NFL Playoff Picture: 4 Areas San Francisco 49ers Need To Improve for Postseason

Ted JohnsonAnalyst IDecember 6, 2011

NFL Playoff Picture: 4 Areas San Francisco 49ers Need To Improve for Postseason

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    San Francisco’s first NFC West title since 2002 certainly is cause for celebration. According to coach Jim Harbaugh, it lasted for, oh, six hours.

    Back to work.

    Every season is a reality unto itself. There is no connection from one year to the next. That’s the nature of professional sports.

    When you’re this close to getting it all, you focus on getting it all. Don’t wait for next year; don’t assuage yourself with feelings that there is going to be “more time” to accomplish the ultimate goal.

    Example: Dan Marino led the 1984 Dolphins into the Super Bowl; the 49ers won. Afterward, everyone said that Marino had plenty of time to get back, and he surely would. Except that he didn’t. Winning the Super Bowl is about the only thing that Marino didn’t accomplish, and if he had two or three rings there’s little doubt that many would call him the greatest quarterback ever.

    So, with four games remaining, the 49ers get to relax—somewhat—but also to assess. Looming on the horizon is at least one playoff game, the first in nine years. And maybe two. And a quick scan of the rest of the NFC suggests that there are two teams to worry about: Green Bay and New Orleans.

    Here are four things the 49ers need to work on prior to hosting a playoff game in January.

First-Down Throws Equals More First Downs

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    This is one area that really stands out in that the 49ers are a team built run-first to set up the play-action pass for the big gains. And defenses know this. Too often, though, the defense stacks the line of scrimmage and running lanes are reduced, leaving the Niners 2nd- and 3rd-and-long.

    Quarterback Alex Smith has proven very adept at the three-step drop and quick throw, especially to Michael Crabtree (15). And Kyle Williams, Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker seem very capable of those short “stick” routes that get five to seven yards.

    That approach, if successful, would go a long ways to improving the Niners' rather tepid third-down conversion rate, which at 30 percent ranks 30th out of 32. Contrast that with New Orleans (53 percent) and Green Bay (50), which are No. 1 and 2. Getting five and seven yards on first down keeps the defense off balance, setting up big plays via the run and pass.

    Either way, keeping the ball away from those two dynamics, powerful offenses will be essential. Developing strategies that afford the Niners ways to move the chains, especially avoiding the 3rd-and-long (six yards or greater) would do a great deal to helping their chances against these two teams.

Net Yards Per Attempt

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    Overlooked in the relatively easy 26-0 win over the Rams are the four sacks on Alex Smith. Credit Smith for taking the sack rather than forcing up a weak pass that could be intercepted. And Smith’s ability to do that this year remains a key reason why the team is doing so well.

    The Niners rank first in least interceptions (five), and they’re first in turnover differential at plus-18, which means they get 1.5 more possessions per game than the opposition.

    That right there is a major source of their success. On the year, Smith has been sacked 34 times, which puts him on pace to taking the same number as last year (44). But Smith is getting sacked about once per 10 throws. The Rams are one of the worst defensive teams in the league, so four sacks seem high. And of course there were the nine sacks against the Ravens.

    Interestingly, Smith is averaging 6.2 net yards per pass attempt, a key stat that factors in the attempts that resulted in sacks as well as the lost yardage—a true indicator of a team’s pass-game effectiveness.

    Last year, Smith averaged 6.1 yards when factoring in sacks. Moreover, his sack percentage was about one every 14 throws compared to Troy Smith’s one for every nine. The difference this year is that the Niners, as poor as they are on third down, are getting more first downs. They rank 23rd this year; in 2010 they were 30th.

    It doesn’t take one to realize that, in light of how good the 49er defense has been, they would be much, much better if they had a little more help from the offense. With the exception of the game in Philadelphia, the defense has yet to play against a top-notch offense like that in Green Bay, New Orleans, New England, Carolina and San Diego.

    Again, keeping the ball away from those teams will help them survive in the playoffs.

Pass Protection

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    As noted earlier, four sacks against the Rams stand out as a neon sign calling for improvement. But that’s a simplistic statement. Pass protection is a catch-all phrase for overall execution, from the offensive coordinator in the booth down to the right tackle who can hardly hear the snap counts due to crowd noise.

    To do that, consider the following:

    First, the right play (or plays) has to be called for the situation and then relayed to Smith quickly. That allows the quarterback and team to get to the line of scrimmage with plenty of time on the play clock so they can try to assess what the defense will try to do.

    Second, with crowd noise rising and the defense shifting, Smith and center Johnathan Goodwin, among others, have to analyze where the defense plans to blitz or focus its coverage. The latter is often revealed by what the defense does when the Niners put players in motion. That determination from these factors brings an audible or, in some cases, a fake audible to try to fake out the defense prior to the play.

    Third, the offensive line has to recognize the rush and block it. At the same time, the receivers have to recognize the coverage and adjust accordingly. And Smith has to see it all. And this all happens from about 1.5 seconds before the snap to 1.5 seconds after the snap, while the chaos and animalistic furor sparks up in front of him.

    Oh, and then the pass has to be thrown to the right receiver at the right time and in the right place.

    Using the next four games as sort of a scrimmage to work on this phase of the game seems prudent. But throwing the ball 50 times in a game just for the practice, in case they need it in the playoffs, is not the way to go.

    The 10-2 Niners in essence have a two-game lead over the 9-3 Saints for the No. 2 seed in the playoffs. If the two teams finish with the same record, the Niners would have the tiebreaking edge due to conference record. So, keeping that spot should be their focus.

    The Saints are more than likely to run the table and win their last four games for a 13-3 record. The Niners have to finish 13-3 or better to win that second seed. And the way to do that is to improve on offense.

    If they do, there’s no telling how deep they could go in the playoffs.

Red-Zone Effectiveness

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    The 49ers rank among the lowest in converting trips inside the 20 into TDs. And against one of the league’s worst defensive teams, they had 1st-and-goal at the 6 and failed to convert. Four trips inside the Rams' 20 resulted in four David Akers field goals.

    When teams like the Packers and Saints can turn the scoreboard into a pinball counter, settling for threes does not bode well for lasting success.

    Getting a little more creative on first downs in these situations would do the 49ers well. But then again, they are a strong running team with big linemen, and getting two or three yards a crack does tend to lead to more TDs. That’s the common thinking in the NFL: Red-zone efficiency turns on how well a team runs.

    That thinking stems from the fact that the defense has less ground to cover, therefore it can pack its coverage. But the Niners seem to excel at the short quick throw. And athletes like Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker can overpower defenders to get into the end zone.

    I have a feeling that offensive coordinator Greg Roman and Harbaugh are saving this part of the game—more passing plays on first down when near the goal line—as the playoff surprise. That might make the difference between win or loss in every playoff game.