Good is not great. Great is not perfect. Perfection is not achievable.
Knowing that, there are plenty of things the San Francisco 49ers can do to improve their new-look offense behind quarterback Colin Kaepernick, which needless to say, is still light-years ahead of where it was when the new regime adopted this restoration project in 2011.
For a team in transition, there are sure to be growing pains, which San Francisco has witnessed from the quarterback on out. For this breakdown, we are going to focus squarely on the passing game, which fizzled in Week 2 after posting a dominant, yet unbalanced, attack seven days prior.
Between the over-targeting of certain players, missed opportunities and constant surveying of the deep part of the field, there is reason to believe that with just 12 career starts under his belt, Kaepernick is not seeing the field as well as a veteran quarterback would.
As he continues his maturation process, the onus is on the 49ers staff to acknowledge that he is not the full-grown version of himself yet. Regardless of Kap’s physical talent and undeniable ceiling, the Niners need to take a small step back, simplifying things for him in order for this offense to kick into gear and live up to its potential.
More important than anything—as play-callers and play executers—the entire organization has to be consistent, even against daunting competition. For example, since Jim Harbaugh’s majestic entrance in 2011, quarterback Alex Smith went 3-0 versus the Seattle Seahawks, while Kaepernick sits at 0-2.
It wasn’t for a lack of talent behind center, but rather the coaching staff’s inability to design an adequate game plan, instead relying heavily on the talent of one individual (also "Kap" has only played Seattle at CenturyLink Field).
Offensively, balance, creativity and flow are the ticket to defeating any NFL team.
Here are a few things the 49ers can do to really fire this machine up:
49ers put up nearly 500 yards of offense last week. Have 201 yards of offense tonight against a D playing w/o Clemons, Browner & Irvin— Brian McIntyre (@brian_mcintyre) September 16, 2013
Say what you will about San Francisco’s most infamous wideout, but Kyle Williams has some wheels, running in the low 4.3 40 range, per NFL Draft Scout. What most fail to recognize is that he probably has the quickest feet on the entire team outside little-known spark plug LaMichael James.
Quinton Patton has also done a lot of short-to-intermediate work in his playing career, relying on YAC with the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs.
Simply put, Patton is a route technician, which is one reason he had such a high grade coming out of the draft—he didn’t boast top-flight speed or overbearing size. He also gets it done after the catch, which he showed in this play versus the Chargers and throughout his two-year career in the NCAA.
That said, there is upside to getting these players the ball underneath.
To compensate for Kaepernick not being the finish product, especially when it comes to consistently progressing through reads, the 49ers offense can benefit by designing plays that tell him where to go with the football. It’ll help create a balanced distribution and get this group of eager pass-catchers rolling early.
With this mixture of physical talent, the 49ers can enable the full gamut of the receiving corps and challenge cornerbacks to pursue and tackle, rather than cover, which most would much rather prefer doing.
Outside of Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin—who have combined for 23 grabs for 333 yards—the 49ers have failed to get their other receivers and tight ends involved in the passing game. So far, Davis and Boldin are also the only recipients of Colin Kaepernick touchdowns in 2013.
Entering Week 3, Kyle Williams, Marlon Moore and Vance McDonald are the only other non-running backs with receptions, accounting for a cumulative total of 10 completions, 125 yards and no scores (12.5 YPC).
With "K-Dub" averaging 10-plus per catch and the big rookie tight end putting up 22.0 per grab, it would do San Francisco a world of good to make an attempt to get these two involved a bit more, along with Patton, who has all the essence of a big play waiting to happen.
The 49ers might find that these commendable averages are not a fluke.
But again, in order to do that, the 49ers need to make it a point to get these guys touches on Sunday. And if they are not being found down the field, or by the end of their routes, the coaches need to work around it.
An adjustment Harbaugh and Co. can make to get their up-and-comers' hands on the ball is by incorporating more screens and pass plays that demand a quick release from the quarterback, combined with a designated target.
Let’s take a look at the bubble screen, which is a terrific way to get an athletic playmaker the ball in space with blockers rumbling downfield.
In the dynamic combo of Williams, Patton and McDonald, the 49ers have three supplemental guys who can run and cut and hammer people. Bubble screens, tunnel screens, tight end throwback screens—all of these are surefire ways to get these unique YAC receivers the ball with room to run.
On top of ensuring ball distribution, it is a proficient way to counter the blitz and will eventually open things up downfield.
Precise Route Combinations
Most every passing play has a succinct grouping of routes that play off one another—or at the least, they don’t interfere (some more than others, of course).
For the most part, the West Coast offense and varying offshoots of it are predicated on the interacting of routes. It is about high-percentage passing, a quick-strike underneath game that stretches the defense horizontally and taking advantage of mismatches and ball control, all of which set up the run, as well as the deep ball.
Add in the wide range of confusing formations and utilization of backs as receivers and it is the PhD holder of offenses.
In 2011, Jim Harbaugh, Greg Roman and this dream team of offensive eggheads installed a hybrid version that accentuated a lot of the staples first drawn up by Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh. They incorporated bunch sets, slants that utilized picks, sprint options, throwback screens and more.
