After failing to lead the San Francisco 49ers into the end zone in the first two weeks of the season, quarterback Brian Hoyer finally came alive in Thursday night’s shootout with the Los Angeles Rams. What did the Niners’ QB do differently in Week 3?
The San Francisco 49ers looked like a different team in Thursday’s matchup with the Los Angeles Rams. After scoring just 12 points in their first two games, the Niners scored 39 points in Week 3, and quarterback Brian Hoyer was responsible for much of the offense’s improvement.
The majority of Hoyer’s basic stat lines don’t tell us what led to his early season turnaround; Hoyer threw a single interception in all three games, and his completion percentage in Week 3 was lower than his overall completion percentage in his first two games.
The two Week 3 statistical outliers are his two touchdown passes and his 332 passing yards — after throwing for a total of just 292 yards in his first two games. So what led to his increase in passing yardage in Week 3?
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Hoyer attempted 37 passes in Week 3 after attempting an average of 31 passes over his first two weeks, so his yardage improvement wasn’t due to a drastic increase in volume. Were the 49ers’ receivers better after the catch? Did head coach Kyle Shanahan significantly change the Niners’ game plan, by cutting out passes to slower tight ends and running backs?
Delving deeper into the statistics, we see that neither of these are the case. In the first two games of the season, the 49ers averaged 86 yards after the catch (YAC) over 19.5 completions — in the game against the Rams, they accumulated just 98 YAC over 23 completions.
Hoyer’s target distribution was also quite consistent between the first two games and Week 3, with just a small increase in targets to wide receivers:
The real reason behind Hoyer’s yardage output wasn’t the work of his receivers after the catch, or a change in his intended receivers — Hoyer threw for 332 yards because he finally felt comfortable throwing the ball down the field, and he stopped relying on his receivers to gain significant yardage after the catch.
Eight of the 49ers’ 10 longest passing plays of the season came during the Rams game. On both of the two longest plays during other games, Hoyer’s passes travelled just six yards in the air — a statistic commonly known as “air yards” — and the receivers were forced to do the rest of the work.
But in the Rams game, Hoyer did the majority of the work on his long pass plays. Of the 49ers’ eight longest passing plays, only one play had more YAC than air yards.
Hoyer averaged 186 air yards on passing attempts over the 49ers’ first two games, before putting up 315 air yards in Week 3, thanks to an “average depth of target” — or “aDOT” — increase from 6.1 yards to 8.5 yards-per-attempt.
Hoyer’s aDOT didn’t just increase overall, it increased on passes to all four position groups: wide receivers, halfbacks, fullbacks and tight ends:
When the 49ers began the season with a short-but-fast receiving corps, many believed the team would rely heavily on their receivers to provide significant yardage after the catch. When this strategy didn’t work over the Niners’ first two games, the team was forced to rely on their quarterback’s arm to gain yardage in Week 3.
If the San Francisco 49ers expect to continue to put points on the board, look for them to push the ball down the field, and rely on quarterback Brian Hoyer’s recent accuracy on deep and intermediate passes.