Headway on third down?

When Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman transformed the offense during the offseason, part of their focus was to be more potent on third down. With a slew of new weapons, the 49ers showed improvement on the money down against the Cowboys.

After one week, the San Francisco 49ers are moving in the right direction when it comes to converting third downs.

It was a point of emphasis for coordinator Greg Roman’s offense this offseason after finishing 17th in the league converting 37.1 percent of third downs in 2013. San Francisco converted seven of 12 attempts in Dallas, the third-best clip of any team during the opening week.

The offense has a drastically different look at the start of 2014. Along with a healthy Michael Crabtree, the 49ers have other weapons in Stevie Johnson, Brandon Lloyd and Bruce Ellington at receiver.

Last year, the team struggled with just two receiving threats in Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis. Kyle Williams and Marlon Moore were the team’s second and third wideouts to start the year. Colin Kaepernick completed just 12 of his 27 passes to Williams and one of three to Moore, per Pro Football Focus. Both wound up playing elsewhere after being released during the regular season.

The 49ers’ offense was not hard to defend, especially on third down, with just two viable options in the passing game.

”If you get a good group of guys out there who do you double? That’s really where it starts,” Roman said. “Where’s coverage allocating itself? If people are doubling, I think we’ve all watched football games and guy’s getting doubled and the quarterback throws the ball right into it and the ball gets intercepted, that is not good for the team.”

Defenses would often bracket both Boldin and Davis with double coverage, forcing the ball to go elsewhere or into traffic.

”If people are double-covered, a lot of times you don’t want to throw it there,” Roman said. “When you’re able to distribute the ball to guys that have leverage, probably great things are going to happen.”

To be sure, the Cowboys came into Sunday’s game off the third-worst defensive season in league history, allowing 415 yards per game in 2013. Kaepernick picked it apart Sunday, completing all 12 of his targets to Boldin, Crabtree and Johnson. Both of Johnson's receptions were third-down conversions.

Part of that success came from the unknown element of the new offense. The 49ers kept things very plain in the preseason, leaving the Cowboys to defend on the fly. San Francisco used three receivers on 52 percent of their plays Sunday, way up from just 22 percent in 2013. Lloyd and Johnson received 22 and 19 snaps, respectively, rotating as the No. 3 receiver.

"I don’t think they know their role in our offense yet," Kaepernick said this week.

The Bears come to Levi’s Stadium Sunday after being stingy on third down against the Buffalo Bills in their season opening loss, allowing just four of 12 conversions.

”Colin did a great job (in Dallas),” Bears coach Marc Trestman said. “He took care of the football, he threw a couple touchdown passes, complete a high percentage of his passes. He ran the offense.”

Kaepernick finished Sunday’s game with 201 yards on 16 of 23 completions. Both his touchdown passes went to Davis.

*Statistics from Pro Football Focus were used in this report*


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