Chris Biderman covers the 49ers for Scout.com's Niners Digest.
The only Colin Kaepernick I've really seen is the one who destroys the Packers with either his arm or his legs. So what on Earth has gone wrong because he has not been that guy. And bigger picture, is he the guy for the long haul?
The question surrounding Kaepernick over the last year or so has been whether or not he can develop as a franchise quarterback that can elevate his team when other areas might be lacking. In the early going, it’s beginning to look like Kaepernick can’t succeed without a very good offensive line. And because the defense isn’t playing at a level close to what it was over the last four seasons, he’s been forced to play catch-up in the first half of games. Clearly, that’s against the design of the offense. The 49ers want to be a running team, like they were when they went to three straight conference title games from 2011 to 2013 under Jim Harbaugh. Playing from behind isn’t going to allow them to do that.
The offensive line lost two former first-round picks in right tackle Anthony Davis (retirement) and left guard Mike Iupati (signed with Arizona). Add the loss of starting center Daniel Kilgore, who is on PUP while recovering from a fractured lower leg, and there are three replacement players starting on the offensive line. Former right guard Alex Boone moved to the left side, making left tackle Joe Staley the only player on the O-line playing the same position as he did a year ago. The offensive line has helped make Kaepernick the most pressured quarterback in the NFL (43 percent of dropbacks), according to our friends at Pro Football Focus. Throughout his career, Kaepernick has a 98.9 passer rating when he’s not pressured, with that number diving to 63.8 when pressured, according to PFF. I wrote about that this week.
To be sure, there are plenty of things Kaepernick can do to make things easier on himself. He could be better at making pre-snap adjustments when blitzes are coming. He could find his checkdowns quicker and get rid of the ball faster. Accuracy, on all his throws, has been hit or miss throughout his career. But for him to be succeed, the offensive line has to improve. But given the lack of talent there, it seems like that’s a long shot, which is a big problem for San Francisco’s offense.
The running game seems to be strong, though, at least based on the numbers. Could you tell us about that success, considering this is a different group with running back Frank Gore in Indy, guard Mike Iupati in Arizona and tackle Anthony Davis watching from the couch in retirement.
With the loss of those linemen, the 49ers have switched up from a downhill, power-running scheme to more of a zone-blocking look, which fits new starter Carlos Hyde very well. That’s the system that Hyde ran at Ohio State that led to much of his success. He’s averaging 4.9 yards per carry, despite the offensive line struggling to create holes and cutback lanes.
Kaepernick is second on the team with 23 rushing attempts, signaling a return of the read option that made him so dangerous in the first place. The 49ers had a lot of success in Week 1 against the Vikings, when Hyde ran for 168 yards and two scores, but he’s been mostly bottled up since. In addition, the 49ers have found themselves down by three scores in the second quarter of their last two games.
Hyde has the talent to be a top-tier running back. He’s third in the NFL with 262 yards rushing through three weeks, despite missing the second half of Week 2’s loss in Pittsburgh to get checked for a concussion, which he tested negative. I’d expect Hyde to the focus of the offense going forward, particularly Sunday, when the 49ers try to do everything they can to keep Aaron Rodgers off the field.
For my readers who aren't tuned into the NFL 24/7, can you give a Cliff's Notes story of Jarryd Hayne.
Hayne’s a pretty remarkable story. I’ve been told by Australian media members covering the 49ers that Hayne was the Rugby League equivalent of LeBron James. After winning the equivalent of two league MVPs, he suddenly left Australia to pursue a career in the NFL. He signed with San Francisco in the spring, with many of us thinking it was a novelty story and he was likely to wind up on the practice squad. Nope.
Hayne turned out to be an electric punt returner, averaging more than 18 yards on nine returns in the preseason. He also finished second in the league in preseason rushing yards, proving to be a quick study as a running back. Over the first two weeks, he was Hyde’s primary backup because of Reggie Bush’s calf strain. Considering Hayne's been playing organized football for less than six months, it’s pretty remarkable he’s found a role on an NFL roster.
