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It's common knowledge that Jim Harbaugh loves it when his offense executes long, taxing drives. In 2013, the 49ers didn't rack up enough of those.
San Francisco was 18th in the league in percentage of drives lasting 10 plays or more, per SportingCharts.com. Of course, short drives and lack of third-down conversions go hand in hand. Not surprisingly, the 49ers were 18th in the latter category at 36.5 percent.
This is where Stevie Johnson comes in.
The former Bill led Buffalo in first-down receptions in each of the last four seasons. He's the kind of possession receiver that 49ers needed last year when opposing teams focused all their attention on Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis.
Simply put, the Johnson of old would shred one-on-one coverage on third downs.
But he's coming off a disappointing 2013 season in which he missed four games with a back injury. If Johnson is on the downside of his career, will another 49er wide receiver—Brandon Lloyd, Quinton Patton or Bruce Ellington—step up and fill the No. 3 receiver void?
It would help if Johnson returned to 2012 form, no doubt. But, as with correcting the red-zone flaw, most of the pressure is on Kaepernick to make the right decisions in order to move the chains.
The teams that are perennially at or near the top the third-down conversion category—New Orleans, Denver, New England, San Diego, Green Bay, Atlanta—are led by great pocket passers. Sure, their supporting casts have usually been strong, but the one constant has been the signal-caller.
Will Kap read defenses better in 2014? Will he stay composed in the pocket and deliver passes accurately?
If he does these things, he'll turn this flaw into a strength.