SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — The San Francisco 49ers showed they could thrive as front-runners during a 5-0 start to the season. Pulling out tighter games down the stretch has proved to be problematic.
Brock Purdy turned the ball over three times in the final 16 minutes and San Francisco's defense struggled to slow down Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals, leading to a 31-17 loss Sunday that was the third straight for the Niners following their dominant start to the season.
“We haven’t shown that we can play from behind and come back and win a football game,” linebacker Fred Warner said. “That’s something that we’ve got to address and get better at. We can’t just be a team that can only win when we’re up.”
San Francisco (5-3) didn't face those scenarios in the first five games. It trailed only in one of those wins — Week 2 against the Rams — and never faced a deficit in the second half.
But the Niners have been forced to play from behind the last three weeks to poor results and need to get better in those scenarios after the bye week if they want to be contenders.
Rookie Jake Moody missed a potential game-winning field goal at Cleveland in Week 6, Purdy threw two late interceptions against Minnesota in Week 7, and then there were the late-game struggles against the Bengals on Sunday.
Purdy threw an interception in the red zone on a botched play with San Francisco trailing by seven points in the final minute of the third quarter.
He threw another on his next pass, setting up a 17-yard TD pass from Burrow to Ja'Marr Chase that put the Bengals in control.
The defense then gave up a 78-yard TD drive after San Francisco got back within seven points and Purdy lost a fumble late with San Francisco in desperation mode.
“I think in our first five games we didn’t always do right longer. We just made a bunch of plays and we were able to get up on people and win by a couple scores,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “I think when that happens, those little mistakes aren’t as crucial and it hasn’t been the case these last three weeks. We haven’t been able to overcome some little mistakes, whether it’s a turnover, whether it’s a penalty, whether it’s a drop, whether it’s a missed tackle.”
San Francisco fell to 0-37 under Shanahan in the regular season and playoffs in games the Niners trailed by at least eight points in the fourth quarter.
While Purdy's six turnovers the past three games have been problematic, his scrambling ability has been a bright spot. He gained 57 yards on six scrambles on Sunday, including a 16-yard conversion on third-and-8 that prolonged a touchdown drive.
Purdy has scrambled eight times the past two weeks after doing it only once in the first six games, leading to three first downs on those plays.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The 49ers have struggled tackling in recent weeks and had a season-worst 13 missed tackles on Sunday, according to Pro Football Focus, with the usually reliable Talanoa Hufanga and Dre Greenlaw each having three.
San Francisco has 32 missed tackles the past three games after having only nine the three weeks before that.
“What sticks out the most is how slow and tired we looked,” Shanahan said.
DE Clelin Ferrell. The former first-round bust from the Raiders had his most productive game for the Niners on Sunday. He had five tackles, a half-sack and forced a fumble that led to a red-zone turnover for the Bengals. Ferrell's five pressures, according to PFF, were the third most he has had in a game in his five-year career. He also had four defensive stops — tackles to prevent a successful play — to tie for his second best in a single game.
The run game. With star left tackle Trent Williams out the past two games with a sprained ankle, San Francisco has struggled on designed rushing plays. Christian McCaffrey had 54 yards on 12 carries, while Elijah Mitchell and Kyle Juszczyk combined for 2 yards on five carries.
The Niners are averaging 3.0 yards per carry and 51 yards rushing per game from their non-quarterbacks the past two games after averaging 4.85 yards per carry and 144 yards rushing per game the first six weeks.
LG Aaron Banks (turf toe) is expected to miss a few weeks. ... Greenlaw (shoulder) is day to day. ... Williams is expected to be able to return after the bye.
5 — The 49ers became the fifth team in NFL history to start the season 5-0 and then lose the next three games. The last two teams to do it — the 2016 Vikings and 2009 Giants — missed the playoffs. Tampa Bay lost in the divisional round in 1997 after doing it and the 1989 Los Angeles Rams made it to the NFC title game.
San Francisco has a bye and will visit Jacksonville on Nov. 12.
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Josh Dubow, The Associated Press