Why the 49ers Struggle in the Red Zone, How They Can Improve in 2013

Scott Kacsmar@CaptainComebackContributor IFebruary 13, 2013

Jim Harbaugh has done many great things to turn around the San Francisco 49ers in his two years as head coach, but an area that continues to be a struggle is situational offense, particularly scoring touchdowns in the red zone.

Last season the 49ers were 30th in red-zone touchdown percentage. They moved up to 21st in 2012, but that is still below average, and the numbers only went down after the switch at quarterback from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick.

Fittingly, in Super Bowl XLVII against the Baltimore Ravens the 49ers tied a season high with six drives reaching the red zone, but only converted two of them for touchdowns. The game was ultimately decided by a goal-line stand when San Francisco failed to score the go-ahead touchdown after having a first down seven yards away from glory.

A better performance in the red zone and the 49ers are Super Bowl champions.

With athletic quarterbacks, a strong offensive line, a receiver (Michael Crabtree) that was drafted to be a playmaker, a tight end (Vernon Davis) that has been very effective, and quality backs including Frank Gore, this offense should be producing more touchdowns in the red zone. Instead the 49ers have attempted more field goals than any team in the league each of the last two seasons.

Why have the 49ers struggled in the red zone relative to their peers? Let’s take a look.

The Deception with Red-Zone Statistics

For starters, the red zone has become a common football term that represents when a team has the ball inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Being at the 20 exactly is not actually being in the red zone. You have to be at the 19 or better for it to count as a red-zone attempt.

Is it arbitrary?

Perhaps, though there is no doubt strategies change for both the offense and defense the closer you get to the end zone. Deep passes become impossible and all passing windows start to shrink. You do have to play the game differently, and these moments are always crucial in a game because of the high correlation to scoring when a team gets in the red zone.

But when you look at a stat like red-zone touchdown percentage, there are a few flaws that should be taken into consideration. All this stat does is look at how often an offense reaches the opponent’s 1-19, and how many of those drives are finished with touchdowns.

In the 2012 regular season the 49ers scored 28 touchdowns on 55 red-zone attempts (50.9 percent). That percentage ranked 21st in the league. The New England Patriots led the league with a touchdown percentage of 70 percent in the red zone.

But consider these four “failed” attempts for the 49ers:

Week 2 vs. Detroit: Facing a 3rd-and-7 at the DET 21, Smith’s three-yard pass to Crabtree moves the ball into the red zone, but it also brings out David Akers for a 36-yard field goal on fourth down. Despite never running a play from scrimmage in the red zone, this counts as a failed red-zone attempt for the offense.

Week 4 at New York Jets: In a very similar situation, the 49ers were driving late in the second quarter. Smith ran for three yards to put the ball at the NYJ 18, but that play was immediately followed by San Francisco’s third timeout of the half and a field goal from Akers. Again the 49ers never actually ran a play inside the red zone.

Week 11 vs. Chicago: In the fourth quarter of Kaepernick’s first start, his 11-yard pass on 3rd-and-12 put the ball at the CHI 14, but Akers kicked the field goal on fourth down.

Week 17 vs. Arizona: Late in the first half Gore had a run that put San Francisco at the 17. But after a false start penalty moved the ball back to the 22, Kaepernick threw incomplete to Randy Moss, setting up Akers who missed the 40-yard field goal. Again the offense technically never ran a play inside the 20-yard line here, but it still counts against them.

Basically an offense is penalized for not going for it on fourth down, even though we know most teams choose not to do so. I find it hard to knock the offense for these first three drives as being failed red zone attempts.

Now for the Arizona game, you can say the penalty by the 49ers was a bad play on their part to knock them out of the red zone, but the result still gives a dishonest feel of saying the team actually had a red-zone attempt when no play was ever ran from inside the 20.

Eliminating these four drives from the numbers and the 49ers scored touchdowns on 54.9 percent of their drives, which would rank 15th in the league. Of course you would have to eliminate similar drives for all teams to re-rank everyone on a fairer basis.

