As Week 3 Sunday began, the 49ers wanted to come out and rebound with a big win at home against the visiting Indianapolis Colts. The plan was to shake off the beating they took from the Seattle Seahawks and there record setting fans a week ago. Easier said than done though. The 49ers began the game with a great 2nd drive marked heavily by Frank Gore recording 3 1st downs on some inspired carries as many wondered if the 30 year old back was going to get another visit from father time.
Gore clearly had other ideas as he pounded the Colts defensive front with 82 yards on 11 carries smashing his season average through 2 weeks of 2.0 YPC, with a turn-back-the-clock-to-2006 average of 7.45 YPC. Kendall Hunter and Colin Kaepernick added rushing support of 14 and 20 yards respectively for a grand total of 116 yards. That was the bright spot in today’s performance. So what happened to the 49ers from Week 1 of the NFL regular season you ask? Here are the issues surrounding the 49ers right now:
The 49ers defense has not been stout against the run since Week 1, they gave up 172 yards on the ground in Seattle, and followed it up with 179 yards given up to the Colts at home today. The 49ers have always prided themselves on stopping the run and making their opponent’s 1-dimensional. The 49ers defense has given up an average of 175.5 yds/G after only giving up 94.2 yds/G in 2012. The disparity is atrociously clear, the 49ers need to clean this up immediately and get back to controlling the line.
The 49ers D-line needs to hold the point of attack and close the gaps the opposing offensive line is creating for their tailbacks. When they are able to accomplish this, they can force the opposing team to throw and have shown to be successful in generating turnovers. The 49ers simply do not look like themselves, and it is disconcerting that they are getting manhandled at what they do best. They need to be the defense that they have always been and continue with this strategy, but they are being forced out of their organic nature. This leads into the next issue the 49ers must address.
Time of Possession:
The 49ers in 2011 and 2012 were elite at controlling the clock and slowing the game down by keeping opposing defenses on the field by effectively running the ball down their throats and churning out big yardage. One first down after another would keep the clock ticking down. The 49ers were very unflashy in 2011 with this style but effective on their way to a 13-3 record that season. The 49ers would hold the ball for an average of 32:08 min/G.
In 2012, Kap took the reins midseason and made the offense more potent, but they still remained a running team and their average time of possession remained near the 2011 mark at 31:46 min/G. The 49ers have averaged through the past 2 weeks a mark well below their 2011 and 2012 marks at 23:26 min/G. This is not Niner football. And this stems to the lack of production from Frank Gore in Week 2, and the 49ers abandoning the run entirely in the 2nd half in Week 3. Against the Colts, Gore had 60+ yds in the first half alone, and ended up with only 82 by game’s end. Why did the 49ers abandon the run in a 1 score game? They had a higher rushing average of 5.0yds/c to the Colts 4.6yds/c.
Why did the 49ers panic? Indy rushed 16 more times than the 49ers did and were able to control the clock and keep the defense out on the field much longer than desired. The 49ers need to get back to the basics that made them successful at wearing opponents down. The 49ers cannot allow the opponent to hold the ball for 13 more minutes and expect to win. However, to possess the ball, on defense you must get off the field as soon as possible, which leads to the next problem.
When it is 3rd down and anything, all you want to do is get that stop and force the punt to get off the field. It’s already hard enough diagnosing what the opposing offense will do to get the 3rd down yardage required. It becomes twice as difficult and frustrating when you give away the first down on egregious penalties. Here is where it hurts, in Week 2 the 49ers gave up 4 1st downs to the Seahawks on penalties alone. They assisted the Colts again today with 5 more first downs from penalties. This forced San Francisco to stay on defense longer than it should have been and essentially tired them out as they were forced to play more than required. Coupled with a lopsided time of possession and that is a formula for disaster as the defense wears down.
