Offensive coordinator Greg Roman must better utilize running back Frank Gore on a consistent basis.
It’s official: The San Francisco 49ers and offensive issues are now wholly synonymous.
From coaches, to players, to everything in between—San Francisco’s problems on offense run the gamut.
Just don’t go thinking it’s all easy-to-identify, surface-level stuff.
Yes, the 49ers are statistical basement-dwellers with the NFL’s No. 32-ranked passing offense. Yes, they have not reached the 10-point mark in three of their four losses. And yes, they are a walking disaster at the wide receiver position.
But the 49ers of 2013 are most problematic on a more fundamental level.
They embody the distinctive Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality. A sports psychologist might deem them the type that finds consistency in systematically repeated inconsistencies.
In more football-friendly vernacular, the 49ers win when they run first and pass later—when Frank Gore leads and Colin Kaepernick follows and when coordinator Greg Roman’s offensive game plan in the second half aligns with its counterpart in the first half.
And they lose, well, when the above doesn’t happen. And that’s happened nearly as much as it hasn’t.
Riddle-crazed statements aside, San Francisco succeeds offensively with a particular formula and fails with another. Sadly, a record of 6-4 and a recent two-game losing streak indicate that its problems are becoming an all too regular occurrence.
Let’s now dissect the 49ers’ biggest offensive issues as they have materialized in each of their four losses.
Note: All screen shots come courtesy of NFL Game Rewind (subscription required).
Week 2 at Seattle Seahawks (29-3)
Colin Kaepernick’s Deficient Field Awareness, Failed Red-Zone Opportunities
To be sure, Kaepernick ran into an absolute buzz saw in the Pacific Northwest.
The Seahawks had the fortune of hosting the 49ers during their home opener at CenturyLink Field, a place where they enjoyed undefeated glory in 2012. What NFL analysts hailed as perhaps the finest matchup all year eventually turned into a blowout with help from the infamous "12th Man."
Yet it was San Francisco’s own quarterback who also helped dig his team an early grave.
Following a fortuitous blocked punt, Kaepernick took the ball from shotgun on 1st-and-10 from Seattle's 33-yard line. He quickly orchestrated two third-down conversions with a pass to Vernon Davis and a rush of his own up the middle.
The 49ers were knocking on the proverbial end-zone door in short order.
Unfortunately, it closed as swiftly as it had been opened.
Kaepernick double-clutched on 3rd-and-5 and threw late to Davis as he crossed the goal line. The ball darted in low and deflected in the air for an Earl Thomas interception.
Instead of silencing the crowd with an early 7-0 advantage, Kaepernick’s tardiness in coverage recognition empowered the rabid fanbase to an even more devastating level. It did not bode well for the 49ers’ chances moving forward.
Late in the third quarter, the 49ers were desperate for another red-zone opportunity. Kaepernick initially helped their cause by delivering his team 71 yards to the SEA 3.
While avoiding another backbreaking turnover, he did not capitalize in the points department.
San Francisco implemented a five-receiver spread and an empty backfield. Kaepernick took the snap from shotgun and rolled left.
He fought to make something happen but did not go through all his progressions or scan the entire field. He completely missed a wide-open Quinton Patton in the right corner. The 49ers settled for a field goal after he ran out of bounds on the left sideline.
Seattle harnessed momentum from that defensive stop. It capitalized on its next scoring drive and enhanced what could have been a slim 12-7 lead—or even a 14-12 deficit—into a suffocating 19-3 margin over San Francisco.
Kaepernick’s playmaking shortcomings were the relative end-all, be-all in this particular loss. The statisticians at Pro Football Focus qualified them as the worst of Kaepernick's career as a passer (subscription required).
His multiple turnovers and narrow field vision surely played a critical role and represent failed touchdown conversions in the red zone during the 49ers’ losses to Seattle, Carolina and New Orleans.
Week 3 vs. Indianapolis Colts (27-7)
Greg Roman’s Second-Half Play Calling, Abandoning the Run
The 49ers exploit defenses with a heavy run-first, imbalanced attack and opportunistic passes downfield.
To wit, they have favored designed runs 61.4 percent of the time during their six wins. That total drops to 45.2 percent in San Francisco’s four losses.
Indefatigable veteran Frank Gore leads this ball-control offensive. He has averaged 21 carries and has recorded seven touchdowns during 49ers’ victories. That average plummets to 12.3 carries with zero scores during his team’s losing efforts.
Kaepernick, for his part, piggybacks off Gore and Co. with play-action throws.
