Coming into Week 10, the San Francisco 49ers were on an absolute roll. After a rocky start to the season at 1-2, they made it a point to retool the offense by getting back to its roots. Running back Frank Gore started to shoulder the load on the ground, and quarterback Colin Kaepernick capitalized with effective play-action passes.
Pundits believed the 49ers were turning into the team to beat in the NFC West based on the fact they had figured out their early-season woes. Unfortunately, that notion came to an end when the Seattle Seahawks notched their fifth road win of the season, and the Carolina Panthers traveled all the way across the country to knock off head coach Jim Harbaugh and Co.
Even though the score ended up being 10-9, Carolina’s defense tormented and bullied San Francisco’s offense all game long. Gore and the run game faired OK at 4.4 yards a pop on 24 carries, yet Kaepernick and the aerial assault was absolutely abysmal.
On 22 throws, the third-year signal-caller out of Nevada completed 50 percent of his passes, averaged 4.1 yards per attempt and was picked off once. This, in turn, meant he registered his lowest home quarterback rating of the season (42.0) and the lowest QBR of his career (7.7).
All in all, it was simply not the best of days for Mr. Kaepernick. Aside from his erratic, off-kilter throws, the 230-pound dual-threat quarterback lost his top pass-catching target Vernon Davis to a concussion midway through the second quarter. Without the Pro Bowl tight end at his disposal, it was apparent that No. 7’s day was about to get a whole lot worse.
And it did.
Over the course of the final two-and-a-half quarters, Kaepernick failed to find a receiving target that he could lean on. Sure, Mario Manningham made a couple of nice catches en route to a 30-yard performance in his 2013 debut, yet outside of him, there wasn’t a player who could successfully get in rhythm. Anquan Boldin and Gore tried, but they ultimately failed, combining for just five catches and 44 yards through the air.
Despite the fact the Panthers have one of the best front sevens in the NFL, there’s no question offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s offense has the talent necessary to exploit the back end of defensive coordinator Sean McDermott’s defense. Yes, Davis left the game concussed and Michael Crabtree is still rehabbing his Achilles injury, but that doesn’t matter.
Boldin, Manningham, Kyle Williams and Vance McDonald are still capable of picking up tough yards in tough situations when the offense needs them to. However, it is hard to get alternative options involved in the passing game considering Kaepernick turns into a second-rate quarterback when opposing defenses eliminate his first read.
Apparently, I’m not alone in this thought process. According to ESPN.com’s Mike Sando, Super Bowl-winning quarterback Trent Dilfer echoed the same sentiment on ESPN. Here’s what Dilfer had to say while he was live on the air: "Take away Kaepernick's first read and he becomes 'remedial' as a passer."
Dilfer has a point: When one takes the time to examine Kaep’s play on tape, the evidence is so obvious it jumps off the screen at you. There’s a reason two pass-catchers account for 69 percent of the 49ers receiving yards. Of the 1,565 receiving yards San Francisco’s offense has amassed through nine games, Davis and Boldin have combined for 1,094 of them.
The pill may be hard to swallow, yet the Niners need to come to the troubling realization that they have morphed into a one-dimensional offense, one in which Gore and the rest of the backfield are the only consistencies on a weekly basis.
With seven games remaining, San Francisco should have no problem handling teams like the Washington Redskins, St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons, yet the 49ers are in for a rude awakening when they have to square off against the New Orleans Saints, Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals.
Playoff-caliber teams will be able to effectively plan and scheme for San Francisco’s one-dimensional offense. Without a doubt, Carolina’s defense laid the blueprint for shutting the Niners down. McDermott’s unit defended the run with seven defenders in the box while leaving two safeties deep in a two-man under look.
When a team has a dominant front seven like the Panthers, the 49ers are dead in the water. There’s nothing Kaep and the rest of the offense can do when a defense can stop the run with seven and stop the pass with seven. Good offenses have to find a way to make the opposition pay for either playing too aggressive or too conservative.
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If Kaepernick doesn’t fix his inability to go to his second and third reads, Crabtree’s arrival in the starting lineup won’t make a difference. The 49ers will do enough to outplay the opponents they are supposed to defeat, which means they will finish the season at 11-5 or 10-6.
On paper that’s a fine record, but when the playoffs start, top-notch clubs in the NFC will expose their fraudulent, depthless offense. From now until the end of the year, Coach Harbaugh and the entire offensive staff will need to go all in on Kaepernick. Because if they don’t teach and coach him up, San Francisco’s offense will remain one dimensional, and the team will be one and done in the postseason.
After a Super Bowl appearance in 2012, the last thing owner Jed York wants is to lose in the first round of the playoffs. He knows the talent level on both sides of the ball is too valuable to waste, and there’s no argument around the fact that 173.9 yards per contest through the air won’t cut it.
The 49ers dream of a sixth Lombardi Trophy will remain a dream until the term one dimensional is no longer attached to Roman’s offense.