In the San Francisco 49ers latest loss to the St. Louis Rams today, five fatal flaws were confirmed. Some of these flaws were apparent last season, but some are new this year and may spell doom for the 49ers down the road. Although these issues cannot be quickly fixed, some can be mitigated, so let's discuss:
Last year, David Akers set the all-time record for most field goals made in a season, but this year, he isn't just having a slump; he's having a colossal meltdown. Akers is second-to-last among active NFL kickers when it comes to field-goal completion percentage, and his crucial misses in two games to the Rams this season have cost the 49ers victories.
Coach Jim Harbaugh can no longer rely on the 37-year-old veteran to make chip-shots from long range, especially now that it's been confirmed that Akers is struggling with a pelvis injury. Although the team recently worked out free-agent kickers Billy Cundiff and Nate Kaeding, they are unlikely to usurp Akers' starting job as they have an inconsistent track record as well.
Instead, the 49ers' only realistic option this season is to punt the ball from midfield instead of giving up lucrative field position. The 49ers will have to find a long-term replacement for the aging Akers this offseason through the draft or free agency.
Despite having two "hot hands" at quarterback, the 49ers still rank 27th in passing yards per game in the NFL. This glaring statistic has been apparent in the 49ers' losses this year as the inability to rally the team to victory through the air has resulted in three losses and a tie.
Last year's winning formula relied heavily on the defense generating turnovers, whereupon the offense would move the ball a few yards and then let special teams kick a field goal. However, the turnover ratio and field goals haven't been nearly as plentiful this year, and when faced with quintessential passing downs, the 49ers only rank 21st in third-down conversions.
Again, there isn't a whole lot the 49ers can do about this given their offensive philosophy. If they force the ball into deep coverage on 3rd-and-long, they risk turnovers, which goes against coach Jim Harbaugh's "ball control" approach. If they stick to check-downs and running the ball, they'll continue to see drives stall as they did today.
The only hope is that Colin Kaepernick becomes a better facilitator and administrator of the 49ers' passing attack before the playoffs start. Unfortunately, Kaepernick's passing yards per game, passing touchdowns per game and overall passer rating appear to be on the decline over his last two starts as defenses begin to figure him out.
The 49ers defense may excel at shutting down tiny scat-backs like LaRod Stephens-Howling, but this season they have struggled to stop big, bruising running backs. You'll see in the table below that they have surrendered huge chunks of yardage to some of the biggest backs in the league, leading to disappointing results.
|Running Back||Height||Weight (lbs)||Total Yards (Rushing & Receiving)||Week||Game Result|
|Adrian Peterson (Vikings)||6'1||217||107 yards||3 ||49ers Loss|
|Ahmad Bradshaw (Giants)||5'10||214||120 yards||6 ||49ers Loss|
|Marshawn Lynch (Seahawks)||5'11||215||116 yards||7||49ers Win|
|Steven Jackson (Rams)||6'2||240||127 yards||10||Tie|
|6'2||240||117 yards||13||49ers loss|
At this point in the season, there isn't much more the 49ers can do to remedy this other than hope for better matchups against smaller running backs. They'll have to address the marginally declining power of their aging defensive line during the offseason, either through the draft or free agency.
In today's loss, the 49ers were penalized 11 times for 97 yards, nearly the entire length of a football field. That shouldn't come as a surprise since the 49ers are one of the most penalized teams in the National Football League. According to TeamRankings.com, they average seven penalties per game, which ties them for sixth worst along with the Detroit Lions.
In any given game, the 49ers will be hit with an array of penalties, mostly on offense. These range from delay of game to holding to a false start. How's that for a drive killer? What's even more disturbing is that last year the team was eighth-worst in the league, so they have technically regressed.
There is no quick fix to this self-defeating tendency as discipline and chemistry are most often resolved during training camp, preseason or the first few weeks of the regular season. The playoffs are nearing and the best the 49ers can hope for is home-field advantage where they are less likely to be penalized.
Watching Colin Kaepernick go down in his team's own end zone for a safety was perplexing given how mobile Kaepernick is supposed to be, but according to AdvancedNFLStats.com, the 49ers are fourth-worst in sacks allowed this year, with over 37 on the books. That's worse than the bottom-feeding Jacksonville Jaguars too.
Keep in mind that Alex Smith was the league's most sacked quarterback last year too, and you'll see that this drive-killing statistic seems ingrained in the 49ers offense. It's difficult to say who is more to blame, the quarterback or the offensive line, but this much is clear: Scoring opportunities die when the quarterback is repeatedly taken down.
The only way to fix this issue is for the quarterback to get rid of the ball more quickly, something that Peyton Manning does regularly. The problem is that if Smith or Kaepernick can't find an open man or don't feel comfortable throwing into tight spaces, then they will just continue to "eat the sack".
Of the previous five flaws mentioned, the 49ers coaching staff should be held primarily responsible for three, specifically the penalties, sacks and deficient passing game. It's the responsibility of the coaches to instill discipline in their team, so they don't commit egregious penalties.
With regards to sacks, the 49ers coaching staff needs to work with their quarterbacks (Smith and Kaepernick) on getting rid of the ball more quickly. Smith holds onto the ball too long and often eats the sack, whereas Kaepernick scrambles around, but struggled to find open targets downfield today.
A better option would be doing what the great Peyton Manning regularly does: Attempting quick strike throws. Doing so would reduce the number sacks while still advancing the ball.
As stated earlier, these fatal flaws may not be easily fixed anytime soon, but some of them can be mitigated. When it comes to picking up wins in the next couple of months, matchups and home field may play a bigger role than the 49ers would like.