SANTA CLARA, Calif. - What’s the biggest hindrance to the 49ers offense this season? It’s the running game. And it's leading to struggles with play action, which has been a foundational staple of the offense over the last three seasons.
The rushing attack has been in steady decline since Colin Kaepernick took over the offense midway through 2012. That year, San Francisco averaged 5.1 yards per carry. Last year? 4.4.
In 2014 the 49ers are averaging exactly 4.0 yards per carry. Their ranking in that area over fell from 2nd in 2012, to 9th last year, to 23rd this season.
A makeshift offensive line has been one of the culprits, particularly at right tackle with Jonathan Martin making seven starts and Anthony Davis struggling to get healthy. And having a 20-year-old center in rookie Marcus Martin will have an adverse affect, as well.
"I think we’ve evolved a little bit in what we’re doing this year with all of the guys in and out of the lineup. I do think we’ve simplified things quite a bit. That can be an advantage, but it can also be a disadvantage as well," offensive coordinator Greg Roman said.
"I definitely think in this league, which is a copycat league, when you’re successful, every team studies you and you need to evolve and move forward as well. I think that’s definitely part of the equation."
Vernon Davis’ absentee season is also a major factor in the 49ers’ tight-end centric offense. Not only are his numbers down, but he hasn’t been himself as a blocker, which has been a very important part of his game over the last three seasons. Davis has 23 catches for 210 yards and 2 touchdowns. His yards per catch are down from 16.3 to 9.1.
The inability to run has hurt San Francisco’s passing game in a big way, despite Kaepernick’s seeing career highs in completion percentage and yards per game this season.
The use of play action, which influenced the offense heavily in the past, is down significantly, as is the production of those play-action plays.
Kaepernick’s numbers using play action over the last two seasons, courtesy of our friends at Pro Football Focus:
2013: Usage: 28.1 percent - completion percentage 61.3 - 11 TDs - 1 INT - 116.4 passer rating
2014: Usage: 19.3 percent - completion percentage 49.3 - 4 TDs - 1 INT - 85.9 passer rating
In 2013, 11 of Kaepernick’s 21 touchdowns and 32 percent of his yardage came on play action. This year, play action has yielded 4 of his 15 touchdowns and just 18 percent of his yardage.
”I think there’s a little bit of everything,” Roman said, ”but I don’t think we’re getting what we need to out of play action game and think we need to do a better job there starting with me.”
Play action can also help the running game. The threat of Kaepernick pulling the ball out of the running back’s gut to set up a deep pass often makes defenders a half-step slow when defending the run, giving the back more room to operate.
“Oh, it all works together,” Roman said. “It’s all one. It all works together, yes.”
Frank Gore is averaging under 4.0 yards a carry for the first time in his career, and is on pace for fewer than 1,000 yards for just the third time in his 10 seasons.
Roman has been the target of criticism for the 49ers offensive failings all season after coming into the year with high expectations. San Francisco came into the year with its deepest array of weapons since Jim Harbaugh became head coach in 2011, adding wideouts Stevie Johnson and Brandon to join a healthy Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin.
The team’s 164-yard performance Thanksgiving night against the Seahawks keyed a tweet from general manager Trent Baalke’s daughter Cassie, which has since been deleted, saying “Greg Roman can take a hike..the 49ers don’t want you no more.” Baalke and his daughter have since apologized to Roman for the social media outburst.
”It was very concise, very clear," Roman said of the apology. "I have children. I understand. And, we talked about it briefly and it’s over, and period. It’s really a non-issue."