SANTA CLARA -- Talented rookie wide receiver Dante Pettis definitely looked like a talented rookie on Sunday in the 49ers’ 20-14 victory over the Denver Broncos.
Pettis messed up, redeemed himself, then messed up again in a critical four-minute span in which the 49ers were just trying to hold on against the Broncos at Levi’s Stadium.
It’s all part of the learning curve for Pettis. He remained as the starter in front of veteran Marquise Goodwin, who returned to action after missing the two previous games to deal with a serious family matter.
Pettis caught three passes for 49 yards and a touchdown, and the 49ers did not hesitate to go to him on a couple of crucial third-down plays late in the game.
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With seven minutes remaining and the 49ers leading 20-7, quarterback Nick Mullens threw to Pettis on a crossing pattern on a third-and-2 play. Pettis had the first down and plenty of room to run, but he dropped the waist-high pass.
“I just tried to run before I caught the ball,” Pettis said. “I knew I was going to be wide open. The ball, honestly, I did not see Nick. I just saw the ball come out of nowhere, so it surprised me a little bit and I just tried to turn up the field and run with it before grabbing it. Just one of those things. You just drop it sometimes.”
The 49ers were forced to punt, and Denver responded with a 14-play, 69-yard touchdown drive to cut the deficit to just six points with four minutes to play.
In similar situations, this season, the 49ers’ offense had been unable to close out victories. Faced with a huge third-and-7 play from their own 23, Mullens again looked for Pettis. This time, Pettis secured the catch after Mullens dropped it behind running back Jeff Wilson Jr. and two Broncos defenders.
“I was like, ‘OK, this is coming to me. I know I have to make up for this,’ ” Pettis said.
Pettis gained 31 yards on the play, but he made a miscalculation as he neared the sideline. The Broncos had just one timeout remaining, and Pettis had a lapse in judgment as he ran out of bounds with 3:32 remaining to stop the clock.
Pettis said he thought he could outrun Broncos safety Dymonte Thomas to the end zone. He said he realized he made a critical error as he was about to make contact with Thomas at the sideline. Pettis said he considered going down in the field of play several yards before that.
“I thought about it at first, probably around 25 yards, ‘I should get down,’” Pettis said. “But then I was like, ‘Screw it, I’m scoring.’ I tried to get around him and it didn’t work out.”
Despite his obvious mistakes, Pettis has worked out since entering the starting lineup against Tampa Bay in Week 12. After being plagued by a knee injury and other ailments earlier in the season, Pettis has 363 yards receiving (second on the team behind tight end George Kittle) with team-highs of five touchdowns and a 19.1 average yards per catch.
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“Just being able to play more and get more comfortable in there helps a lot,” said Pettis, who played 61 of the 49ers’ 72 offensive snaps on Sunday against the Broncos. “Obviously, when you score and you’re able to get open and all that stuff, it helps a lot, too.”