SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- This, it turns out, was the offensive formula the San Francisco 49ers envisioned using for success when the season began: a sturdy running game and a game manager, of sorts, at quarterback.
Even if the players were new.
The Niners’ unlikely 17-16 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday at Levi’s Stadium featured both, with Blaine Gabbert taking over for Colin Kaepernick and the three-headed rushing attack of Shaun Draughn, Kendall Gaskins and Pierre Thomas contributing 133 yards, the Niners’ second-most on the ground this season.
“Again, we have a lot of work to do, but just the way they were competing [was good],” Niners coach Jim Tomsula said. “They didn’t blink. Locked their jaw. Really proud of them. Proud of the way the guys fought. We had young guys that didn’t blink and worked hard."
Gabbert, playing the most glamorous position in team sports, was the centerpiece. He was different from his predecessor in that he made the simple throws look, well, simple, unlike the recent scattershot performances by Kaepernick.
In winning his first start since Week 3 of the 2012 season and ending a personal 10-game losing streak, Gabbert took advantage of the Falcons’ blitz to complete seven of nine passes for 110 yards with a touchdown and an interception when Atlanta brought extra pressure, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Gabbert was just 47.9 percent against the blitz in his career prior to Sunday.
Beyond that, Gabbert was 8-of-11 for 117 yards and six first downs, with both of his touchdown passes coming on third down. Plus, his 10-yard bootleg run in the fourth quarter to essentially clinch the game with a first-down conversion came on fourth down. The last time he was a starter, in 2013 for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Gabbert went 12-of-27 for 121 yards and two INTs on third down.
Gabbert also excelled outside the pocket against the Falcons. He completed five of six passes for 69 yards, which was a far cry from his 3-0f-14 outside the pocket in 2013, with a career 44.2 completion percentage on such passes.
“It was wonderful,” Gabbert said of the start. “I’m so appreciative for this opportunity, and I just wanted to go out there and compete, lead these guys. I almost gave it away there in the fourth quarter, but our defense, like I said previously, had a tremendous stop on third-and-4 on the 4 to get them down on the 1-yard line.
“And so, I just wanted to go out there today and just have fun. You play well when you’re having fun, and that was the biggest thing.”
Gabbert credited Kaepernick with helping him on the sideline.
“He was wonderful,” Gabbert said. “The relationship that we have is great. He was the same way today as I had been with him in the past. Whatever he saw, he told me, and we just kind of worked together well.”
So well, in fact, that Tomsula would not commit to Gabbert as the Niners' starting quarterback going forward. The team has a bye this week, then resumes Nov. 22 at the Seattle Seahawks.
Might the Niners subject Kaepernick to a team that has owned him in such a raucous atmosphere? Or might this “formula” discovered against the Falcons be the norm going forward? After all, the Niners did not allow a sack for the first time since Oct. 13, 2014, at the St. Louis Rams.
Tomsula was not saying, and Gabbert was trying to enjoy the moment, regardless of his status.
“As soon as you lose that vision of not seeing yourself as a starting quarterback, you regress tremendously,” Gabbert said. “So throughout all the ups and downs in Jacksonville and through the early parts of my career, I just treated those as learning experiences.
“Knowing that things will change, things will turn around, and as long as you put your best foot forward every day, keep working, keep grinding through the tough times, things will turn around.”