He played fullback for the Parramatta Eels in the NRL (do not call him a rugby player, or else the Aussie’s will get very salty. He played in Rugby League, which is very different, I’ve been told repeatedly). He’s got very quick feet and is very elusive in space. He also has very good hands when it comes to fielding punts, despite muffing his first attempt in the opener.
According to the Aussie press, Hayne’s transition to the 49ers is far and a away the biggest sports story of the year Down Under.
The defense is almost unrecognizable, with Patrick Willis, Chris Borland and Justin Smith having retired. Is it purely a lack of talent that's holding back that unit? Or are there pieces in place once they mature into those roles?
It seems like their problems are a combination of personnel and scheme. With all those retirements, the 49ers are asking a number of players that have been in the system to step into prominent roles. Early on, the adjustment hasn’t been going to plan under new coordinator Eric Mangini. Also, the scheme is vastly different from former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who went 4-0 against Rodgers during his tenure working under Harbaugh.
With such a talented defense, the 49ers didn’t have to blitz Rodgers to consistently generate pressure. Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith could muster enough pressure to keep Rodgers on his toes, allowing the defense to keep seven men in coverage, including speedy linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman patrolling the middle of the field.
But without all that production in the front seven, Mangini is dialing up blitzes at a far more frequent rate than Fangio ever did, allowing quarterbacks to find weak spots in the defense. The team’s inexperienced cornerbacks are left on an island, while safeties are playing closer to the line of scrimmage, frequently disguising blitzes and coverages instead of playing center field, as they did frequently under Fangio.
To this point, it hasn’t worked, and the 49ers have been picked apart. The frequent blitzing has led to zone coverages in the back end, which Carson Palmer and Ben Roethlisberger had no issues with. Palmer, in particular, had a very easy time finding the soft spots in those zone coverages. The other issue is the pass rush, which has been virtually nonexistent. The 49ers’ base defensive line in their 3-4 features three players — Glenn Dorsey, Ian Williams and Quinton Dial — who are far better at stuffing the run than they are at getting after the passer.
Meanwhile, the team’s best pass rushers are their outside linebackers, Brooks and Aaron Lynch, who have been dropped into pass coverage far more frequently this season as a result of the complicated blitzing scheme.
It’s much like the offense’s reliance on a crummy offensive line. The defense hasn’t been successful because it hasn’t been able to get after the quarterback with any consistency. The big theme for the 49ers, aside from all the Kaepernick discussion, has been getting crushed at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball over the last two games.
What is the state of the state in San Fran? There was the ugly divorce with Jim Harbaugh, a wave of retirements and a couple of ugly losses. New coach Jim Tomsula is already talking votes of confidence and it seems like the fans want the team to tank so they can draft a quarterback. From the waaaay outside, this doesn't seem like an easy fix. You would know better than myself, obviously.
At some point, someone will write a book about the 49ers and all the drama that’s gone on over the last five years. The biggest issue locally has been the front office’s message and its inability to control it. Fans feel alienated because it spent all sorts of money to get seat licenses for the new stadium after being promised the team would be a perennial contender when the new stadium was built with Harbaugh at the helm.
The team’s CEO said after parting with Harbaugh, “We expect to win the Super Bowl every year, that’s our goal.” With that, it’s been difficult for the fan base to rally behind the organization after cutting ties with a head coach that went to three straight conference title games and a Super Bowl. And given the results of the first three weeks, fans are fearing another long playoff drought, like the one that preceded Harbaugh. The 49ers went eight seasons without a playoff appearance after firing Steve Mariucci after 2002.
To be sure, no one outside the organization really knows how bad things were with Harbaugh internally. And after finishing last season 8-8, there’s reason to believe the 49ers would have regressed in 2015 whether Harbaugh was around or not, given all the turnover on the roster. There’s plenty of reason to believe Harbaugh’s issues extending into the locker room, not just the front office.
For now, the front office is hoping young players can step into prominent voids left by some of those key veterans. But for now, the transition period hasn’t been going all that well. Getting outscored 90-25 over the last two weeks says it all.