But sometimes the goal of a drive in the red zone is not to score a touchdown. Sometimes you do not want to score at all if the game situation dictates it.

In that epic game in Week 15 against the Patriots, when New England turned the ball over to the 49ers at their own 12 with 2:20 to play, the ideal outcome would be for the 49ers to run three plays to get a first down, drain the Patriots of their timeouts, and take three knees to end the game with a 38-31 win (the 49ers actually won 41-34).

Sure, a touchdown would be nice to have, but why score again and give Tom Brady another chance with the football? You play the situation, and that context often gets lost in general statistics.

Against the Jets in Week 4, Kaepernick could have scored a 33-yard touchdown run with ease. But leading 34-0 with under two minutes to play, he chose not to rub it in and instead did a slide three yards shy of the end zone. Then Kaepernick took two knees to end the game, which again counts against the 49ers’ red-zone success.

In the postseason the 49ers were officially 9-of-15 (60 percent) at red-zone touchdown percentage. Even in a three-game span those numbers included two misleading drives of failure:

NFC Divisional vs. Green Bay: On a 3rd-and-10 at the GB 27 before halftime, Kaepernick ran for nine yards to put the ball at the 18. But on fourth down with one timeout and seconds remaining, it was an obvious move to kick the field goal to take a 24-21 halftime lead.

Super Bowl XLVII vs. Baltimore: Saying the 49ers were 2-of-6 in the red zone in the Super Bowl sounded accurate, but it really was not. In the third quarter the 49ers were able to start at the BAL 24 after Ray Rice’s fumble. But three bad plays moved the ball only three yards, and Akers missed a 39-yard field goal. However, because of a penalty for running into the kicker, the ball was moved to the BAL 16 (the red zone), and Akers made the kick, causing the failed red-zone touchdown count to increase by one.

All of these examples, particularly the last one in the Super Bowl, are reasons why you cannot so easily trust a statistic like red-zone touchdown percentage at face value.

Let’s look at some numbers that are more telling of how an offense performs inside the 20-yard line.

San Francisco does approach the red zone differently than most offenses

One can gather a lot of red-zone information from the handy Game Play Finder at Pro-Football-Reference. Since 2011 and including playoffs, here is how San Francisco has ranked in key red-zone statistics among all teams (kneel downs are unfortunately included):

An alarming number is that just 25.1 percent of San Francisco’s red-zone plays have resulted in a first down or touchdown. The average is 29.7 percent, and only the Browns (23.8 percent) and Chiefs (20.5 percent) have done worse than San Francisco. The 49ers have scored a touchdown on 18.9 percent of their red-zone plays, which ranks just 22nd in the league.

Controlling turnovers has been a huge strength for the 49ers under Harbaugh, and it has not hurt them much in the red zone with only three interceptions and three lost fumbles the last two years.

However what have hurt San Francisco in the red zone are sacks. The 49ers have taken 11 of them, and their 7.28 sack percentage in the red zone is 30th in the league, ahead of only the Cowboys (7.43 percent) and Eagles (7.69 percent).

Then you have the fact that the 49ers throw the ball on only 43.3 percent of their red-zone plays. That is 31st in the league, and only Houston (40.2 percent) is lower. The average is 52.4 percent, so the 49ers are very run-dependent in this area.

When you break down the offenses into three groups based on the pass ratio, you get the following:

The numbers are close, but the pass-heaviest teams in the red zone do the best in all three categories. Interestingly enough the middle teams do the worst in each category, with the run-heavy offenses finishing in between.

Guess this helps to confirm the adage that points come from the passing game, and apparently it helps to have a distinct style in the red zone instead of trying to be balanced.

You cannot hide the quarterback in the red zone, and teams like the 49ers and Texans appear to be doing just that.

