49ers are being killed by poor third-down execution

Head coach Kyle Shanahan of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Head coach Kyle Shanahan of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /

There are plenty of reasons behind the 49ers’ offensive struggles five weeks into the 2021 season, but poor efforts on third downs are a key reason why.

A simple base point to any NFL team’s offensive success can be broken down into two metrics: finding paydirt in the red zone and successfully converting on third downs.

The San Francisco 49ers haven’t had trouble in 2021 with the former, finally getting their first red-zone appearance that didn’t result in a touchdown in Week 5 during the 17-10 road loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

Third-down conversions, however, have been an entirely different story.

In 2019, this was another matter, as the Niners used a strong third-down presence to find offensive momentum all the way to the Super Bowl. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, healthy all season, led the league with 50 percent of his third-down passes going for a first down.

This year, over four starts, Garoppolo is tied for 14th with 42.9 percent of such passes resulting in a first down.

49ers third-down conversion percentage in 2021 isn’t good

Perhaps there’s a lot of blame to be placed on head coach Kyle Shanahan for otherwise lackluster play-calling this season. Or, perhaps, the execution from some of his top players is lacking. Maybe it’s injuries, including Garoppolo, running back Raheem Mostert and tight end George Kittle.

It’s hard to say. Likely a combination of all those factors.

Nevertheless, San Francisco’s third-down woes over the first five weeks have been troubling. Over that span, Shanahan and the 49ers are converting just 35.6 percent of their third-down attempts, which is good for 24th in the league. While this has led to some aggressiveness on fourth downs, where the Niners have a 50-percent conversion rate and are in the middle of the NFL pack, the overarching theme here is Shanahan’s offense has had difficulty moving the chains.

This perhaps explains why San Francisco’s scoring offense is ranked 15th in the league. And it’s not hard to grimace a bit when taking away the 41-point output against the Detroit Lions in Week 1. In two of the four games since, the 49ers have failed to reach a modest 20 points.

49ers not helping themselves on first, second downs

Third-down conversions are always tough, yes. But they can be mitigated somewhat by getting into better situations. A 3rd-and-short is understandably more manageable than a 3rd-and-10 play, of which the Niners have already had 17 this season, 14 more if you include third-down to-go distances of 7 to 9 yards.

Easy third-down conversions can be generated by success on first and second downs. In this area, at least so far this season, San Francisco isn’t doing itself much good.

Of 105 second-down plays, 68 of them have been a down-and-distance combo of at least 2nd-and-7, meaning the 49ers are averaging no more than 3 yards per first down 64.8 percent of the time.

Not good.

Read More: 3 reasons George Kittle is off to a slow start in 2021

On those 2nd-and-10-plus plays, the Niners are averaging 4.4 additional yards gained, suggesting the team is regularly falling short of the sticks and creating more third-down situations, even when they’re remotely favorable.

The 4.4 yards is actually the lowest average for any second-down down-and-distance combo, which isn’t encouraging.

If Shanahan wants to avoid the pitfalls of failing to convert on third downs, he’d better start finding ways to increase the yardage totals on first and second downs.

Next. 3 things Kyle Shanahan must fix now after loss to Cardinals. dark