Having won four straight, including three come-from-behind wins on the road (Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Detroit), the San Francisco 49ers seem locked into cruise control for the NFC West title.
It's no secret that the 49ers’ success rests with its defense, which has allowed no rushing TDs in six games, just 16 points per game (second in the NFL) and 3.6 yards-per-rush attempt (fifth). In turn, the offense has to do more if the team is going to continue to challenge over the last months of the season and into the playoffs.
Right now the only thing the 49ers lead the NFL in is fewest interceptions thrown (two). Having gained 1,125 yards passing in six games, the 49ers are 30th in the league. A more telling stat is net yards per pass attempt, 6.7, which ranks them 19th. That number indicates that the 49ers have done a good job of keeping quarterback Alex Smith upright, for the most part.
Teams coming off the bye week are 3-9 so far. However, it should be noted that those 12 teams have a 25-34 record. Nonetheless, coach Jim Harbaugh knows there's more work to do. Here are four areas the 49ers need to improve on offense.
To Alex Smith’s credit, there have been times in obvious passing downs that he took the sack instead of trying to force a throw. Although it may seem counterproductive, sometimes a sack is a good play. Especially on third down, because the lost yardage can be gained back through the transition of punting the ball.
A deep kick by punter Andy Lee and good coverage can do a lot to make up for a loss on the play prior. What a sack negates is a forced throw that can lead to an interception.
Right now, the Niners have given up 16 sacks, which is 2.67 per game. At that pace, the Niners would finish with about 42 sacks in all, which would be two fewer than in 2010. However, if the Niners are to increase their effectiveness on offense, getting Smith more chances to throw without pressure will increase the team’s chances for success.
One way to do that is more play-action calls on first down.
With 789 yards in six games (131.5 per), the 49ers are sixth in the league in rushing yardage and they stand 10th in yards per attempt at 4.5.
What makes the last stat rather remarkable is that opponents constantly put eight, nine and even 10 men near the line of scrimmage. Of course, part of that stems from the Niners' running “jumbo” formations with added linemen and double or triple tight ends.
Still, it seems at times that Frank Gore has to run through a crowded airline terminal just to get back to the line of scrimmage.
Here is where play-action passes will help. For a team that has run for more than 200 yards in two games this year, play-action plays would seem to be more inviting than ever due to the defenses’ concern of stopping the run.
Even from the tight formations, the speed of tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker (as well as No. 3 Justin Peelle), can lead to big plays. Faking the run and getting receivers behind the defense will loosen things up for the running game.
At the same time, receiver Braylon Edwards is expected back this week at home against Cleveland. His presence may result in more plays downfield. The 49ers average 10.9 yards per catch, a number that, in light of the many short throws to receivers and tight ends, suggests that big plays are possible. Success on just a few deep throws early in possessions can result in big differences in the defensive fronts the Niners will see in the future.
San Francisco’s opponents so far have compiled a 20-18 record. In retrospect, Cincinnati has turned out to be better than many expected, but Philadelphia has not played to its talent level. Detroit seems intent on proving that it is more blather than talent.
Nonetheless, the Niners rank 10th in first downs allowed but only 24th in first downs gained. Converting on just 30.3 percent of third-down chances cannot sustain a team whose defense has the capability of holding down even the league’s best offenses. Having played three of the league’s elite offenses (Dallas, Philadelphia and Detroit), the 49ers held the opposition to a 31-percent conversion rate on third down.
The fact that the defense stands so strong on third down, and ranks among the elite in limiting teams in the red zone, puts pressure on the offense to improve. As good as the Niner defense is, it’s not deep, particularly on the defensive line. Getting more rest for Justin Smith and Ray McDonald by keeping the offense on the field will do wonders for them over the last three months of the season.
It is a team built on their running game and defense. Considering that the Niners have had eight more possessions than opponents due to turnover differential, it is no surprise they have an advantage in time of possession, at just over 30 minutes a game. However, it should be more.
Much of that comes down to first downs. Being able to complete play-action passes for bigger yardage on first down would loosen up the defense and reduce the risk of having to block blitzes. In other words, the 49ers would face a defense that plays more straight-up, with less overloads near the line of scrimmage.
That would enable San San Francisco’s offensive line to use its huge size to overpower defenses, and that means more yards per run for Gore and Kendall Hunter which, you would think, would lead to less yards needed to convert third downs.
All this would mean more time of possession. And, for an offense that has limited big-play capability, the best way to keep opponents in control is to control the ball.