Diagnosing 49ers red-zone ailments

The 49ers' head-scratching struggles in the red zone have been the team's most glaring weak point in 2014. We take a look at what's gone wrong and see what Jim Harbaugh's team can do to improve down the stretch to get back to the playoffs.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Here’s what we know about red zone statistics:

They can be emblematic of both overall success and failure of an offense. They can tell the truth. They can lie. They can be a product of a single issue, or many. It's why diagnosing a team's struggles in the scoring area can be a difficult task.

Indeed, as the San Francisco 49ers know all too well, success (or lake there of) in the red zone can be the difference between championships and abject failure.

In 2014, San Francisco is struggling there, for a variety of reasons.

What do the numbers say?

Jim Harbaugh and coordinator Greg Roman’s offense is 31st in the NFL (second to last) scoring touchdowns on 39.39 percent of their chances from the 19-yard line and in. That’s bad. And it’s down from 53.03 percent last season (14th in the league, tied with Seattle, oddly enough).

Red-zone scoring has been a core issue in two of the team’s four losses: Week 2 versus Chicago and Week 9’s home loss to the Rams. In the heated playoff race in the NFC, those two losses could have massive implications, not only for the team, but perhaps Harbaugh’s tenure as head coach.

Improving in the red zone was a point of emphasis in the offseason. And it's one of the few areas the 49ers are markedly worse compared to last year's team. It's strange, because San Francisco hasn't taken many steps backward with Harbaugh at the helm.

Why are the 49ers struggling in the red zone?

Offseasons allow opposing defensive coordinators time to break down their next season’s opponents play for play, designing schemes to take away their top scoring options. This year, two vital red-zone threats from 2013 have been glaringly neutralized: Colin Kaepernick’s legs and tight end Vernon Davis.

Davis had eight red zone touchdowns in the regular season last year. He has one this season coming from 2 yards out in Week 1’s win over Dallas. The former Pro-Bowler has dealt with nagging injuries to his ankle and back since.

Last year, Kaepernick had three rushing scores inside 19 yards, and another from the 20 (considered outside the red zone). He is still waiting for his first rushing touchdown of 2014. He had five rushing TDs in the red area in his first seven starts in 2012.

Through 10 games, the 49ers have just five rushing touchdowns coming inside the red zone. Through the same number of games in 2013, San Francisco had 12.

”Point production, obviously we’ve got to produce more points. We know that,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said this week. “And, when you really look at it, we just had too many negative plays. So, I’ve got to do a better job of coaching and we’ll do a better job of executing and get that right.”

In last week’s 16-10 win over the Giants, San Francisco scored just 3 points off five Eli Manning interceptions. Their only TD came on a 48-yard run and catch from Michael Crabtree in the third quarter.

The 49ers hit two field goals on four red zone attempts. Their two other trips: a first-quarter fumble from Frank Gore and a kneel down to end the game. Phil Dawson made two field goals from outside the red zone (37 and 44 yards) in the second quarter.

“I thought there was a lot of things beyond the point total that were very, very positive from that game and much improved from prior games,” Roman said.

Only two players had receiving touchdowns for the 49ers last year in Anquan Boldin and Davis. This year, seven different players have caught TD passes. That alone should mean San Francisco is drastically improved in the red area. But that's not the case.

Red zone production, at least for San Francisco, starts with the running game

Combined, Gore, Kaepernick and rookie Carlos Hyde are averaging 2.37 yards per carry in the red zone. In 2013, replacing Hyde’s numbers with Kendall Hunter and Anthony Dixon, the team’s key ball carriers averaged 3.07 yards per rush.

That’s a significant decrease of 23 percent for the running game, which is in lockstep with the bigger picture depicting red-zone struggles.

“We’ve been seeing a lot more loaded fronts because they do want us to throw the ball in the red zone,” fullback Bruce Miller said. “I think what a lot of teams want you to do with the field being shortened and not having the space to open it up, they want to take away the run game in the red zone. I think that’s definitely an objective for defenses.”

Gore is averaging just 1.9 yards per carry in the red zone and has 15 red-zone carries to Hyde’s 16. The rookie is averaging 3.1 yards per carry.

Over the last three season’s, much of the 49ers’ success has been predicated on the play of their tight ends. Davis has been arguably the offense’s most important piece because of his ability to block in the running game, which sets things up down field in the passing game.

And because Davis hasn’t been targeted since Week 1 in the red zone, it’s effecting the 49ers’ red zone production in a drastic way.

”When you go back and look at it, you got to stop Vernon in the red zone,” Miller said of opposing defenses. “You can’t let him catch the ball down there or he’s going to score. So it’s another point of emphasis for them - not letting him get loose down there because he has so often. We have a lot of other guys that we’re trying to get the ball to in the red zone. It just hasn’t matched up like it did last year.”

When pressed about Davis’ lack of production, Harbaugh pulled out one of his go-to analogies Friday.

“I just feel like he’s ready to break out. I really do,” Harbaugh said. “You use the old olive jar analogy. The olives are packed in there real tight and you open up the lid and you can’t get any to come out. You can even dump it upside down and it doesn’t come out. But if you get that one to come out, then they just want to all come out and plop out. So, I think that’s the case and I think it’s going to happen soon. Hopefully this weekend.”

What about Kaepernick’s passing?

Statistically, Kaepernick has been more efficient in the red zone this season as a passer.

His passer rating this season is 107.6 compared to last year’s 92.9. That’s mostly because Kaepernick threw two red-area interceptions in 2013. Take those away and last year’s passer rating climbs to 109.23.

Kaepernick hasn’t thrown an interception in the red zone this season. He’s completing his passes a better clip (61 percent to 56 percent).

And considering his favorite red zone target, Davis, has been a non-factor, Kaepernick’s numbers aren’t all that terrible. But he is the player with the ball in his hands, making the calls at the line and ultimately deciding what to do in those key situations.

No one at 49ers head quarters is willing to pin the team’s red zone struggles on the quarterback, including Miller, who believes a few more well-executed blocks on critical plays have been the difference between this year versus 2013.

”If we just get the guy blocked, we have easy touchdowns and that’s kind of the way it’s been falling for us lately...one guy here, one guy there,” Miller said. “...You just got to be more exact in the red zone. You got to be more precise. You got to block a guy and you got to make throws.”

Next story:

Dorsey, Davis ruled out against

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