San Francisco 49ers Must Improve Red-Zone Efficiency Despite Recent Success

Jasper SchererAnalyst IIJanuary 6, 2014

GREEN BAY, WI - JANUARY 05:  Phil Dawson #9 of the San Francisco 49ers kicks a 33 yard field goal to defeat the Green Bay Packers in their NFC Wild Card Playoff game at Lambeau Field on January 5, 2014 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The San Francisco 49ers defeated the Green Bay Packers 23-20.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Phil Dawson is a great kicker. In fact, he's one of the best kickers in the NFL, and he deserves some congratulations for winning the first playoff game of his 15-year career on Sunday.

But Dawson also played much too large a role in the San Francisco 49ers' victory on Sunday over the Green Bay Packers. In fact, 49ers fans have seen him on the field far too often during the last several games.

Or rather, they've seen him in the wrong capacity, as they'd rather he kick more extra points instead of attempting his seemingly endless amount of short-range field goals.

In 2013, Dawson set a career-high by attempting 13 field goals inside 30 yards. That total tied him for the most in the NFL, and it highlights what is currently the 49ers' biggest issue: red-zone inefficiency.

In Sunday's win over the Packers, the Niners started the game off on the right foot. Their first two drives went for 69 and 42 yards, respectively, while they forced the Packers to go three-and-out during each of the latter's first three drives. But the Niners hardly capitalized on those two trips downfield, kicking field goals of 22 and 25 yards to go ahead 6-0.

It appeared the 49ers' inability to take advantage of the momentum when it was on their side would come back to bite them when the Packers subsequently took a 7-6 lead. However, they were able to pound it into the end zone on their next red-zone trip thanks to Frank Gore's 10-yard touchdown run.

GREEN BAY, WI - JANUARY 05:   Frank Gore #21 of the San Francisco 49ers scores a 10 yard touchdown in the second quarter against the Green Bay Packers during their NFC Wild Card Playoff game at Lambeau Field on January 5, 2014 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.  (P
Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

Had the 49ers lost that game, much of the blame would have (rightfully) fallen upon their inability to find the end zone when inside the Packers' 20-yard line. In total, they scored a touchdown on just one of their four red-zone attempts on Sunday.

Statistically, the 49ers weren't all that bad when it came to red-zone efficiency in 2013, ranking a respectable 14th in the NFL, according to Team Rankings.

But, as indicated by the 49ers currently possessing a solid passing attack despite being ranked among the worst NFL teams in passing yards in 2013, it's clear that statistics can be deceiving. What matters is how the Niners have fared recently in the red zone, and the results haven't been pretty.

For example, let's take a look at the Niners' Week 17 matchup against the Cardinals, also a 23-20 victory via a last-second field goal. In that game, the 49ers scored a touchdown in only two of their five red-zone trips.

The problems extend even further, as the Niners were again one-of-four in the red zone against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 15, allowing the Bucs to hang around far too late. And that came right after another last-second Dawson field goal in a 19-17 win against the Seahawks in which the Niners were one-of-three in the red zone.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - DECEMBER 08:  Kicker Phil Dawson #9 of the San Francisco 49ers watches his game-winning field goal against the Seattle Seahawks late in the fourth quarter on December 8, 2013 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California.  The 49ers
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

The bottom line is that the 49ers could easily put away their opponents with an efficient red-zone offense, but instead they needlessly allow them to stay around late in games.

The Niners have come away with close victories lately, but in the single-elimination playoffs, why take the chance? Dawson's last-second, game-winning field goal against the Packers slipped just through the arms of Davon House, meaning the result was inches away from being radically different.

So just why have the 49ers struggled so greatly inside the red zone? Much of it stems from offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who often makes questionable decisions when the 49ers get close to the end zone. Perhaps mixing up play calls, spreading the field more and avoiding being too predictable would help.

But one way to avoid those issues altogether is by making big plays when outside the red zone. That's something the 49ers have struggled with this season. Colin Kaepernick's longest pass of the season was good for 64 yards, ranking him 33rd among quarterbacks in that category. Additionally, Frank Gore's longest run, 51 yards, ranks him only 21st among running backs, and it didn't even result in a touchdown.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - NOVEMBER 10:  Mario Manningham #82 of the San Francisco 49ers is tackled by Captain Munnerlyn #41 and Luke Kuechly #59 of the Carolina Panthers at Candlestick Park on November 10, 2013 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Niners' lack of breakaway touchdowns this year is clearly one of the explanations for their offensive shortcomings. The 28-yard touchdown pass from Kaepernick to Vernon Davis on Sunday against the Packers is an example of how they can avoid the red zone altogether.

But the bottom line is that the 49ers must improve in the red zone when they get there. Their struggles proved to be the difference in their 10-9 loss to the Carolina Panthers earlier this season. They'll have a chance to rectify those issues in their rematch on Sunday.