Call it great Carolina defense, poor San Francisco offense or a lot of both, but the Niners (6-3) were as bad they've been in the Jim Harbaugh era moving the ball.
Normally, 151 yards of offense is a mediocre half for an offense. That was S.F.'s game total.
Not surprisingly, blame has been bestowed on three people: quarterback Colin Kaepernick, offensive coordinator Greg Roman and Harbaugh. Trent Dilfer's critique of Kaepernick, via SI.com, has raised many eyebrows, whereas Lowell Cohn of The Press Democrat had two main reasons why the coaches are at fault:
First reason: Kaepernick is a young player, a quarterback who’s still learning. The coaches are not teaching him right.
Second reason: The coaches install the offensive game plan, and the 49ers’ offensive game plan is the pits.
Whether it was a bad game plan or bad execution, the Niners need to forget about it and look ahead.
Admittedly, it's darn-near impossible to predict what the 49ers will do against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. Caveat aside, here is what I'm expecting the 49ers to do in the Superdome.
Running the Ball on First Down
Against the Panthers, the 49ers had 21 first-down plays. In the first half, they gained 35 yards on seven run plays and lost six yards on six passing plays. Of course, three sacks played a big role in their negative passing play output.
Things were similarly bad in the second half.
On two first-down carries, the 49ers gained seven yards. On six planned passing plays, they gained 10 yards, but that total includes Kaepernick's 16-yard scramble. Take that away, and they're back in the red.
The moral of the story is the 49ers were much better off running the ball on first down, and that was against one the best run defenses in the league.
The Saints are far worse than the Panthers against the run.
New Orleans allows five yards per carry, tied for last in the NFL. When the 49ers beat the Saints 31-21 in 2012, San Francisco had 144 yards on 31 rushes. The Saints defense has improved a lot against the pass, but it is just as bad as it was last year defending the ground attack.
In the Niners' last two losses, Gore has combined for 27 carries and a 6.2 yards-per-carry average. In both games, the 49ers got away from the running game in the second half, and it cost them.
Expect the 49ers to unleash the running game early and often.
Effective Play-Action Passing
Of course when the running game gets going, Kaepernick's job is much easier.
The third-year quarterback has a passer rating of 109.4 on play-action passes, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). When throwing without a play-action fake, his rating drops to 72.5.
Assuming the 49ers establish a running game, Kaepernick should have plenty of open receivers over the middle after play-fakes.
The key to the play action (and evidently the whole 49ers offense) is the health of Vernon Davis. If linebackers and safeties are even one step slow on play-fakes, Davis can exploit them for touchdowns.
The 49ers are 0-2 when Davis is hurt (this includes the Carolina game in which he suffered a concussion early in the second quarter) and 6-1 when he plays the majority of the game.
On Wednesday, Davis said his concussion is "mild," per 49ers.com, which is a good sign for his Sunday status, though nothing is guaranteed yet.
Without Davis, the 49ers may not be able to produce as many big plays, but they're still better off utilizing play action much more often.
Bounce-Back Performance for Kaepernick
Kaepernick was flat-out bad against the Panthers. There's no way around it. And that should fuel his fire.
After the 2012 loss to the St. Louis Rams, fans were clamoring for Alex Smith to start.
After the first half of Super Bowl XLVII, many wondered if Kaepernick had what it takes to perform on the big stage.
After back-to-back losses in 2013, the media questioned whether Kaepernick was simply a one-year wonder.
I've seen this script before.
For whatever reason, he tends to play better with a chip on his shoulder. And that chip must feel more like a 20-pound weight right now with all the criticism surrounding his play.
This matchup against the Saints is tailor-made for Kaepernick to prove his critics wrong again.
First off, the 49ers are an underdog. Last time they were an underdog against a non-division opponent, they dropped 41 points on the New England Patriots. Kaepernick had four touchdown passes in that game.
Secondly, he has had success playing in the Superdome. He threw for 231 yards and a touchdown against the Saints in 2012, and he was brilliant in the second half of the Super Bowl (though most judge him for the last few plays, fair or not).
Lastly, it bears repeating that New Orleans' weakness is run defense.
In their five-game winning streak, the 49ers had 193 runs and 111 passes (63.4 percent run percentage). They scored at least 31 points in all five games.
Sure, they lost their way against the Panthers. But the Niners are still capable of dominating games on the ground, which will open up the passing game.
That's why Kaepernick, even after his debacle against Carolina, is seventh in the league in yards per attempt. When the 49ers run the ball and sustain drives, they're awfully hard to stop.
And that's what they'll do in the Big Easy on Sunday.
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