SANTA CLARA, Calif. - The 2014 version of the 49ers offense is enigmatic. And it shouldn’t be.
Coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman have preached balance. But the team’s strength has always been its physicality up front on the offensive line, particularly in the running game. With all the new weapons, why are the 49ers the league’s 19th-highest scoring offense?
Shouldn’t it be better?
The 49ers have gone game-to-game with different plans, sometimes drastically different, which yielded mixed results. It raises the question: does the offense know what it’s good at?
No team ran more over the last three seasons. This year, San Francisco, veering toward moderation, is running the ball at the eighth-highest clip in the NFL (45.55 percent), while attempting nearly seven more passes per game than in 2013.
But those numbers don’t tell the entire story. The average stats don’t show the drastic game-to-game discrepancies in offensive game plans. If Roman thinks the 49ers need to pass to win one week, they will pass, heavily. If they can take advantage of an opponent's run defense, then the game plan will be Frank Gore-centric.
”We’re never put in situations that we’re not expecting,” left tackle Joe Staley said. “If we do something in a particular week it’s because we see an advantage, it’s something that we’ve worked on all week. We’re not surprised by anything that we do.”
In wins, Colin Kaepernick is attempting 28.5 passes. In losses? 36.7.
Week 2 vs. Chicago: 34 pass attempts
Week 3 at Arizona: 37 pass attempts
Week 7 at Denver: 39 pass attempts (Blaine Gabbert added 7 in garbage time)*
Week 1 at Dallas: 23 pass attempts
Week 4 vs. Philadelphia: 30 pass attempts
Week 5 vs. Kansas City: 26 pass attempts
Week 6 at St. Louis: 35 pass attempts
*The 42-17 drubbing by the Broncos was the 49ers’ only loss where they didn’t have the lead at halftime.
It’s no surprise San Francisco is passing more. They upgraded their receiving personnel drastically, with wideouts Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd making contributions in their limited time behind Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree.
”You always try to take advantage of what your personnel does and what your players on the team do well, the advantages, the match ups as well, week-to-week,” Staley said. “I think it’s something that’s always changing and it’s hard to compare year to year, different personnel.”
The new personnel has improved the passing game significantly, and the numbers are also a product of passing more in volume. The 49ers are averaging 45 more passing yards per game. And Kaepernick is also completing passes at the highest rate of his career (64 percent). That’s without a consistently healthy Vernon Davis at tight end.
The new personnel has given the offense the opportunity to get more creative with more spread looks and multi-receivers sets than the past. Although Roman would debate the idea the 49ers’ offense is more complicated than last season.
”I mean, really, the illusion of doing more things...(I) don’t buy into the fact that we’re really doing that many more things. We’re probably doing less things,” Roman said. “But that might change this week. You never know.”
It’s a weird statement from Roman, to be sure, considering the personnel groupings this season are far different than his offenses of the last three years that have been so tight-end and run-centric. But he went on to add a little bit of seasoning to the idea the 49ers are actually “doing less things” on offense.
“We’ve gotten in empty (backfield) quite a bit. Just now, we’ve got different guys getting out there on empty. It’s the same plays, same quarterback read. Guys are running the routes they might run out of one-back or two-back. Same thing, just moving the shells around,” he said.
With all this, the running game, typically the team’s bread and butter, has not been stellar in 2014.
It may not seem like much, but it’s significant. A declining running game - due mostly to a lack of cohesion of a turn-style offensive line - might be the most concerning aspect of the offense’s first seven games.
That idea, however, spurs the 'chicken-or-the-egg' conversation. Is the running game less effective because the 49ers are running the ball less? Or are the 49ers passing more because the running game is less effective?
The team’s projected starting offensive line has played just a quarter together all season (the first quarter in Week 4 against Philadelphia, before right tackle Anthony Davis left with a knee/ankle injury), the cohesion has not been there as it has in the past. During the team’s Super Bowl run in 2012, the starting unit was intact for the entire season.
The same could be said for last year, except for a four-game absence from left guard Mike Iupati in the middle portion of the schedule with a knee injury.
”We’ve been very fortunate. That’s not the norm,” Staley said. “...We adapt.”
This year, Davis has made just two starts, and is slated to start consecutive games for the first time Sunday. Right guard Alex Boone missed the entire offseason program and was a backup Week 1. First year starting center Daniel Kilgore is being replaced by rookie Marcus Martin after breaking his ankle against the Broncos. Davis’ replacement at right tackle, Jonathan Martin, struggle with consistency. Staley is the only offensive lineman that has made every start.
”We’ve had little things here and there every single game,” said Staley. “But we’ve done a lot of things well too. So this whole thing is a process...It’s a week-to-week thing. We continue to improve, continue to put our head down and work. We think we have enough talent.”
The balance is delicate. Perhaps the improved passing attack will open things up on the ground in San Francisco’s remaining nine games. And perhaps the offensive line will be healthier and show more cohesion than it did before the bye week.
We might have a better sense after Sunday’s game against the Rams. Or, we might get another disjointed performance making us wonder what exactly this offense is really good at.
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