San Francisco’s 2012 red-zone performances

Now you have seen the lingering flaws over the last two seasons, but 2012 was indeed a different season as the 49ers were more successful. They did average 3.08 yards per play in the red zone with 30.2 percent of plays going for a first down or touchdown.

But the run ratio was up to 61.1 percent. Of course pass-run ratios are always misleading, and the true number of designed calls will always favor the pass once you include quarterback scrambles and exclude kneel downs.

Here is the red zone rushing breakdown in 2012:

Gore did get the majority of the carries and scored 10 touchdowns. Do not let the rushing averages fool you. Gore was the most efficient running back, and Brandon Jacobs’ one carry simply does not matter as he was a big disappointment this season.

Gore’s line does not include the “Fumblerooski” type of play in New England when Kaepernick fumbled the snap and Gore picked it up and ran it in for the touchdown.

The 49ers can mix in solid backs like Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James, but you want the ball in Gore’s hands more often than not if it is a running play.

Kyle Williams had a run for nine yards on an option pitch from Smith against the Jets. Bruce Miller is a fullback who had just two carries on the season.

Then you have the quarterbacks.

Smith scrambled to no avail on a third-down play in Minnesota. In Week 7 against Seattle, the 49ers led 10-6 with 6:09 to play and a big 3rd-and-7 play. It was a quarterback draw for three yards, which is a big-time conservative call in a situation where a touchdown probably wins the game. Instead it was another opportunity for Akers to add to his field goal total as the 49ers relied on their defense to protect the 13-6 lead.

Kaepernick had two kneel downs which were removed. As for his 16 other runs, this is the breakdown:

  • Six keepers on the zone-read option resulting in three touchdowns.
  • Four quarterback sweeps, with the only real successful one going for a touchdown on third down as the backup against New York (element of surprise).
  • Two scrambles on designed passes, including a 15-yard touchdown in the Super Bowl.
  • Two fumbled snaps, with the aforementioned Gore touchdown recovery in New England.
  • One bootleg run in Seattle that initially looked to have good blocking in front of him, but the Seahawks stopped it for a yard.
  • One quarterback draw that gained just a yard against the Rams on a 2nd-and-10 play.

There was hardly any scrambling, which is up to the quarterback, but there also was not much good use of Kaepernick's mobility other than the zone-read plays that were very successful for the 49ers this season.

As for passing in the red zone, the 49ers had 63 plays. Six were sacks (four of Kaepernick). That leaves 57 targets, which were distributed this way:

After the Super Bowl, ESPN had an intriguing stat that Kaepernick was just 1-of-8 on throws into the end zone in the postseason. That is from any point on the field, but here is the breakdown for the red zone this season:

  • Alex Smith was 5-of-7 on red zone throws in the end zone (5 TD, 1 INT).
  • Colin Kaepernick was 3-of-14 on red zone throws in the end zone (3 TD, 1 INT).

Clearly Kaepernick has work to do in this area. Not everything has to go in the end zone as the other seven touchdown passes for the 49ers in the red zone were thrown short and had yards after the catch to make them scores.

For the season, San Francisco had a wide-receiver slanted approach with 36 of the 57 targets (63.2 percent) going to that position. Ideally you would like to get the tight end more involved, and Vernon Davis is certainly capable of being a target in this area.

Two passes were intercepted on the season. Both Smith and Kaepernick were intercepted on a third-and-goal play in the fourth quarter while targeting Randy Moss against the Seahawks. Both plays were a bad decision to throw after scrambling.

Moss never had a catch in the red zone after two in the season-opener in Green Bay. The fact that he had two more targets than Davis is absurd. Moss was left wide open on a blown coverage in Green Bay for a touchdown, which is about the only time that would happen for the 49ers in the red zone this year.

Even though his hands are more suspect the team still likes Delanie Walker, who had a meaningless 18-yard touchdown on 4th-and-17 against the Seahawks. He had a more meaningful lost fumble in the red zone in New England, though the referees actually blew the call. Walker dropped a go-ahead touchdown in St. Louis in Week 13 and another pass near the goal line in Seattle.

