The San Francisco 49ers allowed 52 sacks last season, tied for third-worst in the league. Any analysis of the failed 2014 season has to start there—what makes a team give up 13 sacks more than the previous season, and how can it be prevented in the future?
There’s obviously not just one cause of the sack problem. It’s a combination of a number of factors—if only one part of the protection scheme wasn’t working very well, then other parts could have stepped up and adjustments could be made.
Let’s go cause by cause and see where the problems were and what can be done to fix them in 2015.
Throw the Ball Away, Colin Kaepernick
Whenever a quarterback takes 52 sacks, you have to start looking there for fault. Part of the reason Kaepernick took so many sacks in 2014 is just due to holding onto the ball too long.
Kaepernick had an average of 2.96 seconds as a passer per play in 2014, third-highest in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. His average time to being sacked was 3.72 seconds, fourth-highest in the league. This separates Kaepernick from highly sacked quarterbacks such as Blake Bortles and Jay Cutler.
Kaepernick isn’t getting sacked because the offensive line is instantly folding; only five of PFF’s 51 credited sacks on Kaepernick happened in the first 2.5 seconds. The sacks were happening because Kaepernick was extending the play in the pocket and getting slammed for his troubles.
This is not new. In every season since he took over the starting job, Kaepernick has ranked in the top four or five quarterbacks in terms of holding onto the football. This is not inherently a bad thing, of course.
The top 10 in terms of time to throw include Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers, Tony Romo and Andrew Luck. It’s a different play-style than the Peyton Mannings and Tom Bradys of the world, but it’s not inherently a losing one.
The issue is how often Kaepernick is able to avoid pressure when it comes—if you make a habit of holding onto the ball all day, eventually pass-rushers are going to break through and try to bring you down. Kaepernick was sacked 23.7 percent of the time when pressure reached him, according to Pro Football Focus. Only Blake Bortles was worse at handling pressure when it got there.
Let’s compare Kaepernick to Wilson and Newton under pressure, as all three are running-style quarterbacks. There are a few possible outcomes when a player gets under pressure:
- They are sacked.
- They complete the pass anyway.
- They throw an interception.
- They throw an accurate pass, but it is dropped.
- They throw an inaccurate pass intended to be completed.
- They throw the ball away.
- They scramble out of danger.
By looking at what percentage of the time each quarterback has each result, we can see where Kaepernick is lagging behind.
|Players||Sack||Cmp||INT||Drop||Inaccurate Pass||Throw Away||Scramble|
|Pro Football Focus|
The first thing that jumps out is simply Kaepernick’s relatively small percentage of completed passes, but that’s somewhat misleading. Kaepernick doesn’t complete as many passes because he can’t attempt as many passes because he is sacked often. Kapernick and Newton have nearly identical completion rates, and Wilson completes about 2 percent more passes than either of them.
The thing that jumps out at me, comparing Wilson and Kaepernick, is how their throwaway and scramble rates essentially compare to each other. Wilson throws the ball away about 15 percent of the time, and Kaepernick scrambles about the same. Wilson scrambles about 11 percent of the time, and Kaepernick throws the ball away about the same.
Here’s the thing—that only shows successful attempts at scrambling. A throwaway is a throwaway, but an unsuccessful attempt at scrambling might get you trapped in the backfield for a sack. Because Kaepernick’s first instinct is to scramble, he may sometimes end up taking sacks, where Wilson would throw the ball safely away or Newton would launch an inaccurate pass downfield.
Perhaps training with Kurt Warner this offseason will help Kaepernick make better decisions on when to scramble and when to throw the ball away.
Give Kaepernick Someone To Throw To
Of course, even accounting for the fact that Kaepernick scrambles a lot, he still ends up throwing the ball downfield less than the other quarterbacks. This is due, in some part, to the lack of checkdowns and running back outlets that Greg Roman gave his quarterback in 2014.
Since Roman took over as play-caller in 2011, Frank Gore’s receptions dropped from the 40s and 50s per season down to the teens, with a high of 28 in 2012. Some of this can be attributed to aging, of course, but it’s also part of Roman’s philosophy.
Roman used a very simple, streamlined offense; one that Phil Simms called the “least creative passing scheme” he had seen, according to Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle. It was also missing a lot of those short, outlet high-percentage passes that can get a quarterback into rhythm and help turn 2nd-and-long into 3rd-and-short.
While I don’t have the full 2014 numbers, we can look at 2013 some to see Roman’s passing philosophy. The 49ers used below-average numbers of quick outs, crossing routes and in-routes, according to Pro Football Focus, while relying on deeper corners and go routes more often. The running back screen was practically nonexistent. These are higher-risk, higher-reward routes.