However, so far in 2013, with all of the offseason modifications, it seems that the staff has lost sight of their roots, relying too heavily on an offense more reminiscent of Air Coryell. Frankly, that aggressive approach does not suit the personnel, which is one reason the 49ers crumbled against the Seahawks and have failed to establish the run in two games.
The 49ers want to get back to creative thinking when it comes to the passing game by utilizing intermingling routes that enable a hot receiver to get open. Not to mention, the quarterback will not miss him on a read progression because that open man will be written in as the primary.
The QB can quickly diagnose the play, get the ball out and chip away, and every so often, his pass-catcher will break loose.
For the sake of this piece, we’re going to delve further into the bunch formation, which employs a heavy stack of receivers branching out in different directions with the intention of clearing room for one man.
This is something that showed up in the game versus the Green Bay Packers, and it is particularly beneficial to the 49ers since it also allows their mostly inexperienced receiving corps to eat field against zone coverages.
In the following play from Week 1, you’ll see the 49ers offensive play-callers take advantage of route designs, creating space by pulling defenders out of position, then filling in that area with the hot receiver.
Personnel: 11 (3 WR-1 TE-1 RB)
Formation: Shotgun, Bunch Left
Down and Distance: 3rd-and-6
If you look at the initial alignment, it has San Francisco’s top three receiving options stacked left, in wideouts Anquan Boldin, Kyle Williams and tight end Vernon Davis, who is upright and detached from the line of scrimmage.
Marlon Moore is also at the top of the screen, and Frank Gore is perched next to the quarterback, providing an outlet. However, neither Moore nor Gore is the focus of the play, so they won’t be highlighted here.
Boldin is the primary receiver on this play (neon square), but his route and ability to get open is contingent on the execution from Williams and Davis. Williams, No. 10, is executing an eight-yard digger, while Davis, No. 85, is driving on a vertical route, intent on taking the top off the defense.
Shortly after the snap, Davis is well on his way downfield, as Williams has already pivoted to turn his route inside.
As we can see, with the defensive unit back on its heels, they failed to bump any of the receivers, so the timing of the play is still a go. Everyone was able to get a free release. In zone, the linebackers in the middle of the field are then in a position to dedicate their attention to Davis and Williams.
The point of this play—or “play intent” as offensive coordinator Greg Roman would say—is for Williams and Davis to clear out defenders with the combo of a vertical and horizontal route.
Williams, running the in-route, and Davis, streaking downfield on the fly pattern, open things up for Anquan Boldin, who is in a trail position.
In this frame, we can see Williams and Davis follow through on their routes, getting within the vicinity of Packers players in zone who will jump to pick them up, trying to get between them and the quarterback.
In actuality, those defenders (blue) are frozen and about to be removed from where the play is really going.
At this point, it is on the two defensive backs at the bottom of the screen (orange circles), who now have responsibility for Boldin. The 49ers' No. 1 wideout is ready to fill in the empty space created by Williams and Davis. He is also cognizant of working past the coverage to secure the first down.
The play continues to develop, as the 49ers offensive line provides an incredible shield for Kaepernick, while Boldin works to create cushion between him and the Packers defender.
Kap commits and releases.
The entire time, Boldin has his back to the two defenders, using his broad frame and inherent physicality to shield them from the play without pushing off after the legal five-yard limit.
With a passing lane the size of the 101 freeway, Kaepernick was able to drive on the intermediate route, completing it to Boldin for a 10-yard gain to keep the series alive. Between the scheme and dictation of matchups, it made for a pretty easy pitch and catch to move the sticks.
These are the sort of fundamental advantages the 49ers neglected in Week 2 and must continue to emphasize going forward.
And this is just one example. There are all sorts of fathomable route combos that can attack certain parts of the field, depending on down and distance, or even pick on particular players if the Niners like the matchup. Also, outside of Boldin, the offense can draw up ways to get all of their surrounding playmakers the ball, and it is not limited to receivers and tight ends.
While Vance McDonald and Kyle Williams will be interesting to see as the primary players in these bunch sets, given their size and speed, the 49ers can also incorporate running backs Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James, who excel with the ball in their hands.
Overall, the lesson here is that the 49ers cannot neglect creativity in the passing game simply because their quarterback has a cannon of an arm. Constantly looking downfield and only seriously considering one or two players is risky.
Whether it was the win against the Packers or the blowout versus the Seahawks, San Francisco clearly had difficulty with ball distribution. Unless that is corrected, this offense will be inconsistent, exploitable and fail to see its true potential.
Now, if at first that means taking away options for Kaepernick on a given down, it won't be such a bad thing, nor will it be condemning of his career progress to date. Losing his top receiver before entering his first-ever season as a starter is a tough situation—and would be a tough situation for almost any quarterback (See: Tom Brady, New England Patriots).
That being said, this is a young player who can benefit from being forced to target receivers he is unfamiliar with, which will ultimately build trust and establish chemistry.
As a quarterback, Kaepernick cannot be complacent with one or two players, even if they happen to have the hot hand that day. It is not a sustainable formula for success. Truth be told, the Niners would be better off if they realized and addressed this now.
Colin Kaepernick: "We're not going to win games if I play like that."— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) September 16, 2013