to play a full season’s slate of games. He’s still 23 years old.

He also didn’t have a full practice until Friday after suffering a concussion against the Minnesota Vikings six days earlier. Purdy said his symptoms weren’t severe and that he felt “100 percent” during the practice sessions he took part in and against the Bengals. He said he didn’t feel any ill effects of what he described as a “whiplash”-like effect when he was tackled low late in the game and the back of his helmet slammed against the ground.

“It’s like any other body part — you get hit and shake it off a little bit,” he said. “So I’m good from that.”

He joined a chorus of 49ers who said no one wants to head into a bye week on a three-game skid but who also noted that the 5-3 49ers were in a worse position, 4-4, at this point a year ago.

“Now we have to wait 14 days to play our next game for our next shot, our next opportunity, and it hurts,” Purdy said. “We have a bad taste in our mouth. But at the same time, it’s like, man, this is going to be a good time for us to do some reflection. I think all of us are really hungry for the second half and this stretch that’s about to go down. So we’ll be ready for it.”

(Top photo: Loren Elliott / Getty Images)

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