San Francisco 49ers: Quick Fixes to Spark an Inept Offense
By Peter Panacy
Here are some stats that should bother you: The San Francisco 49ers offense ranks dead last in the NFL with just 48 points scored over four weeks. And they also rank No. 31 in the league with a mere 1,156 all-purpose yards.
That’s bad. Really bad.
In Week 1, San Francisco appeared to show signs of being a run-first, run-heavy offense. Running back Carlos Hyde ripped off 168 yards on the ground, which set the stage for an impressive 20-3 Monday Night Football win over the Minnesota Vikings.
That’s what we thought the 49ers offense would look like this season. San Francisco would establish the run, which would open things up for quarterback Colin Kaepernick to thrive in play-action and read-option schemes — aspects in which the 49ers’ signal-caller feels most comfortable.
But the 49ers are no longer capable of moving the ball on the ground. Hyde managed just 20 yards on eight carries during San Francisco’s 17-3 underwhelming loss to the Green Bay Packers in Week 4.
Much of this is due to opposing teams stacking the box in anticipation of the run. This is forcing Kaepernick to make plays out of the pocket. It’s safe to say the quarterback has not been able to do this effectively as his 2015 season 67.7 passer rating suggests.
There are a lot of culprits when evaluating all that is wrong with this offense right now.
San Francisco’s offensive line, especially along the right side, isn’t playing well. Kaepernick continues to lack the poise within the pocket. And the play-calling is, once again, suspect under new offensive coordinator Geep Chryst.
But there are some fixes the 49ers could employ right now to help right the ship. Remember the old saying about the definition of insanity: “doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results?”
It’s time for Chryst and head coach Jim Tomsula to make some immediate changes.
It All Starts Up Front
San Francisco’s O-line has been, for lack of a better word, garbage in three out of the first four weeks of the season.
Kaepernick has been sacked 14 times on the season, which would put him on pace for 56 on the year. That’s four more than the whopping 52 sacks he endured back in 2014.
Right tackle Erik Pears, right guard Jordan Devey and center Marcus Martin have all graded out poorly this season per Pro Football Focus (h/t Evan Silva of Rotoworld.com).
We don’t need to delve that far into how an ineffective O-line thwarts almost everything an offense tries to do. That’s Football 101. The lack of push up front eliminates a strong ground game while preventing quarterbacks from having enough pocket time to read through progressions and make plays.
The left side, with tackle Joe Staley and guard Alex Boone, doesn’t need to be addressed. But the 49ers need to consider changes at the remaining positions.
And, according to Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, Tomsula and the coaching staff are looking into this possibility.
“Up and down,” Tomsula stated via Maiocco when asked about the O-line. “Is it an area concern? One and three is an area of concern.”
Sep 27, 2015; Glendale, AZ, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) runs the ball as offensive tackle Erik Pears (71) blocks Arizona Cardinals linebacker Kareem Martin (96) at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Tomsula is referring to the record and not singling out any specific player. That’s the coach’s job not to throw anyone under the bus. But Tomsula and Co. should be evaluating the possibility of starting rookie Trenton Brown at right tackle and placing second-year pro Brandon Thomas at right guard.
“When you do that, to me, it can’t be an emotional decision,” Tomsula said. “You have to think your way through it. So we’re trying to make sure we’re thinking our way through it. And we are in the middle of that right now.”
Sep 20, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; San Francisco 49ers running back Carlos Hyde (28) carries the ball against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the second quarter at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Don’t Abandon Carlos Hyde
Hyde’s eight carries in Week 4 speaks to the ineptitude of San Francisco’s recent rushing efforts. The 49ers’ featured back hasn’t crested 60 yards in a contest since his Week 1 breakout.
A lot of this has to do with scheme and situation. But it’s not a facet that can be abandoned altogether.
Opposing teams know the 49ers want to run the ball. Packers head coach Mike McCarthy reiterated this via Maiocco following Green Bay’s Week 4 victory.
“Carlos Hyde is, I think he’s a fantastic young player,” McCarthy said. “We were very impressed with him throughout the film study and the preparation phase. So their run game was our starting point, no doubt.”
Hyde later stated how Green Bay stacked the box against him, which made things difficult on the ground.
Scheme and play-calling have a lot to do with this. The onus will be on Chryst to come up with some sort of balanced approach to force opponents’ defenses to play honest — we’ll get to that shortly. But abandoning the run altogether is exactly what defenses are trying to force.
Let Hyde continue to establish strong runs on each and every possession. Hyde should be getting at least one carry per four-down set. Anything less would be a complete breakdown on offense, especially when considering how elusive the second-year pro can be.
Put Colin Kaepernick into a Position to Succeed
Four weeks into the 2015 season, fans must be wondering whether or not Kaepernick has what it takes to win at this level and if the 49ers’ brass has put him into a failing situation.
The jury is still out, or maybe it isn’t based on what you believe, but the quick fact is that Kaepernick still gives San Francisco the best chance at winning.
Starting No. 2 quarterback Blaine Gabbert isn’t going to be a quick fix here. Remember, Gabbert’s strong preseason was marked by second- and third-tier defenses and not the level of players seen during the regular season.
After a four-interception game against the Arizona, the 49ers appeared set to put Kaepernick into a position where he wouldn’t hurt the offense — an aspect pointed out by Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle:
"Offensive coordinator Geep Chryst called a game as if he were determined to not have Kaepernick endure another four-INT performance. The buttoned-up approach limited mistakes (1 turnover), but also produced just two completions longer than 13 yards and a curious run up the middle on a 3rd-and-11 in the third quarter."
Kaepernick’s lone interception from Week 4 was on a deep pass to wide receiver Anquan Boldin. Despite the ball being picked, why not allow the 49ers quarterback to attempt some deep passes to loosen up defensive coverage?
That should have been an approach taken early in the game to, at least, force the Packers to respect the possibility of a big play.
Kaepernick won’t succeed with short dink-and-dunk plays on offense. While those calls have their merits at times, the 49ers’ play-calling needs to incorporate its weapons and focus on what the offense can do instead of what it’s trying to avoid.
Offensive coordinator Geep Chryst’s play-calling has been suspect over the last three weeks. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Smarter & More Aggressive Play-Calling
The final aspect to round out the 49ers’ offensive changes is Chryst’s play-calling abilities.
San Francisco’s offense went ultra conservative in Week 4 in an attempt to avoid the plethora of turnovers seen the previous week. And the results were little better.
The season clearly isn’t going the 49ers’ way, and it’s already a distant hope to see San Francisco make its way into the postseason this year. So why not open things up?
Of course, much of this is going to be contingent on the O-line, ground game and Kaepernick’s abilities. But why keep trying to simply avoid mistakes when that approach is proving completely inept?
The perfect example of this lackluster approach was a 3rd-and-11 draw run right up the middle in the third quarter.
What was that about?
Regardless of the offense’s confidence in Kaepernick, play-calling like this simply won’t get the job done. Yes, the game was still close at this point, and the 49ers wanted to avoid a costly mistake. But that sort of approach only serves to reinforce the lack of ability on offense.
It does nothing to rectify it.
Let Kaepernick and the offense try to make big plays rather than preventing them from making mistakes. The current approach from Chryst isn’t working, so why not change things up even if it comes with a greater risk?
San Francisco will have a shot to execute these changes in Week 5 when it travels to New York to take on the Giants.
Next: The 49ers Offense Needs Changes Now
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com and ESPN.com unless otherwise indicated.
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