Tabbed by the media as the next great quarterback all offseason, San Francisco 49ers star Colin Kaepernick has hit a sophomore slump. Are we seeing the real Kaepernick, or is this merely a combination of injuries, a lack of experience and outside circumstances affecting his game?
The 49ers have Super Bowl talent and aspirations, but to get back to the big game they need their quarterback to play as well as he did in 2012. What's holding him back and how can the 49ers fix it?
Where have all the targets gone?
Michael Crabtree is still sidelined from an Achilles injury suffered before the season. Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin have largely been fantastic, but the 49ers lost Davis to a concussion in a crucial Week 10 loss to the Carolina Panthers. Without those three, who does Kaepernick have to throw to?
Of the team's reception leaders through 10 games, No. 3 is a fullback and No. 4 was cut after the Panthers game.
It's important to note just how much the 49ers offense depends on Davis. In the team's three losses (of which he missed one), the All-Pro-caliber tight end has four catches for 22 yards and no touchdowns. If you want to point to one stat that backs up the lack of talent at receiver in this offense, look right there.
Davis was the key to the team's passing game against Green Bay—six catches, 98 yards and two touchdowns—but has too often been a non-factor in the team's losses. The Panthers game could be blamed on injury, but against the Seahawks, he was simply shut down by the pass rush and coverage of the Seattle defense.
So what's the fix?
The 49ers have to get Davis involved early and often in the game plan. With a strong running game, play-action passes are open for Davis—especially with the 49ers seeing many man-coverage looks with a single high safety. Against these defenses, the 49ers can get single coverage on their playmaking tight end and take advantage of his size and speed in a matchup route.
It would also help to unleash Kaepernick, who has been tied to the pocket at times this year. Free the athletic threat to make plays in and out of the pocket, and the offense will open up.
The more Gore, the better
You might not think that running the ball more would help the passing game, but it does. Football is like an oversized chess game, and the run game is knowing how to use your pawns. You set the board and plan your moves with the run game, and then kill the defense with the pass. The 49ers have done this with success in the past—and even in the first half against Carolina—but too quickly abandon the run in the second half.
That's not been a problem in their six wins, though.
In the team's three losses, Gore has totaled his lowest carries of the season. That may seem logical, given that when a team is losing they tend to run the ball less, but Gore needs to be fed early in the game plan. The 49ers need to use their pawn—who is one of the best in the game—to soften up the defense and allow for Kaepernick and his big, physical wide receivers the room to operate against overaggressive safeties.
There is a time and place to air it out, and when you're down two scores it's prudent to start passing the ball more. The issue here is that the 49ers have gone away from the run early in their three losses. Against Seattle (Week 2) and Indianapolis (Week 3), the team completely abandoned the run. And according to NFL.com stats, Gore has just 20 carries when the team is trailing by one score.
That's a glaring mistake in the preparation and playcalling by the 49ers.
Kaepernick is a play-action passer right now, and that's OK, but the 49ers must help him. By setting up the run, you open up the defense and oftentimes get it to tip its hand pre-snap as to coverages and blitzes. There is no negative to giving Gore the ball more when the team trails, especially early. Coordinator Greg Roman and the offense must be patient and confident in the game plan when the team is behind.
The proof is in the numbers. When Gore rushes more than 20 times in a game, Kaepernick completes 62.8 percent of his passes. When Gore is under 20, Kaepernick completes just 46.1 percent of his passes.
Learning to read again
The 49ers offense looks different from last season, but one constant has been the exceptional play of the offensive line. There are no issues with Kaepernick having time to make his reads after the snap, but what we aren't seeing is better decision-making from him as a result of that time. That has to change.
In charting the 49ers passing game against the Panthers, I noticed a surprising lack of passes thrown downfield. And not just bombs over the top, but a complete absence of attempts past the first-down marker. On 21 attempts, Kaepernick attempted just six throws deeper than 10 yards. That tells me he's checking down far too often and relying on yards after catch instead of trusting his wide receivers down the field.
Let's take a game-changing fourth-quarter drive as an example.
3rd-and-6, the 49ers down 10-9 with 9:03 left in the game. Kaepernick is in the gun with Gore to his left. Trips right and a single wide receiver left. The Panthers give the same zone-coverage look they've shown all day on third down.
The receivers get into their routes and quickly we see tight end Vance McDonald squatting near the sticks with linebacker Luke Kuechly spying Kaepernick while keeping near McDonald. With the big tight end two yards from the first-down marker, this is a safe throw if it's the only option. Kaepernick's first read, though, is Boldin out of the slot. He's streaking upfield with a cornerback in his hip pocket.
One second ahead on the film, we see that Boldin has a step on the nickelback who turned in his zone. Boldin looks to be open, but note the safety and outside cornerback eyeing Kaepernick and in close range of Boldin—whom Kaepernick has been eyeing the entire play.
One second more and we see the cornerback and safety converge on Boldin as Kaepernick's pass comes in. It's a catchable ball, but with double coverage and a lofted pass, the defense has a chance to close on Boldin before he can pull the ball down. Incomplete. Send in the punt team.
But look at McDonald in each still. He's hovering at the 20-yard line, two yards shy of a first down. In each progression we see the Panthers' zone defense sinking away from him, leaving a good cushion for a quick strike and run. At 6'4", all McDonald has to do is catch the ball, turn around and fall forward for the first down. But Kaepernick never looks his way.
This all-or-nothing mentality has been too persistent in the 49ers' game plan when trailing. Instead of going for the easy, safe, sure throw, we see Kaepernick push the ball into a tight spot that's, at best, a 50/50 pass. Learning to go for the sure thing instead of the big play takes time, but at this stage of his career, this is a play Kaepernick has to make.
The 49ers have the NFL's worst-ranked passing game after 10 games. To fix that, they need to get healthy, focus on play-action, and free Kaepernick to make the plays in and out of the pocket that we saw last year.
The talent will be there, it's all about execution.