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Redskins vs. 49ers: Breaking Down San Francisco's Game Plan

Peter Panacy@@PeterPanacyFeatured Columnist IVNovember 19, 2014

Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers offense will look to pick things up against the Redskins in Week 12.
Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers offense will look to pick things up against the Redskins in Week 12.USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco 49ers look to maintain their winning ways as they prepare to host the visiting Washington Redskins in Week 12 on Sunday, November 23.

This critical contest kicks off at 4:25 p.m. ET on CBS, and the 49ers are listed as 7.5-point favorites according to Odds Shark.

At 6-4, San Francisco remains on the outside of the playoff picture—the No. 7 seed, per CBS Sports.

The 49ers currently sit as the No. 7 seed in the NFC.
The 49ers currently sit as the No. 7 seed in the NFC.Credit: CBS Sports

Washington is entering the contest at 3-7 and should be judged as little more than a spoiler at this point.

Yet each game remains critical for the 49ers as they head toward the postseason. The logjam of teams vying for a playoff berth leaves little room for error, especially considering San Francisco's division rivals—the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks—are also in the thick of the chase.

While implication-filled games against these rivals remain, the 49ers can scantly afford to cough up an ugly loss to an underwhelming Redskins team that, at least on paper, San Francisco should easily be able to defeat.

But how will the 49ers go about doing this?

Robert Griffin III has endured an up-and-down season under center for Washington.
Robert Griffin III has endured an up-and-down season under center for Washington.Evan Vucci/Associated Press
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The Opponent

Washington sits at the bottom of the NFC East. Its season has gone awry from any hopes that first-year head coach Jay Gruden had to get this franchise back on track.

In spite of the record, the Redskins do have potential on the offensive side of the ball.

Washington has produced a total of 3,804 all-purpose yards over 10 games (No. 8 in the NFL). In contrast, the 49ers are ranked 19th-best in this same category (3,428).

Here's a further breakdown of the comparisons, per StatMilk.com (subscription required):

Washington's passing game ranks considerably higher than that of San Francisco.
Washington's passing game ranks considerably higher than that of San Francisco.Credit: StatMilk.com

The Redskins are averaging 270.8 passing yards per game according to the chart. Wide receiver DeSean Jackson leads all receivers with 819 yards on 40 receptions—averaging 20.5 yards per catch. He has also posted four receiving touchdowns (a stat that also leads the team).

DeSean Jackson has emerged as the No. 1 pass-catching threat.
DeSean Jackson has emerged as the No. 1 pass-catching threat.USA TODAY Sports

Wideout Pierre Garcon is also a bona fide target. He has 464 yards on 43 receptions, averaging 10.8 yards per catch.

Quarterback Robert Griffin III returned to starting duties in Week 9. On the season, the third-year pro has a 72 percent completion rating, but has two passing touchdowns against three interceptions.

Griffin's 2014 struggles have drawn criticism from Gruden, per Marty Gitlin of CBS Sports, to which Griffin responded via the Washington Times (h/t Gitlin) that he simply wanted to "play better."

Bleacher Report NFL @BR_NFL

VIDEO: RGIII repeats “focused on San Francisco” nine time during his press conference. http://t.co/khYsDE2mDz http://t.co/eHntx3xcJZ

Running the ball has not been one of Griffin's primary abilities in 2014. The quarterback has just 18 rushing attempts on the season for just 89 yards.

However, running back Alfred Morris is a legitimate threat out of the backfield. The 26-year-old back is averaging 4.1 yards per carry on 172 attempts, but he also leads the team with six touchdowns.

Redskins 2014 Receiving Leaders
ReceptionsYardsYPCTD
WR DeSean Jackson4081920.54
WR Pierre Garcon4346410.83
TE Niles Paul3344613.51
WR Andre Roberts2728710.62
pro-football-reference.com

Yet Washington's vulnerability is on the defensive side of the ball.

The Redskins have allowed the 10th-most points in the NFL (256). Against the run, Washington is averaging 103.7 rushing yards per game (11th best in the league).

Washington is coming off a 27-7 loss to the 2-7 Tampa Bay Buccaneers—a game in which the Redskins allowed 329 all-purpose yards to the fifth-worst offense in this category.

Can the 49ers' inconsistent offense take advantage of this opportunity?

Kaepernick's offense mustered only two field goals in four red-zone appearances against New York.
Kaepernick's offense mustered only two field goals in four red-zone appearances against New York.Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

Re-establishing the Offense

Week 11 revealed plenty of problems within the 49ers offense.

San Francisco scored zero touchdowns and just six points off four red-zone appearances against the New York Giants last Sunday. While the defense forced five interceptions from quarterback Eli Manning, the Giants were trailing by just six points at the end of the game.

What should have been a blowout turned into a close, nail-biting contest in which the 49ers needed their stalwart defense to bail out their inept offense.

On the positive side of things, San Francisco has gotten back to utilizing one of its preeminent strengths—a power-running game. Running backs Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde rushed for a combined 120 yards during the game, which helped the 49ers win the time-of-possession battle (34:59 to 25:01).

Frank Gore and the running game have returned to prominence the last two weeks.
Frank Gore and the running game have returned to prominence the last two weeks.Chris Graythen/Getty Images

San Francisco's top-two wide receivers also made notable contributions. Anquan Boldin had 53 receiving yards on five receptions, and Michael Crabtree led all receivers with 85 yards on three catches. One of these went for the 49ers' lone touchdown.

But quarterback Colin Kaepernick wasn't quite himself during the contest. He completed just 15 passes on 29 attempts. On the year, he has a 61 percent completion rate. But Kaepernick's 51.72 percentage from last week was the second lowest on the season (his lowest was 43.75 against the New Orleans Saints a week prior).

