Aiyuk's heroics vs. Bengals show growth needed to become star


CINCINNATI -- Much like the 49ers, nothing has come easy for Brandon Aiyuk in 2021. 

The second-year wide receiver entered the season with massive expectations but quickly lost out on playing time to Trent Sherfield. Seemingly in coach Kyle Shanahan's dog house, Aiyuk didn't garner a target in Week 1 and registered just eight catches for 90 yards and one touchdown through the first five weeks. 

A bye-week conversation with Shanahan sparked a resurgence in Aiyuk, who has been a different player over the previous six games for the 49ers (28 catches for 408 yards and three touchdowns). 

The latest step in Aiyuk's re-emergence came Sunday during the 49ers' 26-23 overtime win over the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium when the young receiver scored on a 12-yard touchdown pass to rescue the 49ers from a disastrous loss. 

"I mean, he's a young guy," Shanahan said when asked what he has learned about Aiyuk during the season. "He is everything we hoped he would be in terms of the person and the talent, and there is a lot more there. He is getting better each week. That was a hell of a deal by him. He didn't get a lot of balls, I don't think, throughout the game, but every time he did, he made a hell of a play and to be able to finish right there, and just what he has done throughout this year, he has continued to get better, and there is a lot more in there, so that's a good thing for the 49ers."


It was a game that oddly mirrored Aiyuk's 2021 season. In the third quarter, the 23-year-old appeared to make an incredible acrobatic touchdown catch to extend the 49ers' lead to 23-6. But replay determined that while Aiyuk had possession of the ball, he could not get both feet down inbounds. As a result, the 49ers settled for a field goal to go up 20-6, a lead they would take into the fourth quarter. 

That lead wouldn't last, though, as Joe Burrow tossed two touchdown passes to Ja'Marr Chase in the final frame to send the game to overtime. 

That's when Aiyuk shook off the earlier near-miss and made sure the 49ers' playoff dreams wouldn't take a massive hit on banks of the Ohio River. 

After the Bengals opened overtime with a field goal, Garoppolo and the offense quickly moved into Bengals territory, and a 9-yard pass to George Kittle set the 49ers up with a first-and-10 at the Bengals' 12-yard line. 

That's when Shanahan dialed up a play to get Aiyuk the ball. However, it was a play the 49ers coach didn't believe would end with a red and gold party in the end zone. 

Garoppolo faked the handoff to Jeff Wilson Jr. and booted back to the left. Aiyuk began the play on the right side of the formation and came back across, giving Garoppolo an easy completion. Garoppolo dumped it off to Aiyuk, and the receiver did the rest, turning on the jets before tight-roping down the sideline and lunging the ball toward the pylon, breaking the plane and, after a short review, giving the 49ers a walk-off win in the Queen City.

"I've had a couple of plays that have been challenged the past couple of weeks that haven't gone my way," Aiyuk said after the win when asked about the roller coaster of emotions. "So [the overturned touchdown] hurt a lot. So the second one, that was a wonderful feeling. I wish they would have called it a touchdown in the first place, but it still counts for six."

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When the 49ers drafted Aiyuk in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft, Shanahan and general manager John Lynch had sky-high expectations for an electric Arizona State product they deemed their top wide receiver in a loaded class. They had visions of Aiyuk, alongside Deebo Samuel and George Kittle, creating a three-headed monster that could pile up yards after the catch. 

Aiyuk's solid rookie season gave them reason to believe he could reach the heights they had envisioned for him in Shanahan's offense. 

But progression is rarely linear, especially in the NFL. The road to greatness, both individually and as a team, is often paved with adversity, hard truths, and gut-check moments. 

That has been true for both Aiyuk and the 49ers in 2021. Disappointing performances and questions about their long-term future characterized the early portion of the season. 


It should come as no surprise that the 49ers' return to the NFC playoff picture coincided with Aiyuk's resurgence. At its very core, winning in the NFL often boils down to who has the most blue-chip players and whether or not those stars play up to their talent level.

Aiyuk has been precisely who the 49ers needed over their past six games. He has rarely left the field, has made big plays when the 49ers need them most, and, even when he breaks a cardinal Shanahan rule, he does so to deliver a win the 2021 Niners couldn't let slip through their fingers

"We're not really supposed to reach the ball for the pylon unless it's fourth-down," Aiyuk said of Sunday's game-winner. "But nobody said anything when I scored."

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