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Why Can't the San Francisco 49ers Find Paydirt in the Red Zone?

Peter Panacy@@PeterPanacyFeatured Columnist IVOctober 7, 2014

Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers have endured vast struggles in the red zone.
Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers have endured vast struggles in the red zone.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Two consecutive victories in Weeks 4 and 5 have the San Francisco 49ers feeling pretty good about themselves after what has been a tumultuous start to the 2014 NFL season.

While San Francisco's recent victory over the Kansas City Chiefs gives us signs that the 49ers are back on the right track, there remains an obvious problem with the approach taken by the team's offense.

It can't get into the red zone.

Week 5 proved to be a perfect example of this ineptitude. The 49ers recorded just one touchdown in their 22-17 victory over the Chiefs. Kicker Phil Dawson notched a total of five field goals during the game, and while it's nice to have that kind of production, San Francisco needs to start transitioning from three- to seven-point drives more frequently.

Al Sacco @AlSacco49

One of the (few) things that continue to plague the #49ers under Harbaugh though is red zone offense. Too content to take 3.

So what's happening here?

Reaching the end zone is a tough challenge for any NFL team. The field is shorter, the playbook smaller and the windows are tighter—aspects which force offenses to execute more precisely and efficiently.

The good teams figure out how to do this. San Francisco is a good team, no doubt, but this element continues to elude the franchise.

Let's break down some of the red-zone woes the 49ers have faced this season and try to speculate just how the offense can increase this vital production.

Wide receiver Brandon Lloyd was brought in to help alleviate some of San Francisco's red-zone woes.
Wide receiver Brandon Lloyd was brought in to help alleviate some of San Francisco's red-zone woes.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

The Context

San Francisco had essentially just two receiving threats for the bulk of the 2013 season—wide receiver Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis. This tandem combined for 20 of the 49ers' 21 touchdown receptions during the regular season.

While the rushing prowess of quarterback Colin Kaepernick, Frank Gore and Co. could not be overlooked, the need for additional threats in this area was apparent as San Francisco entered the offseason.

Added to the fray was Brandon Lloyd—18 of his career 37 touchdowns have come within the 20-yard line.

On top of that, San Francisco added wideouts like Stevie Johnson and rookie Bruce Ellington, certainly hoping that the offense could generate a little more pressure in the red zone. Additionally, the 49ers drafted hard-hitting running back Carlos Hyde in the Round 2 of the 2014 NFL draft.

Carlos Hyde has notched two of the 49ers' three rushing touchdowns after five weeks.
Carlos Hyde has notched two of the 49ers' three rushing touchdowns after five weeks.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

One might think that this would lead to a more balanced attack as San Francisco pressed into opponents' red zones.

But this has yet to happen.

According to Paul Gutierrez of ESPN.com, the 49ers have scored a touchdown on just 44.4 percent of their red-zone trips during this five-game duration—a stat that ranks them No. 25 in the league within this category.

On top of that, San Francisco has yet to score a touchdown in the fourth quarter of games this season.

Something is missing here, so where should we place the blame?

To what extent has play-calling from Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman thwarted the 49ers' red-zone offense?
To what extent has play-calling from Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman thwarted the 49ers' red-zone offense?Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

The Problems

Initial review might suggest that the problem resides in the play-calling. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman is no stranger to scrutiny, an unfortunate element that has paralleled his tenure in San Francisco.

There have been some obvious red-zone moments where Roman's choice of plays leaves us with plenty of questions and head-scratches. 

Let's take a look at an example of this from the 49ers' Week 2 loss at home to the Chicago Bears.

In the third quarter, San Francisco found itself at Chicago's 6-yard line after an offsides penalty gave the 49ers a 1st-and-5.

The 49ers ran three consecutive running plays designed to move through the middle of their offensive line. All three lacked creativity and unpredictability. Sadly, San Francisco ended up moving nowhere, having to settle for a Dawson field goal from the 5-yard line.

