Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The numbers say the best way to help Colin Kaepernick is to alleviate the pressure he faces

If the 49ers are going to solve the problems with Colin Kaepernick and the passing game, it starts with reducing the pressure he faces.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Colin Kaepernick felt pressure on his first two interceptions against the Cardinals Sunday, kickstarting a downward spiral that led to one of the worst performances of his five-year career.

Kaepernick threw four interceptions on the day, including two that were returned for touchdowns on his first two possessions. Those two plays finished with Kaepernick on his back, courtesy of Cardinals pass rushers.

That's not to say Kaepernick wasn't to blame on either play. Kaepernick stared down tight end Vernon Davis on his first interception thrown to Justin Bethel. On the second, he held on to the ball far too long before defensive back Tyrann Mathieu undercut receiver Anquan Boldin

But to be sure, pressure on Kaepernick played a role in those plays going sour.

Through the season's first three games, Kaepernick is the most pressured quarterback in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. He's been put under duress a staggering 43 percent of his drop backs, according to PFF, which might have led to head coach Jim Tomsula's comments earlier Monday, when he noted, "We’re not a drop-back team. We’re not built that way. We’re not built like other teams."

Tomsula said improvement needed to come other areas, not just the quarterback.

"That goes from the snap to the blocking, to the routes that we're running, to throwing the football. So, I think as whole, we need to improve there," Tomsula said.

From 2011 to 2013, the three season under Jim Harbaugh when the 49ers made deep runs into the playoffs, they were typically among the league leaders in rushing attempts behind their bruising offensive line that featured three former first-round draft picks.

Now, only one of those draft picks remains in left tackle Joe Staley. Mike Iupati is now playing for the Arizona Cardinals while former right tackle Anthony Davis continues to enjoy his retirement - although he has said he expects to return to football in 2016.

The team's current offensive line was pieced together late in training camp, after the 49ers traded for new starting right guard Jordan Devey Aug. 18 for reserve tight end Asante Cleveland. According to PFF, Devey has been the league's 62nd-ranked guard (of 75). New right tackle Erik Pears was signed in the spring to be the team's back up "swing tackle," but was thrust into the starting lineup after Davis announced his retirement.

PFF's rankings haven't been kind to Pears, either. He ranks 60th of 74 tackles. And in the middle, Marcus Martin, once viewed as the top center prospect in the 2014 draft, ranks 33 of 34 qualified centers on PFF's grading scale. Martin is replacing Daniel Kilgore, who isn't eligible to return from reserve/physically unable to perform list until Oct. 22's Thursday night game against the Seattle Seahawks.

"I look at it comprehensively, collectively," Tomsula said of his team's struggling passing attack. "One of my concerns right now is not that our quarterback or our confidence level in those areas is going to go down the tubes."

Without running back Reggie Bush or receiver Bruce Ellington available the last two weeks, the 49ers struggled to find quick options to help alleviate some of the pressure on their quarterback. Bush, the league's active leader in receptions among running backs, was brought in this offseason as a viable check-down target that might prevent teams from blitzing as consistently on obvious passing downs. Bush returned to practice Wednesday after missing the last two weeks with a calf strain in preparation for the Green Bay Packers.

Kaepernick has been sacked eight times, tied for the fourth most in the league. His 71.1 passer rating is third-lowest among starting QBs.

Throughout his career, Kaepernick has been considerably worse as a passer when pressured, which was evident in 2014, when he took 52 sacks, the second most in the NFL.

Kaepernick's numbers dealing with pressure in 2015, per PFF:

Pressure Drop-backs Runs Com. % Yds Yds/Att. TD INT Sk QB Rating
No pressure 63 2 73.8% 436 7.1 1 2 0 85.1
Plays under pressure 48 10 46.7% 131 4.4 1 2 8 42.5

Kaepernick's numbers for his career:

Pressure Drop-backs Runs Com. % Yds Yds/Att. TD INT Sk QB Rating
No pressure 921 48 66.1% 6,917 8.0 40 14 0 98.9
Plays under pressure 530 83 45.6% 2,030 6.1 12 11 114 63.8

This isn't revelatory information. Quarterbacks typically struggle under pressure. But Kaepernick's numbers since taking over as starter in 2012 prove the team can't rely on him to be a productive quarterback when he's consistently pressured. And with the way the offensive line has performed, that's unlikely to change.

But the 49ers' skill position players will try.

"(Be) more decisive. Quick out of our breaks. Do things to get the ball out of his hands, get him in a rhythm," receiver Torrey Smith said. "When Kap’s in a rhythm, he’s tough to handle. We haven’t been getting in a great rhythm these past couple of games, especially when it matters the most."

Part of the issue facing the offense is the team falling behind quickly in the last two weeks. In Pittsburgh, the 49ers faced an 18-point deficit midway through the second quarter. Sunday, because of the two quick pick-6s, San Francisco was down 21-0 after Chris Johnson scored with 14:56 left in the second quarter.

The 49ers would like to be a run-oriented offense, like they were when they were having success under Harbaugh, and in the season opener against the Vikings. But early deficits have taken them away from their game plans.

"The straight up fact is we've put ourselves in a position for two weeks now where you haven't seen our (offensive game plan)," Tomsula said. "We haven't seen our offense. The rhythms and all those things, we haven't gotten to that point."


Chris Biderman is the Editor-in-Chief of Niners Digest and covers the 49ers from their headquarters in Santa Clara. Chris has been writing about the team since the spring of 2013. The Ohio State alum received his Journalism degree in 2011 and has been working in sports media since 2008. Chris, a Santa Rosa, Calif. native, is also a contributor to the Associated Press covering sports throughout the Bay Area. You can follow Chris on Twitter here.

E-mail Niners Digest:

Get updates from Niners Digest by following here and become a subscriber to receive access to premium content and analysis.

Niners Digest Top Stories