In search of the Big O

The precocious star-to-be tight end is knocking on the coach's door during the players' off day. The starting quarterback's talking about the frustration of leaving plays and opportunities out on the field. The first-year offensive coordinator says nobody's happy and the inconsistency on his unit has to be corrected. Welcome to the 49ers, first in the NFC West but last in the NFL in total offense.

Naturally, there's a little disconcert to go around when a NFL team is averaging 190 yards per game entering Week 3 of the season. The 49ers are left to explain away that statistic – and the other ugly offensive numbers that go along with it – because they have put such an unsightly set of warts on their otherwise gorgeous 2-0 start.

They're averaging a NFL-low 3.6 yards per play, and have run off only 105 plays this season, which ranks next-to-last in the league. They're 31st in the league in first downs per game, rank 30th in time of possession and are dead last in third-down conversion rate, managing to make first downs on only 24 percent of those opportunities.

So what the heck's the problem?

"It is what it is," quarterback Alex Smith said. "We're 2-0. That's the bottom line, I think. This is the ultimate team game, and it's however you get it done. But at the same time, the offense has got to get better, and we all know that."

By most indications entering the season, the San Francisco offense was supposed to be pretty good this year. And it still might be. The 49ers' lousy offensive showing through two weeks has something to do with the flow and circumstances of their first two games, which became tight, coaching chess matches as each game wore on.

But still. If the 49ers had lost one or both of those games – and they came pretty close to that outcome both times – there would be resounding clamor about how horrible the offense is. The noise already is pretty loud as it is.

And the clamor also comes from within, sort of. For instance, Vernon Davis, one of the top young tight ends in the league, has been outspoken about not getting the ball enough, and also outspoken about how often he has been open in the passing lanes.

Expecting a breakout season, particularly after he developed such a strong rapport with Smith during offseason workouts and training camp practices, Davis has been virtually a non-factor in an offense of non-factors, catching just four passes so far for a paltry 27 yards.

Nineteen of those yards came on one play, when Davis finally got the 49ers to throw a pass to him more than a few years beyond the line of scrimmage. He turned up-field and slammed into defenders, showing his power and prowess running after the catch. It took three St. Louis Rams to bring him down at the 7-yard line, setting up San Francisco's first touchdown in last week's 17-16 victory.

The 49ers need to get him the ball more. That much is obvious. So on his day off Tuesday, Davis went strolling into coach Mike Nolan's offense to see what he could do to make that happen.

"I admired the fact that he had the courage to do it," Nolan said. "He came and said, ‘Coach, I just want to know what I can do more to get the ball.' I assured him it's a work in progress on offense and it will happen."

Nolan has been giving that assurance for two weeks now, but it certainly wasn't happening on offense against the Rams. Take away Frank Gore's 43-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-1 – a play during which Gore was actually stopped behind the line of scrimmage before making it happen on his own – and Smith's 34-yard pass to Darrell Jackson in the second quarter, the 49ers averaged only 2.3 yards a crack on their other 47 plays.

Not exactly offense becoming of a 2-0 team.

"The bottom line is it's everybody," said Jim Hostler, San Francisco's first-year offensive coordinator who has come under fire for the team's slow start out of the gate. "Everybody's got to be more consistent. Everybody's got to step up and make plays. There's a lot of opportunities on that film, as we've shown the guys, and they all understand it."

Hostler has been getting slammed on Internet message boards and by some factions of the media, but Nolan has stood behind him firmly, and nobody's starting to point fingers in the San Francisco locker room. It's way to early for that, particularly on an undefeated team.

But, as Davis said, "We just have to get the correct game plan, a good game plan. It's about game-planning. The type of game plan you use, it might not always be the best one."

The 49ers are finding that out early in the season. And that's the best time to be finding it out, particularly when it isn't costing the team victories.

"We've got to get a little bit more consistent, a little bit more rhythm, and we need more opportunities," Hostler said. "The bottom line for us is the run game just isn't going right now, and we've got to do some stuff to get them off of us when they give us eight or nine in the box."

Sounds pretty basic. But the Niners also have to take their shots. Coaches and players – well, most players at least – said the team has been taking its share of shots down the field and just hasn't been executing in those situations.

But in reality, that has not been the case. The 49ers have been keeping their offense close to the vest, and with only four points separating them from the opposition during their season-opening two-game winning streak, the Hostler era of San Francisco offense has begun conservatively, to say the least.

It was enough to beat the Cardinals and Rams and take the early lead and initiative in the NFC West. But now the 49ers journey into the big, bad AFC against a Pittsburgh team that's off to a strong 2-0 start that looks much prettier than San Francisco's.

Will bringing that conservative approach to the Steel City work this week?

"No way," Davis said.

That much seems certain. People want to know if San Francisco really is better than the NFL's worst offense, and this is a Sunday where that will need to show.


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