That’s fine when the quarterback has time to throw, but when pressure comes, the routes take too long to develop. One reason Kaepernick has to scramble so much is that his receivers are simply not done with their routes by the time the pressure arrives.
The pattern continued into 2014, and it got worse. The simplification of the offense included a dramatic drop-off in play-action routes, according to PFF's Matt Maiocco and Jeff Deeney (via David Fucillo of Niners Nation), which would normally cause the defense to bite and give Kaepernick a break from some of the constant pressure.
Without the threat of the play action, defenses could spend more time keying in on Kaepernick, leading to an increase in pressure, leading to an increase in sacks.
Quite frankly, the lack of short crossing routes, screens and other hot routes showed an inability to react to the increased pressure Kaepernick was facing in 2014. Roman should have worked more safety valves like that into his offensive packages to give Kaepernick options other than chucking the ball 30 yards downfield against the pass rush.
Perhaps Geep Chryst will return the 49ers to the play-action game that worked so well for them in previous years and work to install a system which includes shorter routes for Kaepernick to look for in emergencies. It would be up to Kaepernick to actually sense the pressure and find those routes, but on some plays, he simply did not have that option.
Heal the Offensive Line
From 2011 to 2013, only seven players started on the offensive line for the 49ers.
Joe Staley, Jonathan Goodwin and Anthony Davis started every single game. Alex Boone did the same when he entered the starting lineup in 2012. Mike Iupati missed just four games with an injury, and every other starting spot was filled by either Adam Snyder or Chilo Rachal. That allowed for a great level of continuity among the line, allowing them to work together as a unit to provide superior protection.
In 2014 alone, the 49ers started Staley, Davis, Iupati, Boone, Jonathan Martin, Marcus Martin, Daniel Kilgore and Joe Looney—eight players in one season. That’s going to crumble continuity and prevent the offensive line from getting in any sort of rhythm.
The loss of Goodwin at center particularly hurt the 49ers. The center is the player who makes the calls at the line of scrimmage and helps shift the blocking as need be. Perhaps Daniel Kilgore or Marcus Martin, with a full season, could have handled that role, but two inexperienced players, each filling a half-season due to injury, is not the ideal situation on the offensive line.
There’s almost no way the 49ers could suffer this many injuries on the offensive line again in 2015, so this is one area where the 49ers should just naturally improve, thanks to regression to the mean.
Improve Offensive Line Play
Even when everyone was healthy, however, the offensive line needed some work at pass protection.
Staley and Boone were fine and should continue to be so going forward. The other three positions, however, were sieve-like at times.
The shift to a more pass-oriented offense did Mike Iupati no favors at left guard. Iupati’s one of the best run-blockers in football, but pass protection is not his forte, and he struggled at times.
At his best, Iupati’s an adequate blocker, but there were too many games this season where he looked lost as pass-rushers moved around him. This is why the 49ers will probably not match the large offers Iupati is likely to get in free agency.
Anthony Davis suffered from injuries all season long. When he finally returned to something near health, in the last couple of weeks of the season, he was fine.
Banged-up with concussions, sprained MCLs and a hamstring injury, as well as recovery from offseason shoulder surgery, Davis struggled to find a rhythm for most of the season. The fact that he was alright at the end of the year, after having a chance to recover, is a positive sign for improvement in 2015.
Center, frankly, was a problem. Daniel Kilgore was solid, if not exciting, but rookie Marcus Martin clearly wasn’t fully ready when he was forced into the starting lineup in Week 9. A knee injury that cost him the entire first half of the season could not have been good for his development.
I expect Martin to improve some this upcoming season. He was only 20 years old at the beginning of 2014, with only one year of experience at center in college. He needs a full offseason and training camp to continue to learn the position.
If he can’t improve, then Kilgore’s solid, unspectacular play is still a major upgrade from the last half of the season. That means there should be an overall improvement at center this offseason as well.
Finally, the 49ers need better backups.
Jonathan Martin struggled tremendously and shouldn’t be on an NFL roster in 2015. Joe Looney was more solid as a reserve, but he had moments of terror here and there. I’m more OK with Looney as a reserve than Martin, certainly. Adding Brandon Thomas, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL, should help as well. The 49ers should also use a mid-round pick on an interior lineman to shore up the protection.
All of these issues combined to create a perfect storm of trouble for the 49ers in 2014. Some of them should improve naturally, and some will require work to get better in 2015. It’s hard to imagine all aspects of pass protection being as bad as they were last season, however, so there’s room to hope that there will be less sacks going forward.
Bryan Knowles is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on Twitter.