San Francisco's passing numbers stand in stark contrast to its gains on the ground.
San Francisco's passing numbers stand in stark contrast to its gains on the ground.Credit: StatMilk.com

Kaepernick's passing abilities do present an enigma of sorts—a conflict in numbers described in further detail by Bleacher Report's Joseph Akeley.

Joey Akeley @Jakeley_BR

ICYMI: Colin Kaepernick: The NFL's Ultimate Enigma http://t.co/4dNGTcK56f

Yet the 49ers might not need their signal-caller to steal the show on Sunday. As revealed by Washington's defensive statistics, a strong running game could be the primary factor in securing a better offensive identity for San Francisco.

Chief among these offensive needs will be for the 49ers to re-establish themselves inside the red zone.

Following their Week 11 victory, the 49ers rank No. 31 of 32 teams in red-zone touchdown efficiency, per Paul Gutierrez of ESPN.

But Gutierrez also points out that the Redskins are 18th in the league in defensive red-zone efficiency, suggesting that San Francisco might have an opportunity to correct this problematic aspect.

Aldon Smith (left) and Chris Borland (center) have helped reinforce a banged-up 49ers linebacker group.
Aldon Smith (left) and Chris Borland (center) have helped reinforce a banged-up 49ers linebacker group.Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Maintaining Defensive Dominance

The return of linebacker Aldon Smith in Week 11 reinforced a 49ers defense that had already established itself in 2014.

The defense has already endured a slew of injuries and setbacks. In addition to Smith's nine-game suspension, this unit had to overcome the absences of linebackers NaVorro Bowman (knee), Patrick Willis (toe) and Dan Skuta (ankle). Nose tackles Glenn Dorsey (biceps) and Ian Williams (leg) also have missed time.

San Francisco's secondary has been without defensive backs Tramaine Brock, Chris Cook, Chris Culliver and Jimmie Ward at various times.

Yet, somehow, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has figured out how to put all the spare pieces together to formulate one of the better defenses in the NFL in 2014.

The 49ers have given up the fourth-fewest all-purpose yards this season (3,088). Both the run defense and pass defense rank No. 6 in fewest yards allowed per game (86.9 and 221.9 yards, respectively).

San Francisco's defense stands well above that of Washington.
San Francisco's defense stands well above that of Washington.Credit: StatMilk.com

Much of the credit also has to go to the standout, seemingly out-of-nowhere play of rookie linebackers Chris Borland and Aaron Lynch. One cannot overlook the efforts of defensive backs Antoine Bethea and Perrish Cox either.

But the 49ers were still lacking a pass rush prior to Smith's return.

Along with Lynch, Smith now brings that pass-rushing element back to San Francisco's defense. Prior to Week 11, the 49ers had amassed just 15 sacks. They added another two against Manning and the Giants, but the added pressure helped force his five interceptions.

Bethea pointed out, via Gutierrez, how important Smith's presence was in generating the turnovers:

It was big having [Smith] out there on the edge and just knowing what type of pressure he can get on the quarterback. As a DB, that is what you want, being able to look at the quarterback and get some good jumps on the ball. 

San Francisco is now tied for third in the league in forced turnovers (21).

Getting pressure on Griffin will be a major factor in Sunday's contest with the Redskins. Washington has allowed 28 sacks on the season—four fewer than the 32 San Francisco has given up. Considering that Griffin is not using his mobility as much as he did in previous seasons, the 49ers pass-rushers may have an opportunity here.

Washington Redskins @Redskins

#Redskins QB @RGIII talks about the 49ers strong defense. #WASvsSF WATCH | http://t.co/8RMGVwbtF4 http://t.co/uaBRphpSTh

The Redskins quarterbacks have 13 passing touchdowns against 13 interceptions—another stat worth mentioning, and one that plays into what the defense can do if pressure forces some early releases.

Michael Crabtree notched the lone 49ers touchdown in Week 11.
Michael Crabtree notched the lone 49ers touchdown in Week 11.Al Bello/Getty Images

Finding an Offensive/Defensive Balance

San Francisco's reinforced defense might be the crucial linchpin that carries the team forward into a postseason berth.

This isn't exactly a bad situation for the 49ers. Prominent defenses remain a vital part of being a Super Bowl contender, and San Francisco is no stranger to utilizing its defense to the best of its abilities.

But one also has to figure that this team cannot continue to get away with a lackluster, underachieving offense down the stretch. The failure to execute offensively in the second half of games is a concern—one that forces the defense to hold onto slim leads late in the fourth quarter.

Take Week 11's 16-10 victory as a perfect example.

That approach may work against teams like the Giants (or even the Redskins). How well will this work when the 49ers face off against the Seahawks or Cardinals down the stretch? What happens if San Francisco makes it into the postseason?

Instead, the 49ers will need to establish some sort of continuity on offense and work it into an equation in which the defense will benefit. The latter is doing its job. The former is not.

Fortunately, the Redskins present an opportunity for the offense to get back on track. San Francisco has an opponent that is not particularly strong in the red zone, suggesting that the 49ers can start the needed corrections from within opponents' 20-yard lines.

Cam Inman @CamInman

#49ers entered with 31st-ranked red zone offense. Now have converted 13 of 30 into TDs.

Washington has also given up four fourth-quarter touchdowns—second only to seven end-zone scores in the second quarter of games this season.

Most importantly, the 49ers need to have a statement game in which they dominate every aspect of the contest. This has yet to happen through 11 weeks. 

But if they can take advantage of a lowly opponent, the 49ers should be able to put themselves in an excellent position to ride a needed wave of momentum down the stretch.

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 @PeterPanacy on Twitter.

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