On this crucial third-down play, Gore is lined up off Kaepernick in shotgun formation. Gore will attempt to penetrate through the right side of the 49ers' O-line.

Frank Gore will attempt to punch the ball in right up the gut.
Frank Gore will attempt to punch the ball in right up the gut.Credit: NFL Game Rewind

But before he can exploit any gap, the pass blocking erodes. This leaves Gore little room with which to work. Notice Chicago's defenders plugging each gap with an added linebacker covering over the middle. A draw play might have exploited a hole to the left side of the line here.

Gore's rushing lanes completely erode. There is a slight gap to his left.
Gore's rushing lanes completely erode. There is a slight gap to his left.Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Calling a draw might have worked in this case. But we notice that the Bears have another defender covering this gap even while the running lane completely collapses. 

Gore is left with nowhere to go. Even the gap looks closed with an extra Bears defender.
Gore is left with nowhere to go. Even the gap looks closed with an extra Bears defender.Credit: NFL Game Rewind

San Francisco settles for a field goal.

Creative? No.

Predictable? Yes.

We could choose a flurry of red-zone plays to discuss, few of which would yield happy results. But let's fast-forward to Week 5 and the 49ers' final drive of the fourth quarter, which starts at the 7:10 mark.

San Francisco took over at its own 32-yard line, driving all the way down to Kansas City's 9-yard line with 3:24 remaining.

Hyde is lined up behind fullback Bruce Miller in an I-formation. He'll attempt a run right up the gut.

Motion creates an overload on the right side of the 49ers' O-line. Hyde will attempt a run up the middle.
Motion creates an overload on the right side of the 49ers' O-line. Hyde will attempt a run up the middle.Credit: NFL Game Rewind

But as we see from this angle, his running lanes are blocked off. The Chiefs also put great pressure on him—free safety Husain Abdullah and linebacker James-Michael Johnson the closing parties.

Hyde's running lanes close up quickly with exterior pressure in hot pursuit.
Hyde's running lanes close up quickly with exterior pressure in hot pursuit.Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Hyde tries to escape but to no avail.

Hyde tries to escape back to the outside but without success.
Hyde tries to escape back to the outside but without success.Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Head coach Jim Harbaugh summed up his thoughts about this play during his weekly media conference (h/t Gutierrez):

There was a couple there where I really thought we were going to knock it in. Starting from the last drive, I really felt we were going to knock that in and Tamba Hali made a great play. We were at the 9-yard line. Cut the fat, skimmed the edge, went straight to the running back and got Carlos Hyde at the line of scrimmage. Really, when you talk about pursuit, that was pursuit at the highest level.

On the subsequent play, Kaepernick tried to rush around to the left but lost two yards.

Harbaugh followed up:

And then the next play call was mine. I really felt if he was going to pursue like that, then we could run the quarterback, keep around the edge and Tamba played it different. So, that hurt us on that last attempt to really get the ball into the end zone. He played it different. Kap made a spectacular effort of not losing too many yards, but I got outsmarted on that one.

“We’re definitely not coming away with enough touchdowns,” left tackle Joe Staley said, via Doug Williams of NBC Bay Area. “It’s definitely something we will improve on. We have to.”

Perhaps the play-calling is to blame. The lack of creativity at points is a concern. But also the failure in execution has to play a certain role. 

Despite the woes, Kaepernick actually has a higher QB rating in the red zone.
Despite the woes, Kaepernick actually has a higher QB rating in the red zone.USA TODAY Sports

As we see from the above footage, the majority of lanes have been blocked off by various opposing defenses. Play-calling has its faults here—defenses can cheat toward up-the-middle runs—but the failure to land key blocks and establish rushing lanes also needs to be addressed.

We may also place blame on Kaepernick. Red-zone struggles, especially through the air, often find their way to the quarterback. But the funny note is that Kaepernick actually owns a 104.2 quarterback rating in the red zone—overall, his rating is 91.3.