The result? Allowing the opposing offense to make plays as the defense is gassed. It is a vicious cycle that needs to be diagnosed right away and corrected in-game. It begins with discipline and ends with execution. The 49ers committed 12 penalties for 121 yards in Seattle. It is easy to say that it was due to the crowd noise, but eventually the 49ers will need to eliminate penalties at CenturyLink as we play there once a year, maximum twice if you know what I mean.
Today, the 49ers didn’t help the cause with another 6 penalties for 48 yards, 2 coming on the drive that capped a touchdown to make it a 20-7 game with 4 min left. The coaching staff needs to get involved and make it clear that penalties cannot be tolerated. It is a big contributor to why this game got out of hand in the 4th quarter. Take those penalties away, the 49ers would get the ball back. Even by shooting themselves in the foot many times, the 49ers still had a chance in today’s game, but ultimately came down to the final following reasons:
A successful passing defense is defined by its secondary, however, wide receivers are generally faster than defensive backs. Allowing a quarterback more than 4 seconds in the pocket without pressure allows these wide receivers to separate from the defensive backs giving the quarterback an open look. Instead, I prefer to define a passing defense by it’s defensive front 4. The 49ers’ pass rush has done an O.K. job at rushing the quarterback, but nowhere near it’s 2011 and 2012 prowess.
The pass defense was able to generate more sacks than the opposing defense in both weeks but not enough pressure to force the incompletion/turnover and shutdown key drives. As a result, the seahawks and colts were able to string together plays on these drives and come away with points. The mounting injuries in the 49ers defensive line with Ian Williams (Out for the season) and Ray Mcdonald (ankle injuries), the 49ers front 4 is banged up and without an effective rotation. Tank Carradine is still not ready to go, and Quinton Dial has still not seen much action. The 49ers must find a way to ride this storm out until Ray and Tank can make it back into the rotation. Championship teams find ways to win with the odds stacked against them. The injury bug is here and has finally hit the 49ers, but this isn’t the most glaring issue of all.
2012 was a breakout year for Colin Kaepernick. He became an overnight sensation with an incredible half season of play combined with the record setting playoff debut against the Packers leading the 49ers all the way to the Superbowl. Kaepernick beat teams with the accuracy of his arm and the speed of his legs last season. Outside of Week 1, 2013 has been a very different story so far as NFL teams have adjusted to the read option and the pistol. However, the 49ers were never truly a read option team. They employed it, but they were still a running team. The 49ers accomplished this by using the best offensive line in football to open up gaping holes for Gore, and excellent blocking on sweeps for Hunter and James.
In 2012, the 49ers averaged 155.7 yds/G, but through the past 2 weeks, the 49ers have averaged a quiet 107.5 yds/G. This is in large part to the Seahawks and Colts focusing on containing the run and forcing the throw. With Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, and Mario Manningham out, the 49ers need someone, Anyone to step up. Kyle Williams is not a viable no. 2 WR and Anquan Boldin is forced to shake off double coverage. Kap experienced his first 3 Int game last week, and didn’t fare much better today. Outside of Boldin, no other receiver had more than 2 catches today. Manningham is not expected to be back until mid-October. Crabtree is not expected to be back until November. Kaepernick is now seeing the other side of the NFL after posting QBRs of 20.1 and 49.9 in back to back weeks. The 49ers desperately need to get the running game going again.
With the running game shutdown, this has forced the 49ers to abandon the pounding the rock twice in 2 weeks and put the pressure on Kaepernick’s shoulders. In Seattle, Gore barely got started with 16 yds in 9 carries, however today Gore had 82 yds in 11 carries yet the 49ers still got away from the run in the 2nd half. It is imperative the 49ers regain the confidence in their style of offense. A successful running game will open up the passing lanes for Kaepernick. The 49ers must force safeties to cheat and come up to stop the run to exploit the defense with Kap’s arm. Without this, the 49ers will have a long month ahead of them. It’s still early, but the 49ers are already 2 games behind Seattle in the division, with a visit on a short week to Rams on thursday ahead. The adjustments need to be made now. It feels like a must-win in St. Louis for a team with Superbowl or bust aspirations.