He has completed 61.4 percent of his passes with five touchdowns, a 106.4 rating and only one interception after faking the handoff to his running backs, according to Pro Football Focus. His completion percentage and rating fall to 54.1 and 72.3, respectively, while his interceptions increase six-fold on non-play-action attempts.
Against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 3, Gore accounted for eight of the 49ers’ 13 first-half rushing plays. His steady carries, along with teammate Kendall Hunter’s 12-yard touchdown, helped facilitate offensive rhythm and keep the deficit to just 10-7.
Then the second half happened.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman called just five runs next to a whopping 23 pass plays. He eliminated Gore from the ground game entirely with more than 12 minutes remaining in the third quarter.
Worse yet, Roman didn’t implement a single rushing play to anyone in the fourth quarter.
The 49ers were down only 13-7 when they began their first offensive series just outside midfield. They needed to sustain a lengthy drive so that their defense could rest and their offense could generate a go-ahead score.
Gore was just the man for the job.
Apparently, Roman thought otherwise.
The OC called for three straight passes—one of which to third-string tight end Garrett Celek—that resulted in two incompletions and one sack. The Colts didn't respect the run threat on play action and San Francisco went backward three yards. It possessed the ball for all of 1:27.
When the 49ers got it back seven minutes later, the Colts had already cemented certain victory by extending their lead to 20-7.
Roman helped seal that fate by failing in his coordinator duties.
Fostering ingenuity on offense—as Roman is apt to do—is one thing. But sacrificing the team’s No. 1 playmaker in order to accomplish that goal is simply unfathomable.
The 49ers function as a Gore-powered, run-centered offensive unit. When they lose that identity, they generally lose the game.
Week 10 vs. Carolina Panthers (10-9)
Void in Playmakers, Dreadful Third-Down Percentage
Officially or not, Week 10 became known as the game when the 49ers’ passing offense converted to full-on horror show.
Kaepernick completed 11 of 22 passes for just 91 yards and one interception. His 7.7 QBR was the lowest of his starting career.
Mario Manningham led all receivers with two drops and a stunning 30 yards. Boldin managed all of three catches for 23 yards.
The offensive line, for its part, surrendered 12 quarterback hurries and a season-high six sacks.
Two particular stats, however, were most indicative of the 49ers’ miserable offensive output: 2-of-13 on third downs and zero touchdowns.
Kaepernick did not produce a third-down completion until the fourth quarter with less than five minutes remaining. He also did not account for a touchdown in the red zone or anywhere else on the field.
To his credit, much of this results from the absolute void in playmakers on the 49ers offense.
During San Francisco’s lone red-zone opportunity, Davis suffered a concussion on a second-down pass breakup near the goal line. He immediately left the game.
With Davis and No. 3 tight end Celek out, in addition to rookie Vance McDonald’s unproven resume, the 49ers could not even think about attempting a 4th-and-goal conversion two plays later.
They simply lacked the proper personnel for that scenario—whether it be for run blocking or pass catching—and settled for a chip-shot field goal.
But speaking of McDonald, the Ivy-Leaguer had a winning ball slip right through his hands early in the fourth quarter.
Kaepernick executed a perfect play-action pass from San Francisco's 39-yard line.
It hit McDonald in stride deep down the right seam. Coverage linebacker extraordinaire Luke Kuechly was in good position, but the ball landed right in the tight end’s lap.
McDonald’s momentum would have carried deep into the red zone had he made the catch. The 49ers could have at least kicked a field goal and extended their lead to 12-7.
They punted instead, and Carolina generated its own 10-9 advantage just a few plays later.
The pertinent idea here is that San Francisco lacked a reliable playmaker at crucial points throughout this game.
No Davis, a rusty Manningham, a rookie tight end and a consistently double-covered Boldin do not comprise an effective receiving corps. Gore and fullback Bruce Miller can only do so much in the passing game.
Michael Crabtree would have served as the perfect antidote to the 49ers’ offensive woes.
Peter Damilatis of Pro Football Focus illustrated how indispensable Crabtree was to Kaepernick and the offense last season.
Only four players saw more than Crabtree’s 49 targets on third and fourth down, and his 32 third-down receptions were [fifth-most]...Twenty-four of those catches converted into first downs or touchdowns for San Francisco, and Crabtree’s five scores on third down were tied for the most in the league…There were 32 plays…(second-most in the league) where Crabtree caught a pass short of the first-down marker, yet still managed to get enough yardage to move the chains. Seventeen of those came on third or fourth down, by far the highest number of any player in the NFL.