Stevie Johnson has emerged as a favorite red-zone target.
Stevie Johnson has emerged as a favorite red-zone target.USA TODAY Sports

The Solution

Should the 49ers get away from their bread and butter—the running game? 

Absolutely not. This approach is what San Francisco's offense is based upon. It works, and it fairs well. But a predictable approach in the red zone is not what needs to happen.

So where can we find solutions to address this issue?

We've touched on the idea of a well-timed draw play that shows pass and perhaps opens up some rushing lanes for Gore and Hyde. This might work at times, but there is still room for more creativity.

Let's take a look at another example of what the 49ers did right in the red zone against the Chiefs.

This particular play—San Francisco's lone touchdown in Week 5—came with 0:35 remaining in the first half. Kaepernick connects with Johnson for a nine-yard touchdown reception.

Eric Wright @EWrighteous21

Remember that slant from earlier?!!! There's ur compliment!!! Touchdown!! #49ers

Johnson is highlighted in yellow at the top of the screen. Kaepernick motions a man out of the trips-bunch formation on the left side. This forces Kansas City's defense to cheat over as the secondary is expecting to go to that side of the end zone. Notice the safety over the top.

Johnson is at the top of the screen. Motion draws Kansas City's defense to its right, away from Johnson.
Johnson is at the top of the screen. Motion draws Kansas City's defense to its right, away from Johnson.Credit: NFL Game Rewind

After the snap, the Chiefs defensive back expects the play to go toward the middle. Johnson breaks off toward the corner of the end zone and is wide open after the single-man-coverage mistake. Note all of Kansas City's defense is concentrated on the opposite side.

Johnson is left in single coverage and evades the defense, which was concentrated to the 49ers' left.
Johnson is left in single coverage and evades the defense, which was concentrated to the 49ers' left.Credit: NFL Game Rewind

This is just one example, and a lot goes into making such a play work effectively. But we do see the creativity and disguise contained within the play.

Can this sort of approach be replicated in coming weeks?

Let's hope so.

Another thought is to mix in some more screens within the red zone. Defenses know that the 49ers can run the ball effectively up the middle. That's why they have been largely successful in limiting San Francisco's red-zone rushing attempts this season.

Well-designed screens to the outside might help alleviate some of the interior pressure and force defenses to respect the 49ers offense sideline to sideline.

Vance McDonald has yet to emerge as a legitimate pass-catching threat.
Vance McDonald has yet to emerge as a legitimate pass-catching threat.USA TODAY Sports

On top of that, it would also be nice to have second-year pro Vance McDonald assert himself into the passing game. McDonald had a lackluster rookie season in 2013, totaling just eight receptions for 119 yards.

While a healthy Davis is a bona fide red-zone threat, an equally potent McDonald could be a viable complement. Injuries and lack of production have limited McDonald to just one reception for nine yards on the year.

Dylan DeSimone @DylanADeSimone

Vance McDonald starting for the #49ers today. Huge opportunity to assert himself and have his first good NFL game as a receiver.

So what is the best solution?

There isn't an easy answer to this question. Even Gore felt the same way.

“I can’t answer that,” he said when asked about the 49ers' red-zone woes (h/t Gutierrez). “We have to get better. Watch the tape and clean up whatever it is. We just have to get better.” 

Cleaning up and getting better is a part of the solution. So much more goes into it as well. The calls must be creative and unpredictable. Yet San Francisco cannot stray from its strengths. Execution and adjustments need to be done accordingly too.

Five field goals worked against Kansas City. Yes, Dawson is a weapon, and the 49ers are fortunate that his Levi's Stadium woes seem to be a thing of the past.

But there are forthcoming games on the remaining schedule that will require more than just a plethora of field goals. San Francisco needs to start turning those chances from three points into seven on a much more frequent basis.

The 49ers will have their next chance to do so when they take on the St. Louis Rams and their 30th-ranked defense in Week 6.

All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.

Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Be sure to check out his entire archive on 49ers news, insight and analysis.

Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.

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