The numbers say the 49ers offense is much better than a year ago, but coordinator Greg Roman’s unit has been plagued by inconsistencies. It’s clear the 49ers are struggling to figure out what they’re good at, and that starts up front with the offensive line. Before we get into our bye week grades, here are the statistics.
Total Offense (NFL Rank)
Scoring: 22.6 (16th)
Yards per game: 357.4 (14th)
Yards per play: 5.4 (19th)
Third-down conversion: 43% (12th)
Red-Zone scoring (TD): 43.5% (27th)
Completion percentage: 63% (20th)
Yards per game: 232.3 (17th)
Attempts per game: 33.1 (21st)
INT rate: 2.16% (13th)
Sack rate: 7.57% (27th)
Rushing play rate: 45.55% (8th)
Rushing attempts per game: 30 (7th)
Yards per carry: 4.2 (14th)
Rush yards per game: 125.1 (11th)
A few notes: The 49ers are throwing the ball more this year, as expected given their new-and-improved receiving corps featuring a healthy Michael Crabtree, the ever-reliable Anquan Boldin, three-time 1,000-yard wideout Stevie Johnson, and acrobatic veteran Brandon Lloyd.
But in the games where they’ve relied heavily on the passing game, attempting 30 or more, they’re 1-3, including last week’s 42-17 loss to the Broncos. While it’s important to be balanced on offense, the 49ers have veered on the ends of the spectrum. In some games, they will abandon the run almost entirely, and in others they will establish Frank Gore early and often.
Judging by the results, it looks as though the 49ers are stretching themselves too thin by trying to wear too many hats, instead of just sticking with what they’re good at. Last year, the team would often run the ball against loaded fronts. When they see loaded fronts this year, they’re far more likely to pass.
Whether that’s because of a newly-gained faith in Colin Kaepernick (who has the best numbers of his career across the board), or a lack of confidence in an offensive line that’s struggled to find cohesion, it’s perplexing. San Francisco has plenty of talent and is in the fourth year of Roman and Jim Harbaugh’s system. The results haven't been what the team would like to this point.
That being said, they are still 4-3, well in the thick of the playoff race and have a much more favorable schedule going forward. If the season ended today, San Francisco would be the No. 6 seed, following Sunday's slate of games. Let’s take a look at the grades through the first seven games based on our (*unscientific*) 100-point scale.
Offensive line: 74
The reasoning: Despite having one of the most talented groups in the league, the 49ers’ offensive line has struggled. Kaepernick has been pressured 82 times and sacked 14, both the sixth-most in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.
And take away Kaepernick’s 49 runs for 260 yards, the 49ers are averaging just 3.83 yards per carry, proving the offensive line isn’t blocking as well in the running game as well as it has in the past.
There are a few factors at play. First: cohesion. Right guard Alex Boone missed all of training camp. Right tackle Anthony Davis missed most of camp and has made just two starts this year while dealing with hamstring, knee and ankle injuries. First-year starter at center Daniel Kilgore was off to a good start, but broke his ankle in last week’s game and is gone for the season. Left tackle Joe Staley was excellent against the Chiefs, but hasn’t had a season that lives up to his lofty standards. And it looks like left guard Mike Iupati still isn’t completely recovered from his ankle injury sustained in last year’s conference title game.
Inserting rookie third-round pick Marcus Martin is going to be a challenge, but the upside is there. He was viewed by many as the best center available in May’s draft and played well in the preseason when healthy. But Martin is just 20 and will have a steep learning curve.
Running backs: 86
The reasoning: Despite the yardage totals not being overly impressive, the 49ers running backs have done well despite the offensive line not being as effective this season. Frank Gore is eighth in the league in rushing and averaging 4.1 yards per carry. He came into training camp in great shape and has run well through the first seven games.
Gore’s backup, rookie Carlos Hyde, has struggled to get in a rhythm early on. He’s averaging just 3.4 yards per carry. He runs very hard. The holes just haven’t been there. That could be due to Hyde running at a much different pace than Gore. He hits the hole quickly, while Gore tends to be more patient and pick his spots.
A ket contributor to this solid grade for the position is fullback Bruce Miller, who has been very good leading the way for Gore and Hyde when given the chance. The 49ers have used 11 personnel at a much more frequent rate in 2014, which means Miller is more frequently on the sideline. When he plays, he plays well.
Tight Ends: 72
The reasoning: the tight end play has not been good for the 49ers this season. Vernon Davis has battled injuries, leading to two of his worst performances in years over the last two weeks. Vance McDonald has done little in his second year to show improvement from last season, although he continues to be a good blocker in the running game. But his fumble culminating his 21-yard catch in the first half against St. Louis was unacceptable. Derek Carrier has shown signs of improvement, but has done it in limited snaps.
There’s nowhere to go but up for the tight ends. Davis is one of the players that will benefit most from the bye week. It’s clear his back was nowhere close to 100 percent over the last two weeks. If he can return to his typical form, the red zone numbers could improve dramatically.
Wide receivers: 84
There has been some very good play at the position, mostly from Boldin, Johnson and Lloyd. But there have also been inconsistencies. Boldin’s first-half drop of an easy touchdown pass in Denver stands out. As does Crabtree’s team-leading five drops.
Crabtree hasn’t gotten off to the start he would like in his contract year, but still has time to turn things around.
Johnson has been outstanding in his limited use. He has 25 catches despite playing 153 snaps (Crabtree has played 361 snaps and has 32 grabs). Lloyd has brought the much-needed deep threat the team has needed, making key catches against the Chiefs and Rams.
The reasoning: With the exception of the loss to Chicago in Week 2, Kaepernick has put together a very strong season. Sure, he still decides where the ball is going before the snap too often, stares down receivers and overreacts to pressure at times, but his accuracy and decision making have improved from last year.
The quarterback is always the first to blame when things don’t work. But Kaepernick has not been the one developing game plans and calling plays. That responsibility falls on his coaches. And things become much harder when the offensive line isn’t playing as well as it needs to for the offense to be multidimensional.
Pace out Kaepernick’s numbers and he’s on pace for 3,929 passing yards and 25 touchdowns, while completing a career-high 64 percent of his passes. There’s a chance Kaepernick gets to 4,000 yards this year, which hasn’t been done by a 49ers QB since Jeff Garcia in 2000.
Kaepernick’s best game of the year came against the Rams on Monday night, and he was very good in the first half against the Broncos. But he made a bad mistake on his third-quarter interception to Aqib Talib. He has to improve in the red zone.
It’s not always pretty with Kaepernick. But the blame for the offense’s inconsistencies deserve to go elsewhere.
*Statistics from Pro Football Focus were used in this report*
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