The SF 49ers were excellent on third downs in 2019, but a Week 1 loss versus the Cardinals showed a potentially glaring weakness here early in 2020.
The SF 49ers owned one of the NFL’s most dominant third-down offenses in 2019, and this was one of the chief reasons why head coach Kyle Shanahan’s squad went to the Super Bowl last season.
Yet in the Niners’ 2020 regular-season opener against the visiting Arizona Cardinals, the opposite scenario played itself out.
San Francisco lost the game 24-20, surrendering multiple leads, which was part of the story. But perhaps the biggest problem was the lack of ability converting on this key part of the game. During the contest, the 49ers managed just a 2-of-11 mark on third downs (18 percent). And after just the first half, Shanahan’s offense owned a 0-of-6 mark in this crucial category.
And this stands in almost complete contrast to the kind of success the Niners had here a year ago, as well as to how poorly Arizona’s defense played on third downs last season.
True, it’s worth giving credit to the Cardinals defense for almost completely eliminating a shorthanded San Francisco wide receiver corps during the game. Yet it doesn’t shake the fact head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s squad gave up third-down conversions 46.7 percent of the time last season, which was third worst in the NFL.
Simultaneously, Shanahan’s offense had a third-down conversion rate of 44.4 percent, fifth best in the league.
SF 49ers: Potential explanations for offensive third-down woes
Early in the game, Cardinals rookie linebacker Isaiah Simmons had difficulty in coverage, both on tight end George Kittle and running back Raheem Mostert on routes. Yet, for whatever the reasons, Shanahan’s play-calling went away from Simmons and allowed other more-experienced Arizona defenders to make plays.
As a partial result, Kittle became less and less a factor as the game wore on into the second half.
True, the Niners were without two of their best wide receivers, Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk, who are both currently dealing with injuries. That left depth wideouts Kendrick Bourne and Dante Pettis as starters for the game, and neither provided substantial impact.
Pettis was targeted just once, while Bourne had two catches for 34 yards.
Taylor was targeted five times in the game, tying the mark for all San Francisco pass-catchers in the contest. But he hauled in only two of those passes for only 7 yards.
Perhaps that shines light on Garoppolo even more, who frequently missed wide-open receivers in multiple clutch situations, perhaps painting a picture where he hasn’t fully acclimated to Shanahan’s offense after an abbreviated offseason and no preseason program amid the global pandemic.
Just how much a lack of a preseason affected the Niners offense, particularly on third downs, is anyone’s guess. But it’s pretty clear Garoppolo, Shanahan and the SF 49ers offense looked completely out of sorts on this particular down.
And it presents a challenge for them in a big way, too.
Shanahan’s offense is tremendously complex. The lack of a fully healthy wide receiver corps surely hurt matters, too.
But if there’s something of a saving grace, the Niners now get to travel to take on the New York Jets in Week 2, a team that ranked in the middle of the pack, defensively, in allowing third-down conversions last year — 39.1 percent, 15th in the NFL. But the Jets, coming off a 27-17 road loss to the Buffalo Bills, surrendered a 7-of-14 mark to Buffalo’s offense on third downs.
Perhaps that’s the opportunity to proverbially “right the ship” here.
Still, one can’t help but feel San Francisco would have started off its 2020 campaign with a 1-0 record had it converted at least two or three more of its third-down attempts.
Instead, the 49ers have a key aspect of their offense they need to focus heavily on between now and their road bout in New York.