After Week 1, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was the NFL's hot commodity, showing off an arm to match his feared speed. The team's running game never really gained a rhythm, but that surely wouldn't matter if this air-centric attack continued to thrive, right?
The only problem with that theory: It didn't.
The 49ers continued to ignore the ground game, and Kaepernick suffered because of it. Two straight losses, zero touchdowns and four interceptions later, the 49ers finally remembered what made them so effective in the first place: a power running game.
I see the 49ers found their identity again. They got too cute w/ Kap....they're smash mouth & let Kap play off that— Damien Woody (@damienwoody) September 27, 2013
Conventional wisdom would suggest that a thriving rushing attack would limit Kaepernick's overall impact on the offense.
As ESPN football analyst Lee Corso would say, "Not so fast, my friend."
With the ground game demanding the respect of opposing defenses, Kaepernick is now poised to put his inconsistent start behind him. And make no mistake, it has nothing to do with a push from newly signed backup John Skelton—a signing which was announced by the team Wednesday.
The 49ers rushed for 155.7 yards per game in 2012, with that number rising to 218 yards per game in the postseason. Fast-forward to last Thursday night's victory in St. Louis, when the team gained 219 yards on 5.5 yards per carry.
Of course, Kaepernick's own rushing contributions had plenty to do with those 2012 numbers, especially in the playoffs. However, as B/R's Jeremy Fuchs argues, this team simply does better when Kaepernick isn't asked to run the show on his own.
For example, take this breakdown of the 49ers' 2013 play-calling habits in their two wins versus their two losses. Passing plays include all attempts and sacks, while Kaepernick runs are separated into an independent category from designed plays for the running back.
|Weeks 1 & 4 (Wins)||66||64||10|
|Weeks 2 & 3 (Losses)||61||27||16|
This is a team that is built to run the football, as evidenced by positive run-block grades for tackle Joe Staley (plus-4.1) and guard Mike Iupati (plus-3.1) against in Week 4, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF, subscription required). When this team commits to the ground game early and continues throughout, the entire offense benefits.
While a 15-of-23 line for 167 yards is nothing more than middle-of-the-road, it's also worth noting that the 49ers didn't have to pass the ball often.
For three weeks, the 49ers asked a quarterback with 14 career starts to engineer an entire offense. In Week 4 they simply asked him to complete strong drives with efficient plays in critical moments, including two early touchdowns.
Needless to say, it worked.
A review of the 49ers' Week 4 performance revealed several positive takeaways for the young signal-caller, as seen in three particular plays. Not surprisingly, two of these plays came as a byproduct of the running game.
On the first play of the third quarter, Kaepernick executed a simple play-action fake to running back Frank Gore. Gore, highlighted in red below, occupied one defender and caused enough hesitation from Rams linebacker Alec Ogletree to allow fullback Bruce Miller to escape the backfield to the right.
This simple checkdown pass picked up nine yards. However, in the hands of running backs Kendall Hunter or LaMichael James, these types of plays could result in more explosive gains in space.
Later in the third quarter at the 13:48 mark, Kaepernick rolled right on a play-action fake to Hunter, highlighted in red below. St. Louis cornerback Trumaine Johnson, highlighted in blue, crept up in run support while leaving wide receiver Anquan Boldin uncovered for an easy 16-yard completion near the sideline.
Of course, the play action only works with a strong running game, and the 49ers did both effectively in Week 4.
Another example of progression was seen with 7:51 remaining in the second quarter on a 42-yard completion to Boldin down the field. While the pocket collapsed to his left, highlighted in blue below, Kaepernick stood tall and threw to Boldin rather than scramble away.
Boldin didn't really break free of the coverage until after the ball was thrown, which is a sign of improving trust between this combination. From a different angle, Kaepernick also appeared to scan the entire field through multiple reads from the pocket, an encouraging sign given the impending pass rush.
Of course, as the San Jose Mercury News' Cam Inman points out, Kaepernick will have to do more to beat the Houston Texans in Week 5. A home game against a playoff team will present a good test for Kaepernick, but he will need his receivers to rise to the occasion as well.
So far, Boldin has been the only consistent option in the passing game in 2013. Tight end Vernon Davis has been hobbled, receiver Kyle Williams has disappointed and rookie Quinton Patton is now out with a foot injury.
49ers receiver routes run last night. Boldin (30), Baldwin (10), Williams (16), Patton (5). Includes play nullified by penalty— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) September 27, 2013
Newcomer Jon Baldwin made a few plays against the Rams, and hopefully added work with Kaepernick can improve their chemistry. The 49ers also have two receivers on the physically unable to perform list, with Mario Manningham eligible to be activated in Week 7 and Michael Crabtree still an uncertainty.
No matter who steps up, Boldin and Davis can't be the only options in the passing game. A restructured game plan can only do so much, even if Kaepernick appears ready to put his dismal start behind him.
Kap undoubtedly has the talent to turn this season around, but he also can't do it alone.