49ers by the Numbers: 2013 Stats San Francisco Must Improve in 2014
Embrace your inner stat-crazed geek, 49ers fans—it’s analysis time for the 2013 numbers that San Francisco must improve upon in 2014.
In news unrelated to the ongoing free-agent feeding frenzy, this Jim Harbaugh-coached bunch was a statistically flawed group last year.
Winning 12 games and being four inches worth of aerial trajectory away from a second-consecutive Super Bowl appearance aside, things weren’t all sunshine and roses.
A 49ers offense that ranked two spots above the league cellar in yards passing and defense that generated the eighth-fewest sacks just can’t avoid the accusatory spotlight.
Another year of nonexistent game-changing returns on special teams didn’t help either.
That said, let’s first begin on an optimistic note and detail a few positive statistics produced by the Red and Gold in 2013.
We wouldn’t want you running for the proverbial hills, now would we?
Note: Team and player statistics come courtesy of Pro Football Reference, Team Rankings, ESPN and NFL.com. The fine stat brains at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) provide all advanced metrics.
Top-10 Aplenty…Generally Speaking
The 49ers materialized as a statistical revelation in many categories last season.
Offensively, they ranked No. 11 with 25.4 points scored per game. They reached that impressive average with help from a top-three standing in rushing yards and top-five mark of 18 touchdowns on the ground.
Please send all appropriate gifts to the indefatigable Frank Gore, venerated running backs coach Tom Rathman and a league-dominant offensive line.
On defense, the 49ers fell below just four other teams in total yards allowed. They earned an even better No. 3 ranking in points given up—surrendering only 17.0 per contest.
Allowing the fourth-fewest rushing yards and fifth-lowest scoring aggregate through the air (19 touchdowns) bolstered this overall contingent as well.
The same goes for the league’s sixth-most takeaways (30).
Justin Smith, NaVorro Bowman and Eric Reid are amenable to any and all congratulatory offerings.
Concerning special teams, San Francisco enjoyed the second-best starting field position.
The Brad Seely-coached squad provided the offense with an average launching point on the 31.9-yard line. It then flipped the script against the opposition by relegating foes to the 25.3-yard line—the fifth-worst average field position.
Formidable punter Andy Lee and newly re-signed kicker Phil Dawson surely deserve ample praise for their work on these coverage units.
And for a little cherry-on-top numerical satisfaction, the 49ers occupied the No. 4 spot at year’s end with a positive-12 turnover differential (30 takeaways, 18 turnovers).
Harbaugh’s fundamentally sound group certainly didn’t disappoint in select areas in 2013.
But in other categories, well, the 49ers’ recent history speaks for itself.
Let’s give it a more audible voice just in case.
Special Teams Deficiency
Phil Dawson was an undeniable stud when it came to drilling footballs through the uprights in 2013.
His career-high 32 conversions—including a 49ers’ franchise-record 27 consecutive at one point—and three game-winners were proof positive.
The same cannot be said about his performance off the tee.
Dawson ranked a lowly 26th with a kickoff touchback percentage of 38.3. Reaching the end zone a little more than one-third of the time when kicking from the 35-yard line is well below an acceptable standard.
And there was one seminal moment when the waning strength of his 39-year-old leg failed him especially.
San Francisco had just taken a 17-10 lead over the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game. Colin Kaepernick launched his memorable one-footed 26-yard strike to a leaping Anquan Boldin for the touchdown.
Yet, momentary triumph quickly turned into unforeseen horror.
Dawson booted a line-drive kickoff without adequate hang time. The coverage personnel could not get into proper position, and Golden Tate returned it 69 yards to the 49ers’ 33-yard line before anyone could bat an eye.
The defense fortunately held firm and limited Seattle to a field goal, maintaining the 49ers’ 17-13 lead.
But a stronger kick by Dawson with better height underneath it would have likely pinned the Seahawks deep. The 49ers’ defensive efforts up to that point surely would have continued, thereby keeping Seattle off of the scoreboard and preserving San Francisco’s seven-point advantage.
Call it nitpicking, but one of the league’s elite kickers did not live up to his elevated standards at a critical point.
