Sunday’s contest between the San Francisco 49ers and Carolina Panthers featured not just the return of linebacker Aldon Smith and wide receiver Mario Manningham but also heightened expectations for the 49ers’ offense that was ranked dead last in passing in the NFL. Manningham’s presence was expected to bolster the 49ers’ weak wide receiving corps. After the poor offensive display in yesterday’s 10-9 loss to the Panthers, the 49ers’ problems clearly go far beyond the lack of depth at wide receiver.
The 49ers’ offense produced many disheartening statistics against the Panthers: Colin Kaepernick, who completed just 11 of 22 passes for 91 yards, 0 touchdowns, and one interception, was sacked six times. The offense gained a total of 10 first downs and converted only 2 of 13 third downs: The 49ers also turned the ball over twice. Running back Frank Gore, one of the few bright spots, had 16 carries for 82 yards, as well as 2 receptions for 21 yards. Catches by 49ers’ receivers were few and far between, however. Manningham and Anquan Boldin each had 3 catches, while Vernon Davis, who left the game due to a concussion, had just one catch.
Davis’ injury was one of many that compounded the poor offensive effort. Rookie safety Eric Reid left the game with apparently his second concussion of the season and may not play against the 49ers’ next opponent, the New Orleans Saints. Defensive tackle Ray McDonald, already dealing with a biceps injury, left the game with an injured ankle. Tight end Garrett Celek also hurt his hamstring.
With the injuries to Celek and Davis, rookie tight end Vance McDonald played 42 snaps, significantly more than he normally gets. However, despite this high number of snaps, he was only targeted twice and made no catches. This highly rated player was expected to do well for the 49ers but has failed to make any significant contributions. The same is true of running back LaMichael James, who has been healthy yet inactive the last few weeks. James finally saw action on special teams, replacing Kyle Williams on punt returns, and averaged 11.7 yards on 3 returns. Despite his solid performance on special teams, James played on only 3 offensive snaps.
This lack of production on offense has been an ongoing problem this season but especially so against the Panthers. The root cause of the problem is unclear. Are the 49ers’ coaches unable to effectively use their personnel? Has Kaepernick failed to develop chemistry with anyone outside of Boldin and Davis? Is offensive coordinator Greg Roman struggling with the play calling? Perhaps the answer is a combination of all of those factors.
Many thought the return of Manningham would provide the spark the 49ers’ offense has needed. But even with Manningham on the field, Kaepernick struggled. Losing Davis seemed to make Kaepernick’s struggles worse. Now Davis and other 49ers’ players may be out for Sunday’s game against the Saints. The 49ers, now two games back of the Seattle Seahawks, need a win to work towards a earning a wild card spot in the playoffs. The 49ers still have a small chance at the NFC West title, but with the growing injury list and sputtering offense, the team’s chances to overtake the Seahawks seem bleak.
Sara DeBord is an NFL writer for www.footballandfutbol.com and www.baysportsreport.com.