Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers' Offense

We take a second look at the matchups when the 49er are on offense. Will the read-option be a big part of San Francisco's offense? What can Colin Kaepernick do for an encore after breaking out late last season? And do the 49ers have "no" receivers, as one scout suggested?

Bill Huber of Packer Report and Chris Biderman of Niners Digest go Behind Enemy Lines as part of our in-depth coverage leading up to Sunday's season-opening showdown. In Part 2, it's our second look at San Francisco's offense against Green Bay's defense.

BILL HUBER: The Packers' spin about the read-option is that they weren't caught with their pants down so much as the 49ers "fell into something" that worked for them, and they rode it to the Super Bowl. Do you buy that?

CHRIS BIDERMAN: I would say there's some truth to that. The offense they ran and the way they ran it were largely unknowns at that point. The Packers couldn't have caught the 49ers at a worse time. That being said, they had no answers from a schematic standpoint. This game will be emblematic of the entire league's focus this offseason to stop the read-option. But will the 49ers use it the same way? They won the NFC Championship Game and came close in the Super Bowl without using designed quarterback runs. Based on what we've seen from Kaepernick in training camp, it seems that trend will continue into this season. They will still show it on occasion, but won't use the same volume they did in the divisional round because defenses will have a better idea how to stop it.

But what the pistol formation does is allow the 49ers to utilize a numbers advantage toward either side of the field. They come to the line of scrimmage with two plays called and check to whatever they believe the defense dictates. If a team is hedging an outside linebacker or defensive end, then they'll look to pound the ball inside with Frank Gore. If that hedger bites on the inside, then Kaepernick might keep it.

One thing to watch is the adjustment with the loss of tight end Delanie Walker. Although Walker was hit-or-miss in the passing game, he was incredibly useful in multiple formations because of his speed and ability to block. With him in Tennessee, they haven't found a replacement with that same skill-set. Rookie second-rounder Vance McDonald projects as a very good No. 2 tight end, but he's more suited as a passing target than the versatile blocker Walker had been.

BILL: Colin Kaepernick had a great second season. With a year of seasoning, will he be a better quarterback now than last year?

Kaepernick ran through the Packers.
Kirby Lee - USA Today Sports
CHRIS: In his first two seasons, Kaepernick wasn't regarded as a good practice player, which caused a lot of concern when Jim Harbaugh made the switch last year. From what we've seen in training camp, he's appeared to turn that around. The biggest difference has been his rapport with Vernon Davis. The two struggled to get on the same page initially after Davis had spent his entire career with Alex Smith. This summer, they appear to be working in harmony in ways they weren't in 2012. Most of the plays that were effective for Kaepernick and Davis came when they were able to find soft spots in the defense and get Davis open in space. This training camp, Davis has been the team's top deep target, particularly on deep seam routes. There have been multiple plays in which Kaepernick threw Davis open to different sides of the field based on the coverage. That rarely, if ever, happened with Smith. He's too fast for linebackers and too physical for most safeties. Everyone around the organization believes Davis is primed for a huge season. The offense is finally able to use his speed after Smith struggled to make explosive plays for so many years — where Kaepernick excels.

Greg Roman's offense should also help Kaepernick's development. It's constantly evolving and quarterback-friendly despite its complexities. The 49ers aren't a team that will line up four or five wide and force the quarterback to make decisions after the snap. Much of the offense is determined pre-snap with relatively simple reads. That being said, Kaepernick's ability to make progressions might have been the biggest surprise about his 2012 season.

As always, a quarterback's best friend is his offensive line, which should be even better than it was a season ago. Although LaMichael James will spend the first few weeks on the shelf, the running game will be more diverse. James wasn't on the active 46 until Kendall Hunter tore his Achilles in Week 12. With the contrasting styles of Frank Gore, Hunter and James paired with the physical offensive line, San Francisco's running game projects to be one of the league's best again, which will help take the onus off the young quarterback.

BILL: I talked to a scout the other day who said the 49ers had "no receivers." Obviously, losing Crabtree and even Manningham are big losses, but is Boldin up to the task of carrying the load? Is there a legit No. 2?

CHRIS: There's no doubt the receiving corps is the biggest question mark heading into the season. Without Anquan Boldin, the 49ers would be in big trouble at the position. But they're spinning it as if they like what they have. Crabtree finally emerged as one of the better young receivers in the NFC last year. Although Boldin is at a different point in his career, they do similar things. Based on what we've seen in training camp between Boldin and Kaepernick, there could be less of a drop-off than people anticipate.

They won't have a true No. 2 receiver until Manningham (PUP list) comes back at some point after Week 6, and maybe Crabtree later if he's able to return from his torn Achilles. Until then, they will work in a number of guys based on the situation. Kyle Williams, who was lost with a torn ACL in Week 12 of last year, will have a Randall Cobb-type role. Despite whatever is said about him because of his fumbles two years ago in the NFC title game, Williams will be a valuable addition to the offense and provides a skill-set that no one on the team can replicate. But the fourth-year player hasn't had more than 20 catches in a season. Otherwise, Jon Baldwin is the most experienced option. The rest of the group has combined for 12 career catches, and all of them belong to Marlon Moore — who was originally brought in as a special teamer this spring. But he has shown better-than-expected receiving skills in camp, but whether he can contribute regularly is something their waiting to find out.

The 49ers punted on last season's first-round pick, A.J. Jenkins, and sent him to Kansas City for Baldwin, another disappointing first-rounder. Even with his rough start with the Chiefs, Baldwin exemplifies the big, physical receiver the team is coveting to combat the physicality of Seattle's secondary. If he can turn things around, it would be a huge boon for San Francisco. But he's still learning the system and might not even be active in the early going. They like the possibilities of his size (6-foot-4) and 42-inch vertical leap.

The wild card is fourth-round pick Quinton Patton, who didn't catch passes in the first three weeks of training camp while dealing with a badly jammed finger. But he was still an active participant. He came back and scored two touchdowns in his first two preseason games with the first-team offense. Patton's measurables don't exactly jump off the page, but he was quietly one of the nation's most productive receivers at Louisiana Tech. He combined for 183 catches, 2,594 yards and 24 touchdowns in two seasons there. He has a knack for getting open and making plays with the ball in his hands. There's a chance he's the team's second-best receiver with Crabtree and Manningham out.

There was a point early on in training camp when Chad Hall (since cut and signed by Kansas City) and Moore were the second and third-best receiving options outside of Boldin. But that's changed with the emergence of Patton and the return of Williams. Another player to keep in mind is Davis, who could see more action split wide this season than at any point in the past.


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