3 Areas the San Francisco 49ers Must Improve in the Red Zone

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3 Areas the San Francisco 49ers Must Improve in the Red Zone
Matt Slocum/Associated Press

In a vacuum, the San Francisco 49ers weren’t as bad as popular opinion suggests in the red zone last season.  They scored a touchdown on 53.03 percent of their red-zone drives.  That’s good for 15th-best in the league; not exactly something to write home about, but it is better than, for example, Carolina or San Diego.  They scored 1.8 red-zone touchdowns a game, the same rate as Seattle, per Team Rankings.

Moreover, the team actually scored the third-most touchdowns in the league in the red zone with 37—only Denver and New England scored more once they got close to the goal line, per Pro-Football-Reference.  The team has come a long way since 2011, when the team boasted the worst red-zone offense in football.

The transition is not complete, however.  League average is a refreshing change for the 49ers, but this is a Super Bowl-caliber team.  They can’t settle for “alright” or “average”—this is a clear area where they can improve and become elite.  If they can get their red-zone efficiency up above, say, 57 percent—the range of the Patriots and Chiefs of this world—it could turn the 49ers from one of the top teams in the NFL to the top team, bar none.

What were San Francisco’s problem areas during the 2013 season?  There were three big ones—let’s look at them in turn and see how the 49ers can improve on them in 2014.

 

Use All Four Downs

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press
As good as Phil Dawson has been, 49ers fans wouldn't mind seeing less of him next season.

The 49ers kicked 26 field goals in the red zone—only San Diego, with 29, kicked more.  A full 37.9 percent of all of San Francisco’s drives that ended in the red zone resulted in the team lining up to kick a field goal, compared to the league average of 35 percent.

What’s wrong with that, you might ask—after all, a field goal means you’re coming away with points, and with as stingy a defense as San Francisco has, any points are good.  Surely you want to take the lead, especially early on, and then trust your defense to shut the other team down, right?

Wrong.  It is one of the most basic tenants of advanced statistical analysis of football that teams are way, way, way too conservative on fourth down.  Advanced NFL Stats ran a series of studies explaining the math behind the fourth-down decision, but I’ll try to break it down into common English.

When you go for it on fourth-and-goal, the best outcome is, of course, the touchdown.  However, even if you fail, your defense finds itself in a fantastic situation. 

The opposing team’s offense is pinned with their backs to their own goal, and they will likely have to struggle just to get enough room to get a safe punt off.  If you trust your defense to get the three-and-out, you’ll end up with the ball back in scoring position once again after the punt.

This can be proved both statistically and anecdotally.  San Francisco fans will remember the playoff game against Carolina.  At the end of the first quarter, the Panthers faced a 1st-and-goal situation at the six-yard line.  They took four shots at the end zone, and they failed to score.  A huge momentum shift, right?

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
The Panthers and Riverboat Ron Rivera learned the value of going for it in the red zone.

Well, not so much—the 49ers took over in the shadow of their own goal, and they only managed to move the ball out to the 3-yard line before being forced to punt.  Andy Lee managed a 52-yard punt, but with the return, Carolina ended up starting on San Francisco’s 31-yard line, already in scoring position.  Plus, they scored the very next play.

This isn’t an isolated incident.  In 2013, 557 drives started inside a team’s own 10-yard line, per Pro-Football-Reference.  The average drive from there gained 33 yards, while the median one sputtered out after only 22 yards.  Punts ended 285 of those drives, with turnovers ending another 75 of them.  Safeties ended 14 more drives and two more punts were blocked.  All in all, 67.5 percent of those drives, pinned back deep, resulted in an offense failing to do anything of note.

Punts inside the red zone, on average, ended up with the other team getting the ball on their opponents’ 42-yard line.  Adding it all together, you end up with a situation where even failing to punch the ball into the end zone results in an advantageous situation for the offense.

Now, you can’t just run plays on fourth-down all willy-nilly; 4th-and-goal from the 2-yard line is a very different situation than 4th-and-goal from the 16-yard line.  That’s why Advanced NFL Stats and the New York Times have teamed up to create the 4th Down Bot to analyze specific situations, based on success rate over the past decade of NFL games.

The 49ers faced fourth down in the red zone 28 times last season, and they made 25 field-goal attempts.  The 4th Down Bot crunched the numbers and found, on multiple occasions, the 49ers would have been better off going for it, most notably in the NFC Championship Game.  It felt, at times, that once the team got into field-goal range, they were playing not to lose, rather than going for the touchdown.

Jim Harbaugh’s squad has actually been fairly aggressive in his tenure as 49ers head coach, per Football Outsiders, but there’s room to step up another rung or two when the field shortens.

 

Vary Your Play-calling

Of course, the best way to avoid messing up the fourth-down decision is to avoid fourth-downs altogether.  Unfortunately, the 49ers haven’t been doing that great at keeping defenses guessing in the red zone.