Dynamic No. 15 was Kaepernick’s go-to guy and the 49ers’ leading receiver in every way imaginable.
They needed him desperately in this game as both a scoring option and chain-moving target. After all, this team has the second-fewest passing touchdowns (11) and the third-lowest conversion percentage on third downs (38 percent) among NFL clubs with winning records.
San Francisco must eliminate predictability by developing a complementary passing attack. Defenses would then respect both the run and passing game. A fully functioning Crabtree, Boldin, Manningham, Davis and first-year wideout Quinton Patton will ensure that dynamic materializes.
So, while Kaepernick missed some throws and Roman reverted again to his pass-heavy schemes against the Panthers, having a dangerous corps of outside weapons would have secured victory for the 49ers this time around.
Week 1 at New Orleans Saints (23-20)
Neglect the Run, Lose Time of Possession, Lose the Game
Analyzing this matchup is quite difficult next to the backdrop of decisively poor officiating.
Many an observer has questioned whether the Saints would have won if not for the two non-calls for defensive holding and a suspect roughing-the-passer on Ahmad Brooks’ strip-sack of Drew Brees.
Those in-game developments, however, do not fall under the scope of this discussion.
What does is the absent 49ers running game in the fourth quarter and overwhelming discrepancy in time of possession.
In a recurring theme this season, Roman opted for a game plan that favored the pass during the closing frame. The offense carried out just one designed run compared to nine pass plays.
San Francisco held a narrow 20-17 lead with 7:50 left in the fourth. Garrett Hartley had just kicked a 21-yard field goal following a Saints drive that consumed a prolonged 5:33.
The 49ers needed Brees relegated to the sideline. They could accomplish this end and give their defense a breather with a methodical ground-and-pound attack. Eating up the clock was indeed the optimal means for preserving the lead.
But as history would dictate, Roman called for three consecutive passes.
Kaepernick’s first throw luckily killed some time after the Saints tackled Miller inbounds. Gore also would have gained big yardage and burned more of the clock had he not dropped the ball on a well-executed wheel route.
Yet, at the end of the day, the 49ers went three-and-out and used just 1:02.
Kaepernick threw it up for grabs on a doomed third-down call that had very little chance of being converted. The timeout called mere seconds before did nothing toward developing an effective first down-producing play.
After New Orleans tied it at 20-all, San Francisco had ample time for a game-winning drive. One timeout and the two-minute warning flashed on the scoreboard with 2:06 left on the clock.
Roman spread four receivers out wide with Kaepernick in the shotgun and Gore to his left on 1st-and-10.
The Saints easily recognized the potential for a slow-developing pass play. They pinned their ears back and ran an inside stunt from the right side.
Backup lineman Adam Snyder (No. 68) missed his assignment and defensive end Junior Galette (No. 93) reached Kaepernick in two seconds flat. He forced him into Keyunta Dawson (No. 55) for the easy nine-yard sack.
The swarming defense nearly caused a safety on the following play and subsequently held Kap to a 16-yard scramble on 3rd-and-19.
The 49ers punted away, giving Brees an eternity (1:41) to orchestrate a game-clinching drive. He did just that.
Instead of counteracting New Orleans’ aggressive pass rush with an inside draw or delayed handoff to Gore, Roman went for broke. He did not recognize the Saints’ defensive tendencies or his own personnel who lacked enough pass-catching weapons.
He set the offense up for failure.
Matt Maiocco, 49ers insider for CSN Bay Area, wouldn’t go as far as failure, but he did say that first down “would have been the perfect opportunity for offensive coordinator Greg Roman and coach Jim Harbaugh to run the ball out of a spread formation.”
What do you think is the 49ers' biggest offensive issue?
On the season, San Francisco’s offense has averaged 61.4 percent rushing plays and 32:50 in time of possession during the team’s six wins. It has totaled 45.2 percent and 25:25, respectively, in its four losses.
Against the Saints, the 49ers employed runs on 33.8 percent of their total offensive snaps. They held the ball for 25:21.
Dubious officiating surely played a significant role in this game. Those aforementioned offensive totals, though, paint an all too predictable picture.
All three NFC West foes boast a top-five defensive component. Seattle (No. 3 scoring), St. Louis (No. 5 in sacks) and Arizona (No. 2 rushing) will have their sights set on a vulnerable San Francisco offense.
The 49ers must take care of business against the inferior Washington Redskins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Atlanta Falcons and their combined 7-23 record. A wild-card berth within a fierce group of NFC contenders is at stake.
One way or another, it looks like it’s back to the drawing board for Roman, head coach Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers offense.
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