SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Jimmy Garoppolo prefers to keep his secrets to himself. But there was nothing Garoppolo could do Sunday afternoon when cornerback Richard Sherman stepped to the podium following the San Francisco 49ers‘ win against the Pittsburgh Steelers and revealed a surprise about the Niners’ quarterback.
“He likes getting hit, I don’t know why,” Sherman said. “Not every quarterback likes it. It kind of wakes him up.”
About 30 minutes later, Garoppolo would confirm Sherman’s assertion, noting that he has been told before that he seems to enjoy taking hits. If that’s the case, there’s little doubt that Garoppolo had a grand old time in Sunday’s 24-20 win against the Steelers at Levi’s Stadium.
Making his third start of the season and third since returning from a torn left ACL suffered last September, Garoppolo felt more pressure Sunday than he had in the first two weeks combined — in more ways than one. Garoppolo had been sacked once and hit just twice in the first two games.
With the 49ers starting rookie Justin Skule at left tackle and their general preference for dialing up pressures, the Steelers made it clear they intended to throw everything they had at Garoppolo. By the time it was over, Garoppolo had been sacked just one time, but unofficial press box statistics had him taking eight hits. It seemed like many more.
Despite the pressure, Garoppolo didn’t flinch, sometimes even shaking loose from would-be tacklers and either making a play down the field, scrambling for a gain or throwing it away to preserve down and distance.
“I think it’s huge, always for a quarterback and with anyone,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “With him coming off the ACL, it’s been longer. You don’t hit guys in practice, so you’re going to get in the games, and I think sometimes the more Jimmy gets hit, the better he does. He responded to it well and played very tough.”
Garoppolo’s toughness served as an example on a day when just about everything that could go wrong did. The Niners turned the ball over five times, including four in the first half. Two of those were interceptions charged to Garoppolo and he had his hand in two botched center/quarterback exchanges. Three of those turnovers came with the 49ers inside Pittsburgh’s 30, turning a game that could have been far more comfortable into a nail-biter.
After a third-down miscue on a snap that hit motioning receiver Richie James Jr. that the Steelers recovered at their 7, Garoppolo was visibly frustrated.
“I was upset,” Garoppolo said. “But the defense, when they’re playing like that, it gives you such confidence on the sideline. So it was just more about getting our guys ready for the next series. They make huge plays like that on defense, it sets us up for success.”
Sure enough, defensive lineman Arik Armstead forced a fumble three plays later, giving Garoppolo & Co. a chance for some late-game heroics. Starting from Pittsburgh’s 24, Garoppolo completed a 9-yard pass to tight end George Kittle, scrambled away from a sack for a 2-yard gain, hit James for 6 yards, evaded a rush to prevent a sack and, finally, fired a dart to Dante Pettis for a 5-yard touchdown — the first game-winning touchdown pass of his career.
Through it all, Garoppolo said he never thought about his surgically-repaired knee, delivering against and under pressure.
“The leg has felt good,” Garoppolo said. “I haven’t really had any issues with it this whole time. It wasn’t like it proved anything to me, but it’s a good confidence booster, I guess.”
As Garoppolo’s comeback season continues, there will undoubtedly be more difficult challenges in the offing but there have been signs of notable progress through the first three weeks, particularly after a difficult opener against Tampa Bay. On Sunday, Garoppolo finished 23-of-32 for 277 yards with a touchdown and the two interceptions for a passer rating of 82.4.
Those numbers don’t tell the whole truth, though, as both interceptions hit off a receiver’s hands.
“I thought Jimmy played well,” Shanahan said. “He was put in some tough situations with all the turnovers. I think he had two picks, but they seemed like pretty good throws. Just went off those guys’ hands a little bit. But they came after us. It was very similar to Tampa, and anytime somebody does that, there’s a lot of feast or famine. So it’s going to be tight every time. He hung in there, took some big hits, made some big throws and when we did give him the time, he didn’t miss much.”
More important, Garoppolo showed for the first time that he can take those hits, get up and keep coming. He also showed more willingness to get the ball down the field, averaging 7.6 air yards per attempt against the Steelers after an average of 6.6 air yards the first two weeks.
All of that is meaningful as the Niners’ schedule toughens and more will be asked of the presumed franchise quarterback.
“It didn’t bother him throughout the game,” Sherman said. “Obviously, he stayed poised, especially on the game-winning drive, the game-winning touchdown.”
Sunday wasn’t perfect for Garoppolo and the 49ers’ offense. It was just the next step in Garoppolo’s comeback, of which the rest of this promising 49ers’ season depends.