We recommend more protein shakes and leg lifts for Dawson in the offseason.
And if he has time to recruit a dynamic return man, we’re all for it. Otherwise, LaMichael James is officially on touchdown notice.
Hodgepodge as though it may seem, this collection of individual shortcomings actually proved impactful for the Red and Gold.
On the other hand, Davis amassed the fourth-most drops at his position (five), according to Pro Football Focus.
He even dropped another pass against the Green Bay Packers in the wild card matchup.
So, when it comes to Davis’ hands, they aren’t always reliable. He must shore that up.
Furthermore, let it be known that perennial Pro Bowler Patrick Willis is not infallible.
Pro Football Focus’ No. 2 rated inside linebacker—and top-10 in coverage—surprisingly ranked 44th out of 55 with 281 yards allowed after the catch.
Opposing tight ends gained the upper hand on Willis a few too many times.
A prominent example occurred in Week 14 when the Seahawks' Luke Willson compiled 20 in the YAC department on a 39-yard score. Willis was the man responsible for covering Willson as he streaked across the field for the go-ahead touchdown.
The 49ers overcame the 14-9 deficit and eventually won the vital NFC West battle.
Willis, however, cannot let that happen again in 2014.
Defensive MVP candidate NaVorro Bowman will presumably miss the first half of the season, according to Jim Harbaugh in an interview with The Sacramento Bee.
That leaves Willis as the man in the middle—he cannot serve as anything less than an all-world, all-everything coverage defender.
Free safety Eric Reid, for his part, must deliver an even superior product to his Pro Bowl-earning rookie campaign.
Reid collected the third-highest interception total among all safeties in 2013 (four). He consistently showed tremendous range and awareness for most of the season.
Unfortunately, a third-leading 10 missed tackles in pass defense overshadowed those four picks and overall ball skills.
Producing game-saving takeaways is just as important as preventing game-breaking miscues. Reid must internalize that salient fact.
He must operate as a reliable last line of defense for San Francisco against the opposing mass of pass-happy NFL offenses.
Formulating an argument against a top-five defense would normally qualify as an exercise in futility.
But there are exceptions.
The 49ers consider themselves the best—mostly for good reason.
The viewing public, in turn, expects the best—game in and game out.
Surrendering the third-most conversions on fourth down thus defies the former, and no doubt angers the latter.
The most egregious of these instances arrived at the worst conceivable moment, to boot.
Once again, the site was the ill-fated conference championship.
San Francisco relegated the Seahawks to a 4th-and-7 early in the final quarter after initially forcing them into a brutal 3rd-and-22.
Following a Seattle timeout, outside linebacker Aldon Smith jumped offside, which effectively gave the Seahawks a free shot toward the end zone.
Niners pass-rushers then relaxed as if the play had been blown dead, while Russell Wilson proceeded to connect with Jermaine Kearse for the 35-yard go-ahead touchdown.
Seattle went up 20-17, and the 49ers never recovered.
Let’s now use this decisive postseason sequence as a microcosm for the entire season.
San Francisco finished in the bottom half of the league (No. 17) with an average of 6.2 penalties committed per game. Worse yet, Fangio’s bunch ranked 19th with 38 sacks, and 21st with a sack percentage of 6.1.
A team flush with pass-rushing dynamos Aldon and Justin Smith, Ahmad Brooks and NaVorro Bowman, among others, is simply better than what those meager sack totals would indicate.
That same veteran, high-football-IQ contingent should also incur fewer violations on the gridiron.
Fresh talent in the form of Tank Carradine and Quinton Dial must combine forces with Corey Lemonier and those previously mentioned. They must not only press teams into attempting fourth-down conversions via quarterback pressures, they must take the next step and dismiss them from the field entirely.
Only then can the 49ers improve upon their 13th-ranked time-of-possession offense and transform it into a more championship-level corps.
Kaepernick’s Accuracy, Gore’s Short-Yardage Proficiency
If all goes according to plan, these final two slides should unfold in a linear progression.
Despite receiving an invitation, left guard Mike Iupati was not deserving of Pro Bowl status last year.
