Even with securing a playoff spot Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers players know they cannot go into cruise control in the final four games of the season. The 49ers must win against the Cardinals, Steelers, Seahawks and Rams in order to lock up the number two seed and first round bye. We all know the Packers are not going to lose anymore than one game in the final four games, so they are the number one seed in the NFC. The Saints, who are one game behind the 49ers in the NFC, have two tough games but have a good chance of going undefeated down the stretch. The 49ers at most can lose one game and hope they win the tiebreaker over the Saints. The final four games for the 49ers are not only must wins but also present a great opportunity for the 49ers to fix holes on offense.
The defeat handed down by the Ravens exposed how to beat the 49ers on offense: Overwhelm the offensive line by being quicker off the snap to pressure Alex Smith relentlessly and keep him between the tackles. The offensive line has allowed 13 sacks in the last two games, with four of those given up against the Rams last week. The O-line has quality starters led by LT Joe Staley and are capable of providing good protection. Before the loss to the Ravens the O-line played solid and gave a boost to the passing game and helped RB Frank Gore rush for five straight games with over 100 rushing yards.
With three of the games on the road against division rivals and one at home against the Steelers, the offensive line has a chance to show the last two weeks were a fluke and they are all on the same page. In the playoffs the 49ers will need the offensive line at the top of their game as the offense might have to participate in a shootout to advance. The only way the 49ers offense can keep up with the teams like the Saints and Packers is great pass protection.
Another issue the 49ers offense needs to address is the teams most serve: scoring touchdowns in the red zone. The 49ers have ten field goals and three TD’s in their last 15 trips inside the red zone. The offense is at least getting three points but this is a trend they cannot afford continue doing. One way around the issue the 49ers have used recently is avoiding the red zone all together. The two touchdowns in the game against the Rams came on passes of 52 and 56 yards. Alex Smith almost had a third TD to TE Vernon Davis on a 40 yard pass that should have been caught. In the loss to the Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman called multiple deep passes that had players open but resulted in an overthrow or a wrong move made by the receiver.
The offense seems to be evolving to including a deep threat passing game. While this is not a solution to the 49ers not scoring TD’s in the red zone, it will help against the Steelers and in the playoffs. Games against the Cardinals, Seahawks and Rams on the road present a great chance to continue testing the vertical passing game to see what it is capable of.
As far as solving the red zone issues Harbaugh and Roman need to draw up a solution fast. The 49ers have not scored a first half touchdown since week nine against the Redskins. Not scoring in the red zone is a big reason why. The good teams like the Ravens have shown they will take advantage of this and you can count on the Steelers doing this as well. If it’s not fixed at some point one of the division rivals will take advantage of the red zone issues down the stretch handing the 49ers a loss.