Mario Manningham was definitely missed late in the season after his injury. He embarrassed Buffalo’s Aaron Williams on an easy touchdown in Week 5.

Both of Williams’ catches came up a yard short of a first down. One of his targets was Smith throwing the ball away following a fumbled snap.

Two of Smith’s five incompletions were intentional throwaways and one more was dropped by Moss against Seattle. Kaepernick had three throwaways and five drops, including one from Williams in Week 10 against St. Louis, though it was probably a good thing as he may have been tackled in bounds with the 49ers out of timeouts and down a field goal with seconds to play.

On 57 red-zone passes, only once did the 49ers use a running back screen, and only once did they use a wide receiver screen.

Crabtree was definitely the go-to guy in the red zone for this offense. He could make plays in and out of the end zone for scores. In Week 8 he beat Patrick Peterson for a jump ball for one touchdown, then burst past a falling Peterson for a second touchdown. In the playoffs he caught a short pass on third down against the Packers and made it a 12-yard touchdown.

It is no surprise Kaepernick went to Crabtree on all three plays on the infamous goal-line stand in the Super Bowl. But that drive was really a final display of bad play-calling that exposed the limitations of the offense and did not show off any of the strengths.

1st-and-goal: James gains two yards on the give off the zone-read. Are you really taking the ball out of Gore’s hands after a 33-yard run to put you here? In the 2012 season, 45 times a team ran the ball on 1st-and-goal at the opponent’s 7. Only 12 runs produced touchdowns (26.7 percent), and two were by Kaepernick. Not a good start.

2nd-and-goal: Now you are five yards away. The call was a sprint-right option pass, which is usually a good play, but Baltimore had the perfect defense of it. Kaepernick forces a hopeless pass to Crabtree. If he had decided to run immediately, there may have been something there.

3rd-and-goal: An interesting run by Kaepernick was going to take place, but the 49ers were too slow and had to use a timeout to beat the play clock. Instead they come back with a terrible play where Moss was supposed to pick a defender so Crabtree, in motion, can come across for the score. It never materialized and Crabtree was demolished at the 3-yard line, losing control of the ball.

4th-and-goal: With the Super Bowl on the line, you need your absolute best play of the season. Because of the blitz, Kaepernick had to get rid of the ball almost immediately, and it ended up being a fade to Crabtree. The 49ers had run one fade all season, and it was poorly thrown to Crabtree on the left side of the field out of bounds. This one also had little chance and defensive holding (or not) aside, this was a lousy play, just as the two-point conversion that could have tied the game earlier in the quarter was as well.

Games, championships and legacies can be won, achieved and broken in the part of the field known as the red zone. For Joe Montana, the sprint-right option produced “The Catch” while the pass to John Taylor won a Super Bowl.

For Kaepernick and Co., it is that failure to come through that will have to drive them toward future success. They came up five yards short of a championship this season.

Room for improvement in 2013

There already was improvement in the red zone from 2011 to 2012 for the 49ers, so there is no reason they cannot keep moving forward in 2013. The devastating loss in the Super Bowl should make this a primary area of focus in the offseason for the team.

What makes San Francisco’s red-zone struggles more glaring is that they have been consistent for two seasons and with two different quarterbacks. 

While Kaepernick gives that added dimension with his running, his ability to go through progressions is not up to par yet, and the Ravens really took advantage of that in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl with blitzes in the red zone.

Kaepernick will get better at looking past his first read as he enters just his first full season as a starting NFL quarterback. But it is still going to be on offensive coordinator Greg Roman to find better ways to use the talent of his offense in the red zone.

Take more advantage of Kaepernick’s talent, get Crabtree the ball in space and use the play-action to find Davis open. Making sure your best players are touching the ball is always a good starting point for red-zone success.

Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.