He earned the 11th-worst pass-blocking efficiency rating by Pro Football Focus (49th out of 59 graded). He allowed 25 quarterback pressures in only 356 relevant snaps.
The 49ers witnessed similar diminished production from center Jonathan Goodwin.
He rated 22nd out of the 30 ball-snappers graded in pass-blocking efficiency, giving up the third-most sacks at his position (four).
Goodwin surrendered zero quarterback takedowns the year before and was a superior overall run-blocker.
It naturally follows that both Kaepernick and Gore suffered in 2013 because of this decline in productivity from their interior blockers.
For Kaepernick, one must couple the drop off by Iupati and Goodwin with the fallout caused by injuries to receiving targets Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham and, at times, Vernon Davis (especially versus Carolina in Week 10).
Here is how the 49ers quarterback found himself in the statistical rankings when last season came to a close.
- No. 23 in accuracy percentage (69.3) and passing touchdowns (21)
- No. 24 in average time taken to throw in pocket (3.08 seconds)
- No. 26 in accuracy percentage under pressure (55.1)
- No. 30 in sack percentage (8.6)
- No. 31 in completion percentage (58.4) and passing yards per game (199.8)
- No. 32 in passing first downs (148)
Now take a gander at where Gore struggled in 2013.
- No. 39 in average yards after contact (2.0)
- Down = 3 to go, 1-2 yd: 10 ATT, 3 YD, 0.3 AVG, 2 LNG, 1 TD
These are downright ghastly numbers any way you slice them.
They aren’t the statistics usually associated with marquee offensive weapons on a Super Bowl-contending squad.
So, on a related note, how did these deficiencies affect the 49ers last year? How did they ultimately derail this team’s championship prospects?
And, of course, what must be done moving forward?
Red-Zone Scoring…Or Lack Thereof
This ultimate inadequacy absolutely cannot, most definitely should not and likely does not surprise anyone with official or unofficial ties to the Red and Gold in recent years.
The 49ers have epitomized soul-crushing disappointment as it relates to red-zone scoring since Harbaugh arrived in San Francisco in 2011.
That just won’t cut it for a team that has deservedly earned a long-term seat at the championship-discussion table.
OK, then how do the 49ers reduce, mitigate or even eliminate this problem completely?
- LG Iupati returns to All-Pro run- and pass-blocking form circa 2012
- “Homegrown” C Daniel Kilgore serves as an upgrade over Goodwin
- Gore taps into one more fountain of youth, converts short-yardage opportunities
- RB Marcus Lattimore realizes first-round potential when called upon in 2014
- Crabtree and Davis stay healthy for all 16 games
- Quinton Patton materializes as a bona fide No. 3 target at wide receiver
- Vance McDonald transforms into a legitimate No. 2 weapon at tight end
- San Francisco drafts 6’5’’ Mike Evans or comparable big-bodied WR
- Kaepernick takes advantage of improved protection/weapons, releases ball faster
- Kaepernick surveys entire field, goes through all progressions
- Kaepernick throws accurately to every receiver with/without defensive pressure
- Kaepernick completes more passes to open/covered targets in red zone
There’s a reason why certain front office executives don’t believe any team is ever one player away from winning a Super Bowl.
Moving parts abound, and every position is dependent on another—even quarterback.
Yet, the 49ers can indeed improve drastically in the red zone even if all of the aforementioned developments aren’t realized next season.
Kaepernick can elevate his red-zone stat line of 29 ATT, 51 CMP, 247 YDS, 56.9 CMP%, 15 TD, 2 INT, 4 SACK and a 92.9 RAT if just a few of those hopeful sentiments come to fruition.
But when it really comes down to it, for the 49ers to evolve beyond record-breaking field-goal numbers into touchdown-producing juggernauts, Kaepernick must emerge.
Quarterbacks are the end-all, be-all in a quarterback-driven football league—it’s that simple.
It just remains to be seen whether Crabtree or someone else will appear on the receiving end of those improved Kaepernick passes inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.
No pressure, though—it’s only the franchise’s sixth Lombardi Trophy that’s on the line.
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