5 Simple Solutions to the San Francisco 49ers' Biggest Issues
If the 49ers can win their remaining three games and move in front of Carolina for the fifth playoff berth, that would give them a big advantage. If the 49ers win their first two playoff contests, they would not have to face Seattle until the NFC Championship Game.
There are some major issues the 49ers must address as they march toward the postseason.
We will amplify those issues and see how the 49ers can make the necessary improvements to give them the best chance of winning it all this season.
All stats courtesy of NFL.com.
No. 5: Improved Pass Rush
The San Francisco 49ers defense is the steady rock that has led the 49ers this season. The defense is ranked third in the league, allowing an average of only 16.5 points per game.
However, the one area that has been inconsistent is the pass rush. The 49ers have 32 sacks on the year, ranking them in a tie for 16th in the league.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio prefers to apply pressure by utilizing only four pass-rushers. Unfortunately, rushing only four men sometimes makes it tough for the 49ers to apply consistent pressure on the quarterback.
This enables a good quarterback to have the time to survey the field and find open receivers.
The solution for this is to employ more blitz packages periodically. The 49ers seldom blitz, but when they do, it is usually very effective.
When the 49ers allow an opposing quarterback to get comfortable in the pocket, that can spell disaster for the defense. A few well-timed blitzes will keep the opposing offense off balance and help to make the quarterback uncomfortable.
No. 4: Energize the Running Game
Leading up to the Seattle game, Frank Gore had three consecutive games where he rushed for less than 50 yards. He also struggled with an average of only 2.95 yards per carry in those three contests.
Is this lack of production a problem caused by Gore's advancing age?
The answer to that question is an emphatic no.
The real issues are twofold. First, opposing defenses have routinely placed eight and sometimes even nine men in the box. With so many defenders up near the line of scrimmage, defenses have made a commitment to stopping the run and forcing the 49ers to beat them through the air.
That strategy has largely been working, as the 49ers' passing attack has been very lackluster. However, with the return of Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham, defenses now have to worry about four competent pass-catching threats.
Opposing defensive coordinators must now pay more respect to the 49ers' passing game. This will open up more running lanes for Gore and Kendall Hunter.
Against the Seahawks, Gore broke off a brilliant 51-yard run in the fourth quarter to set up the deciding field goal. He carried the ball 17 times for 110 yards. Even if Gore had not made the long run, he still was ahead of the pace he was at in the past three games.
The second issue plaguing the 49ers' running game is the loss of left guard Mike Iupati, who is out with an ankle injury. It is not a mere coincidence that the 49ers' ground game is far more effective with Iupati in the game and playing well.
Iupati is a devastating run-blocker and is simply stronger and more effective on running plays than his replacement Adam Snyder.
Snyder has done an adequate job filling in, but he is not the punishing run-blocker that Iupati is. The 49ers are hoping to get Iupati back soon, and when he returns, the running game will also pick up.
No. 3: Stop Wasting Timeouts
The San Francisco 49ers routinely waste two or three timeouts in every game. At some point, the careless waste of these valuable assets is going to haunt the 49ers at a time when it matters most.
Last year, I warned about the 49ers' poor coverage on punt and kickoff returns several times over the course of the season. When it mattered the most, in the Super Bowl, the coverage breakdowns were a huge factor in the Baltimore Ravens defeating the 49ers for the world championship.
If the 49ers do not utilize their timeouts more judiciously, it can lead to their ultimate demise.
In addition to some very questionable challenges by head coach Jim Harbaugh, a clear problem is the time it takes to call the plays. After 13 games, this should not be an issue, but it is.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman must get the play calls in to Colin Kaepernick faster. The 49ers should also simplify some of the verbiage that uses time to convey both to Kaepernick and in the huddle.
There must be a greater sense of urgency to getting the play calls in and the offense up to the line of scrimmage faster. Wasting timeouts is something that can and should be fixed before it's too late.
No. 2: Improved Passing Efficiency
Earlier in the season with the 49ers missing Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham, the passing game struggled. The problems were magnified when Vernon Davis was also out for a couple games due to injury.
Now, however, Crabtree and Manningham have returned, giving the 49ers four solid receivers. This will undoubtedly upgrade the passing attack and give Colin Kaepernick more options.
Anquan Boldin leads the 49ers with 67 receptions for 915 yards, a 13.7 yards-per-catch average. His five receiving touchdowns trail only Vernon Davis, who has 11 TDs.
Kaepernick never had full confidence in Kyle Williams, Jon Baldwin, Marlon Moore or Vance McDonald. He rarely looked their way, and when he did, the connections weren't there. Moore and Williams are no longer even with the team.
Kaepernick does need to progress through his reads quicker and also check down faster if there are no receivers open down the field. This is part of his learning curve and will improve his efficiency.
The threat of the big play should return, as the 49ers' receiving corps is the strongest it's been all year. In addition, Kaepernick can also make plays with his legs.
However, there needs to be improvement on Kaepernick's completion rate, which sits at 57.2 percent.
Utilizing Bruce Miller in the passing game more would be one positive step. With Boldin, Davis and now Crabtree in the lineup, Miller is almost an afterthought for opposing defenses.
Miller catches the ball well and is almost always open. Using Miller and the other 49ers running backs on checkdowns and swing passes would enable the 49ers to gain positive yardage and also improve Kaepernick's efficiency.
No. 1: Improved Red-Zone Efficiency
The San Francisco 49ers currently rank seventh in red-zone efficiency, scoring a touchdown in 59.52 percent of their opportunities. The six teams ahead of them are all playoff teams, or at least challenging for the playoffs.
Play-calling in the red zone can be improved. The 49ers like to pound the ball up the middle, often utilizing their heavy or jumbo package.
The passing game is made tougher because defenses are playing within a much more limited area. It's hard for the 49ers receivers to break open cleanly against this tight coverage.
The one thing the 49ers can immediately employ to improve their red-zone efficiency is to utilize more run-pass option plays with Colin Kaepernick.
Taking a page out of the 49ers' offense with Joe Montana or Steve Young at the helm, there were countless roll-outs and quick flag patterns that were virtually unstoppable.
I can still visualize Montana rolling right, getting the perfect angle and hitting Jerry Rice or Brent Jones as they angled toward the pylon.
Young did the same thing, except he rolled left, and typically Rice or Jones would fake inside and immediately break left to the outside. Young would have the proper angle to easily get them the ball as they ran toward the pylon.
In addition, both Montana and Young had the mobility to run it in themselves. This puts enormous pressure on the opposing defense.
With the tremendous speed and mobility of Kaepernick, this simple strategy would lead to far more touchdowns instead of short field goals.