Here’s a playoff nightmare for 49ers fans: Opponents get hip to the 49ers’ pass routes, the offensive line can’t hold on, and quarterback Alex Smith has to (a) run for cover, (b) throw the ball away or (c) take an inordinate number of sacks, as happened against the Baltimore Ravens.
Or, perhaps worst of all: Smith forces the ball into coverage, bringing interceptions and scores for the other team.
If any of that happens, can head coach Jim Harbaugh switch gears and start calling Frank Gore’s number? Will Gore be healthy enough? And can the offensive line spring him for big gains?
To be honest, no. A steady attack of Gore left, Gore middle, Gore right is the last tactic that will bring victory in the playoffs. Gore has the heart of a lion and the strength to match, but even with a couple of weeks’ rest (assuming the 49ers get the first-round bye), he can’t gain ground if defenses can key on him.
That’s why not only Smith, but the rest of the 49ers offense, has to execute if the Niners are to march through the playoffs and into the Super Bowl.
The 49ers operate a balanced attack, with Smith’s passing setting up Gore’s running and vice versa. In fact, over the Niners’ last four games, the team has thrown 117 times and run 125 times. The situation in each game has dictated the ratio of passing to running, but the 20-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers represented perhaps the 49ers’ ideal—31 passes and 30 rushes.
At a high level, offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s scheme is pretty simple: Bunch the defense with the inside running game, exploit it with outside passes and runs, and do most of the damage on first and second down so that third downs become manageable.
When that hasn’t happened, life has been difficult. One possible reason why the 49ers have struggled in the red zone is that play-calling variety has suffered because the shortened real estate limits passing. That, in turn, lets defenses focus on the running game, which, in the 49ers’ case, is strong but not overpowering.
Come the playoffs, were we to see too much of Frank Gore, we would also probably see too much of punter Andy Lee.
Which brings up another point—the 49ers’ reliance on excellent defense and special teams, which produced all but two of the Niners’ eight Pro Bowlers this season (Gore and tackle Joe Staley were the lone offensive representatives).
By now, it’s clear that the 49ers don’t overdo it on offense. That’s worked because the defense has kept the opponents off the board, Lee and the punt team have consistently pinned other teams—such as the Steelers—deep in their own territory, and record-setting placekicker David Akers and the kicking team have come through with points.
For the Niners to keep winning, that formula must continue to produce. In other words, the balance isn’t just on offense. It’s team-wide.
That means there are no fail-safes. If one part of the system goes down, the rest will suffer. Which is why it’s not only up to Smith and Gore, but no fewer than 51 other guys, if the 49ers are to come through victorious in the playoffs.