Situational football has been the Achilles heel for the Jim Harbaugh-led San Francisco 49ers—a team that has greatly struggled to stay on the field on third down and score touchdowns in the red zone. Over time, we’ve seen them fail to live up to their offensive potential because of it.
They let teams hang around in ballgames, and on occasion, their opponents capitalize and roar past them.
With the upcoming elimination game versus the Seattle Seahawks, who sport the No. 1 scoring defense, opportunities to come away with points will be few and far between. It’ll be imperative to score early, take a particularly influential crowd out of the equation and benefit from trips inside Seahawks territory.
This is truly setting up to be a game of inches.
So, if one thing plays a role and hinders San Francisco’s overall performance in the NFC Championship Game—potentially costing the team another trip to the Super Bowl—it’s the inability to cap drives off with touchdowns. In a match this close, they cannot afford to leave points on the field.
That being said, here is a look at how they’ve fared under the new regime and what they’re up against.
Heading into this game, the 49ers rank 17th in third-down conversion percentage, per NFL Team Rankings.
When it came to passing for first downs, the 49ers were dead last in the NFL for the majority of the season. They now rank No. 30. It just hasn’t been a fluid area for them on offense, despite the dual-threat quarterback, stable of running backs, beefy O-line and a gaggle of pass-catchers.
They simply haven’t been able to get it figured out.
To be fair, the team suffered for the majority of the season—and the 2013 numbers are diluted—because wide receiver Michael Crabtree was out. With his basketball moves and effortless chemistry with the quarterback, he evolved into one of the NFL’s best third-down specialists.
In 2012, there were a total of 32 plays in which Crabtree caught a pass short of the first-down marker and still managed to move the chains, via Peter Damilatis of Pro Football Focus. Even more astounding, a league-high 17 of those catches came on third- or fourth-down situations, which really validates the clutch element here.
The offense relied on him in that way, so not having him was a drive killer.
The 49ers look like they watched ESPN's piece on how bad their third and shorts have been and corrected it.— Ann Killion (@annkillion) January 12, 2014
The good news is he is back to bailing out his quarterback in those critical moments and is doing it with his spectacular hands and terrific moves after the catch. This year, Crabtree has a 7.4 YAC-per-reception average, which would rank him No. 5 among all NFL wide receivers if he qualified, per Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus.
So, as a third-down team, you could argue this offense is back online.
But even though Crabtree has been back to form and the 49ers are in the playoffs with no reason to conceal parts of their offense as they’ve been rumored to do, there has been absolutely no progress in the red zone.
Now that they can stay on the field and get close to the goal, they have to come away with six or seven points, instead of zero or three.
Regardless of their arsenal and the matchup problems they should be able to present, the 49ers offense is outside the top 10 in red-zone scoring, ranked No. 12.
This would be far worse if it was calculated by rate, not how many times they come away with a field goal or a touchdown. They enter that area of the field as much as anybody, so even though it's not very impressive, it’s still a misleading stat that gives them the benefit of the doubt.
It's a facet that stands to get better, especially with more talent and more attempts.
Like we said, with Crabtree back in the mix and the addition of Anquan Boldin, they're getting there more frequently. If you were to look at the past three games for instance, since they’ve been rolling, the 49ers offense has been in goal situations the fourth-most in the NFL (4.3 times per game), per NFL Team Rankings.
Yet the red-zone scoring has not improved.
So while the unit appears efficient in the box score, regular onlookers know full well it is coming up short more often than not. Those who watch the offense see that the 49ers don’t really have a lot of issues getting driving the length of the field.
They march down with a balanced attack and give themselves plenty of chances in the red zone.
This sounds like a recipe for success, but it's got to translate when there is less room to work with.
The real stat about the 49ers' red zone comes from Gary Althiser of Pro Football Focus, who points out that San Francisco actually ranks 27th in the NFL since 2011 in TD percentage inside the red zone (51 percent). Since then, the club has also led the NFL in field goals with a whopping 105 (regular season only).
It’s no coincidence that David Akers and Phil Dawson had two of the more exceptional campaigns for place-kickers in recent memory. The point total by Akers (166) and the consecutive makes by Dawson (27) were unbelievable.
But obviously the commonality was that they both had plenty of tries. Akers even set an NFL record in 2011 with 52 field-goal attempts, via Pro-Football-Reference.com.
Their seasons were byproducts of the red-zone struggles.
From 2011-2013, no team in the NFL has kicked more field goals inside the opponent’s 10-yard line (32), as well as inside the 20-yard line (67). The 49ers are also currently ranked second inside the 5-yard line with 15 combined kicks from Akers and Dawson in that time, according to Althiser.
This also underlines the importance of the position in San Francisco and why the team has to have a good one. The usage weighs on the heavy side.
This Sunday, the Niners really want to avoid settling for field goals. It will be a bad sign if they cannot pierce Seattle’s red-zone defense in tight quarters. It’s the difference between a one-score and a two-score game. They need to be able to put this one away if and when the opportunity comes about.
And as we’ve seen, against the Seahawks, those opportunities won't come often. It’s been even tougher to light up the scoreboard, so extra prep time must be spent crafting high-percentage plays in the red zone.
Seeing as how the Seahawks also have the No. 1-ranked red-zone defense, per NFL Team Rankings, it's only right to prepare that way and give them the respect they deserve. And past history between them would stipulate as much.
In the last four meetings versus Seattle, the 49ers have had 14 drives in the red zone (only three ended with a touchdown). The ‘Hawks have actually made more big defensive plays than the Niners have offensive plays, which should be a shock. All in all, the Seattle D has accounted for four interceptions and one blocked kick in that time.
Historically, this is a team that starts slow. So when we’re talking about setting the tempo early, taking the crowd out and capitalizing on opportunities, there is some concern as to whether or not the 49ers can actually accomplish that this weekend.
Nearly 70 percent of the time, the 49ers don't come away with any points on their first attempt, which is probably why their strategy is defer whenever they win the coin toss.
In the past, they haven't gotten it done.
Gary Althiser of PFF
As Althiser reports, the seven touchdowns on opening drives since 2011 is the third-worst in the National Football League. These are the defects that can sink San Francisco this weekend. That's why more often than not, you'll hear the only team that can beat the 49ers is the 49ers. They're their own worst enemy.
Over the past two seasons, all four opening drives versus the Seattle Seahawks have ended in punts.
You can run through this team with a fine-tooth comb—there's almost no weaknesses.
Though, their scoring offense leaves something to be desired, and it has always been the prevailing threat to end their season. It will be on the 49ers to start fast, put complete drives together and win in the red zone. If Seattle holds San Francisco to field goals in this game, then the Seahawks will likely represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
It's really that simple.
San Francisco can match them everywhere else. After all, the name of the game is scoring points, so if the Hawks can prevent that, while exploiting the Niners' biggest weakness, they'll put themselves in a favorable position to win the game.
Very special thanks to Gary Althiser of Pro Football Focus for providing in-depth red-zone and opening-drive statistics. Additional statistics were courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com. Unless noted otherwise, stats were obtained firsthand.