The storyline heading in and out of the Week 15 matchup between the Bengals and 49ers revolved around Cincinnati's backup quarterback, AJ McCarron. Few NFL backup quarterbacks have the college resume and rockstar persona the former Crimson Tide National Champion possesses. McCarron gave Sunday's contest out west a little more sizzle because as is was his first pro start.
McCarron made just enough plays while not turning the ball over to get the Bengals in position to win it, but it was a group of other players who ensured victory for the Bengals. Cincinnati's defense swarmed and frustrated San Francisco's offense to the tune of four turnovers, four sacks and just 14 points allowed.
Let's review the many facets of the Bengals' defensive dominance.
Three of the turnovers forced by the Bengals' defense were on interceptions by Blaine Gabbert, directly leading to points. The most important of the four was a beauty by backup safety Shawn Williams, who has two of the team's most important picks of the year. Williams, who started for George Iloka on Sunday, stole a Gabbert pass after he threw to an open receiver too late in the end zone. It was critical, as the 49ers just grabbed an onside kick to potentially make it a one possession game with two minutes left.
Coming back from injury against San Francisco was cornerback Adam Jones and he made his presence known with a second quarter interception. Gabbert targeted tight end Vance McDonald on a third-and-11 and hit him, but McDonald bobbled the football. Jones swooped in and nabbed his third interception of 2015.
Adam Jones with an interception -- oh, how we've missed him. https://t.co/hOzbWgUBEg— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) December 20, 2015
Neither of those plays netted points for the Bengals, but the two others did. Carlos Dunlap had another superb effort on Sunday. While he didn't rack up any quarterback sacks, No. 96 blocked a field goal attempt and forced a fumble, which he recovered. The play set up the Bengals in prime field position and they capitalized with a Jeremy Hill touchdown five plays later.
Carlos Dunlap forces the fumble and returns it 21 yards to the SF-11. https://t.co/qdADUclY1U— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) December 20, 2015
Linebacker Vontaze Burfict continues to spark the entire defensive unit, which he's done since he returned from the PUP list. He had another All-Star-like performance on Sunday. Burfict made a great play with an interception on a pass intended for McDonald to again set up the Bengals in good shape right before the half. McCarron threw a strike to an open Tyler Kroft to give Cincinnati a 21-0 lead at the midway point.
Pressure, Sacks and Stuffed Plays:
If Burfict and Dunlap were dominant on Sunday, Geno Atkins was an absolute monster. With two sacks against the 49ers, Atkins has 10 on the year, closing in on his personal best of 12.5 from 2012. When he wasn't chasing down Gabbert, he was stuffing run plays.
Geno!!!! https://t.co/wVS6ZMRt5I— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) December 20, 2015
Geno!! https://t.co/8lV9MYNsoc— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) December 20, 2015
Domata Peko added to his career-high in sacks with another on Sunday, while Burfict tracked down Gabbert, notching his first sack of the year. San Francisco's offense only mustered 55 net rushing yards on the afternoon at just a 3.2 yards per rush clip. It was another great performance from Cincinnati's front seven to propel the team to a win.
San Francisco's Offensive Inefficiency:
Perhaps the biggest takeaway of Sunday's tale was on third down. Many coaches and players deem it as the most important down in the game of football, and both offenses were pretty poor at conversions on the afternoon. One of the knocks on McCarron's game was the offense's 28 percent third down conversion rate (4-of-14).
Cincinnati's defense stifled Gabbert and Co. to a 14 percent rate (2-of-14), creating one very obvious facet of the Bengals' path to victory. Making this stat even more unbelievable is the fact that the 49ers didn't achieve those two conversions until late in the fourth quarter. The first one was a microcosm of San Francisco's day in a way, where Gabbert threw an errant pass to have it bounce off a defender and into Torrey Smith's arms.
One other facet to point at in the win was San Francisco committing 11 penalties for 98 yards. Some of those were offensive holding, again pointing to the dominance of the Bengals' defensive front. The penalties made many manageable third downs turn into unmanageable third and longs.