It’s not hard to recognize the 49ers are having offensive challenges in 2021, but this one stat essentially says everything about what’s going on.
The initial prediction for the San Francisco 49ers heading into 2021 was head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense was going to have to be prolific enough to pick up the defense this season.
This, namely because the Niners were employing a first-year defensive coordinator, DeMeco Ryans, and had questionable depth within the secondary. Yet the thinking wasn’t entirely misjudged, as Shanahan’s offense was again fully stocked and predicted to be a high-performing unit.
Well, five weeks into the season and after a 2-3 start to the year, this hasn’t been the case.
San Francisco owns the league’s 15th best scoring offense, yes, while the defense ranks 16th in this category. But if one removes the 49ers’ 41-point Week 1 burst against the Detroit Lions, Shanahan’s offense has averaged 19 points per game.
That would be good for 27th in the league entering Week 6.
Injuries have again played a factor, yes. Running back Raheem Mostert is out for the year with a knee injury, while tight end George Kittle is shelved on injured reserve with a calf injury. Even quarterbacks Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance have dealt with injuries, too.
But still, there’s another stat and X-factor that is awfully disturbing when evaluating the Niners’ 2021 offense.
49ers simply aren’t getting into the red zone in 2021
A Football 101 cliche states how games are won or lost by two distinct stats: third-down conversion ability and finding paydirt in the red zone.
In the latter category, San Francisco has actually performed quite well this season, scoring touchdowns on all but two of their appearances this season, which equates to 90.9 percent — second best in the league behind only the New Orleans Saints (92.9 percent).
OK, so what’s the problem?
Well, that’s pretty simple. Despite the 49ers taking advantage of the bulk of their red-zone appearances, the hard truth is Shanahan’s offense isn’t getting into the red zone anywhere close to enough.
In fact, the Niners are averaging a mere 2.2 red-zone scoring drives per game. That’s tied for fourth fewest in the league after five weeks.
Why aren’t the 49ers getting into the red zone more?
It’s a good question. Likely one that won’t automatically generate a clean, simple answer.
True, San Francisco has had a lot of disjointed offensive efforts this season, including being forced to start Lance in the Week 5 loss to the Arizona Cardinals in the wake of Garoppolo being absent with a calf injury. But even with Garoppolo under center, the 49ers offense has struggled to find any sort of offensive rhythm, averaging 5.8 yards per play, which is currently 14th.
Yet that’s not the entire answer, as the Niners are in the middle of the pack in terms of punts with 19 on the season, too. San Francisco has converted five of 10 fourth-down tries as well, so that plays a factor.
But another possible explanation is the lack of defensive takeaways, which would otherwise give the offense an increased number of possessions and field time.
Related Story: 49ers lack of takeaways is silently killing team’s chances
To date, the 49ers have just two forced turnovers, one higher than the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars, who rank dead last in that category.
Like everything else with regards to the Niners’ offensive frustrations, the meager turnover numbers from the defense are proving to be yet another hand-in-glove factor that’s ultimately influencing why Shanahan’s offense is struggling to get into the red zone.
It’s certainly not the only reason. There are plenty more. Yet it’s troubling to see the overarching struggles San Francisco has had with regards to sparking its scoring offense.
Perhaps the Week 6 bye offers the opportunity to fix all that.