SANTA CLARA –- The 49ers found a temporary solution to their third-down problems.
The 49ers opened strong, converting their first seven third-down opportunities. But the offense reverted back to their form of a week ago with Blaine Gabbert at quarterback. The 49ers failed on all but one of their final seven third downs.
The 49ers squandered a two-touchdown lead, as the Dallas Cowboys invaded Levi’s Stadium with a huge contingent of fans and made off with a 24-17 victory on Sunday.
But, now, the 49ers (1-3) have plenty of other worries.
All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman sustained an ominous “lower leg” injury in the third quarter and exited the sideline on a cart for further observation. The team’s medical staff removed Bowman’s left shoe and was seen examining his foot, heal and Achilles areas.
[MAIOCCO: 49ers ILB Bowman exits with 'lower leg' injury]
The injury does not appear to be related to the severe left knee injury Bowman sustained in the playoffs following the 2013 regular season that forced him to miss an entire season.
On a team with a dearth of playmakers on either both sides of the ball, the loss of Bowman could be a big blow to a team has now lost three consecutive games after an opening-week victory over the Los Angeles Rams.
The same offense that opened a week earlier with 10 consecutive failed third-down conversions against the Seattle Seahawks, was on fire to open Sunday’s game.
The 49ers’ offense, which entered the game ranked tied for 23rd in the NFL in third-down conversions, were successful on their first seven third downs, as the 49ers built a 14-0 lead.
In fact, the 49ers’ first two touchdowns came on third-down plays. On a third-and-7 play from the Dallas 33, Gabbert hit Jeremy Kerley for a 33-yard touchdown. Early in the second quarter, Carlos Hyde scored on a 3-yard run on a third-and-1 play.
Gabbert played well for most of the game, but threw a bad interception early in the fourth quarter. Torrey Smith had a couple of steps deep on Cowboys cornerback Morris Claiborne on a post pattern. Gabbert’s pass was underthrown so much that Claiborne was able to make the easy interception.
Gabbert completed 16 of 23 passes for 196 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Hyde was the 49ers’ leading rusher with 74 yards and a touchdown on 15 attempts.
Smith was targeted just two times in the game. He had one catch for 3 yards, but that came late in the fourth quarter on a fourth-down play on which the 49ers needed 6 yards.
The Cowboys’ rookie duo of Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott had strong showings. Prescott completed 23 of 32 passes for 245 yards with two touchdowns with no interceptions. Elliott rushed for 138 yards on 23 rushing attempts.
Rookie Aaron Burbridge, a seventh-round draft pick, got his first NFL start as the 49ers opened with a four-receiver set. The 49ers played without starting tight end Vance McDonald, who was ruled out of the game with a hip injury,
Burbridge caught a 5-yard pass – his first NFL reception – on the 49ers’ second play of the game.
Garrett Celek took over for McDonald as the 49ers’ top tight end. Celek ended up being a big part of the 49ers’ offense early in the game with three receptions for 41 yards in the first quarter. He finished with five catches for 79 yards.
This ‘n’ that
--The 49ers’ defense had a couple of new starters on defense. Rookie Rashard Robinson took over as the starter right cornerback in place of Jimmie Ward, who is expected to miss multiple weeks with a right quadriceps strain.
Robinson put together an outstanding game with three passes broken up, including his play to knock the ball from Brice Butler in the end zone in the fourth quarter to prevent the Cowboys from going up by two scores.
Michael Wilhoite also replaced Gerald Hodges at inside linebacker. Wilhoite started 28 games the past two years, but lost his starting job to Wilhoite to open this season.
--The 49ers appeared to have the Cowboys stopped on a third-and-6 play when Ronald Blair and Chris Davis shared a 3-yard sack of Prescott. However, referee Terry McAulay flagged Jaquiski Tartt for unnecessary roughness for attempting to hit Prescott while he was wrapped up.
After the 15-yard penalty and a first down, Prescott hit Terrance Williams for a 20-yard touchdown on a back-shoulder throw against 49ers cornerback Tramaine Brock. The touchdown cut the 49ers’ lead to 14-7.
--The Cowboys tied the game at the end of the first half on Prescott’s 4-yard scoring pass to Butler.
--The 49ers extended ex-player Andre Carter’s coaching internship through the entire season. Carter was originally set to work with the club only through training camp. Carter works primarily with the team’s outside linebackers as an assistant to position coach Jason Tarver.
--Right tackle Trent Brown surrendered his first sack of the season and was also called for a false start, his first penalty of the season. Tyrone Crawford’s sack against Brown was the first time a 49ers starting offensive lineman had been beaten for a sack this season.