Here’s a breakdown of San Francisco’s play-calling in the red zone in 2013:

Play Selection in the Red Zone
Player # of plays Yards TDs
Runs with Frank Gore 63 204 6
Runs with Colin Kaepernick 15 72 5
Runs with Kendall Hunter 13 31 2
Passes to Vernon Davis 24 110 10
Passes to Anquan Boldin 16 128 7
Passes to Michael Crabtree 13 24 1
Other Runs 21 26 5
Other Passes 13 33 0

Pro-Football-Reference.com

The running isn’t horrible, but it’s way, way too balanced in that direction.  That’s 62.9 percent of play calls being a run of some description, far above the league average of 46.1 percent.  Only Buffalo ran more frequently in the red zone last year.  Only Marshawn Lynch had more red-zone carries than Frank Gore did, and Lynch’s carries came with an average of 5.7 yards to go, not the 7.0 that Gore faced.

Matt Dunham/Associated Press
Greg Roman's offense got conservative and predictable in the red zone.

Opposing teams realized that there was nothing to fear from the passing game once the team got into the red zone—the 49ers failed all season long to find anyone other than Boldin and Davis as potential threats through the air.  Teams were free to keep eight players in the box play after play after play—if you stop Gore, the 49ers didn’t really have a second option.

Colin Kaepernick’s numbers inside the 20 saw him completing only 50.0 percent of his passes, for a quarterback rating of 76.9—those are unacceptable numbers for a playoff-caliber quarterback.  Of course, could you blame him?  With a serious lack of weapons in the passing game, Kaepernick either had to force the ball in to the only two weapons he trusted, or stand back and hand the ball to Gore.  It was just an utter sputtering out when the team got close.

Having Michael Crabtree back all season long will help these numbers, but it’s not only a matter of talent.  This ties back into the larger point of using all four downs—the team became very risk-averse as they got closer to the end zone.

Mike Roemer/Associated Press
Handing the ball to Frank Gore isn't a bad strategy, but you need to keep opposing defenses guessing.

This isn’t to say the 49ers need to dump their philosophy entirely and go pass-wacky like the Colts or Saints—you have to play to your team’s strengths, and the pass game definitely was not one of the team’s strengths last season. 

You can run the ball a lot and still be varied—there’s more than one way to run the ball, after all.  The issue is that they were simply too predictable—a run for three yards on first down, another on second down, and then a shot towards the first-down marker through the air.

If San Francisco’s going to crack into the list of most effective squads in the red zone, they’re going to need to become more creative with their play-calling when they run out of field.

 

Turnovers

You can, of course, gamble too much.  One of the reasons the 49ers went conservative so often may be due to the fact the team turned the ball over five times in the red zone in 2013, trailing only Washington in that category.  As much as it hurts having to settle for field goals, at least that’s points on the board.  If you turn the ball over this deep, you’re just asking to get crushed.

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press
Trigger warning: Season-ending interceptions.

One turnover was a Frank Gore fumble against the Rams, but the other four were all interceptions thrown by Colin Kaepernick—one against Arizona and one in each and every game San Francisco played against Seattle last season, including the play that ended the 49ers’ season.

Those four interceptions tied Carson Palmer for most in the league this season and remember—the 49ers rarely passed the ball in red-zone situations; 14 players had more attempts than Kaepernick did in that area of the field.  While much of the criticism of Kaepernick is overblown, his worst plays did tend to happen in the most crucial situations.

Of course, some of that is simply the fact that he had to play the Seahawks three times—no one else in football had to try to solve that nasty secondary that often.  Still, the plays served as a microcosm of Kaepernick’s biggest problems.

The interception in the NFC Championship Game, for example, had Kaepernick passing up two wide open receivers, as he had already locked on to Michael Crabtree against Richard Sherman.  He was going to throw that pass, no matter what—and while it took a sensational play from Sherman to break it up, a check-down to Quinton Patton or Vernon Davis would have kept the drive alive and gotten them that much closer.

Likewise, Earl Thomas’ interception from Week 2 saw Kaepernick make another bad decision, forcing the ball into a well-covered Davis when his third or fourth option, Kyle Williams, would have had a slightly higher chance of success.  Part of the reason Davis and Boldin had the only receiving touchdowns before Crabtree returned is Kaepernick’s lack of faith in anyone else—he had to force the ball to them, no matter the situation.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Kaepernick was brilliant for 50 minutes.

This is something that Kaepernick’s going to get better at as he continues to develop; it’s easy to forget sometimes that he’s only a third-year player, considering the success he’s had in his short career.  The fact remains, though—if Kaepernick had checked down, the 49ers play in the Super Bowl.

Improving his reads is Kaepernick’s top priority this offseason, and I have full faith he’ll be able to do it—but had the 49ers even been league-average in red-zone turnovers, we’re probably talking about at least the NFC Champions, if not the Super Bowl-winning San Francisco 49ers.

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