Through the first three games of the season, most of the 49ers' concerns have been on the offensive side of the ball.
And if there has been one theme for the 49ers' offense this season it has been their inability to stick the ball in the end zone when they had been presented with golden opportunities.
The 49ers are second in the league at forcing turnovers this season, with 11 takeaways in three games. But the offense has little to show for the great field position.
"We all saw the opportunities that we had offensively throughout the whole game in the red zone," 49ers coach Dennis Erickson said of his team's 13-12 loss to the Cleveland Browns. "We just didn't execute like we needed to. It's a number of different things. It seemed like there were breakdowns in several different areas, it just wasn't one thing.
"We are just not making plays. We will make a play and then we won't make a play. Consistency is the best way to put it. We are breaking down when we get a rush on us or we do something in the running game, whether we miss a hole or a block, or whatever the case may be. Something just seems to breakdown and we have to become better in running the football down there."
The 49ers will have to turn it around Sunday when they enter the Metrodome to face the surging Minnesota Vikings, who have opened the season with three consecutive victories.
In an environment such as this, where the 49ers will be limited in their ability to change the play at the line of scrimmage, the team will have to find a way to get the ball into the end zone rather than always settling for field goals.
The 49ers have attempted 11 field goals on their 20 trips inside the opponents' 30-yard line. They have made 10 of those field goal attempts, scored just six touchdowns and been kept off the scoreboard four times.
Receiver Terrell Owens complained after the 49ers' latest loss that he is not getting enough opportunities to make plays in the red zone. He has caught just one touchdown pass this season, while leading the 49ers with 20 receptions for 244 yards.
But when asked if Owens had a case, 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia dismissed his teammate's complaint. "No," he said flatly.
"There were plays that we called but based on the defensive coverage ... it's not like you can just call a play and say, 'We're going to throw it to T.O. in this situation.' You also have to consider what the defense is doing," Garcia said. "Unfortunately, they had the right calls for what we wanted to do and it didn't allow us to throw the ball in the end zone to T.O."
Garcia certainly has not ignored Owens this season, as 35 percent of his 105 passing attempts has been directed at the 49ers' superstar receiver. But Owens has been partly responsible, too. He has dropped some passes and seemed to back off at least four catchable balls.
The theme of not being able to convert in the red zone has been prevalent since the opening week of the season, when the 49ers blasted out of the gate with a 49-7 victory over the Chicago Bears.
Although it produced a huge offensive performance, the 49ers settled for field goals on five of their nine trips inside the Bears' 20-yard line.
Their problems reached the boiling point on Sunday when they were stopped on unsuccessful third- and fourth-down runs at the Cleveland 1-yard line on the opening drive of the game. Later, they settled for two Owen Pochman field goals on trips inside the red zone.
That ineffectiveness by an offense that was expected to produce big results this season has sent Erickson and his coaching staff scrambling to come up with answers. The 49ers generally spend a good deal of their practice time working on red zone situations, both offensively and defensively.
"I think anytime that you are not as successful as you need to be in any area of the game, you have to sit down as coaches and evaluate what you are doing," Erickson said. "Are you doing the right things, should you change some things, not change the offense, but look at what is going to be good for us down there (in the red zone). Then it is a matter of executing and we feel that we didn't execute like we needed to."
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"I didn't talk to him, because I didn't feel that it was necessary," Erickson said of Owens. "He made a statement emotionally and I don't see it affecting anything. If it does affect some things that will affect this team then, sure, I will talk to him, but I didn't get that feeling."
Erickson said he is always willing to cut his players some slack if they're speaking with the typical emotion that can be apparent after a difficult game.
"You know T.O.," Erickson said. "He becomes very emotional. That is the way he is. I have learned to deal with that. I don't think he meant anything personal with it. That is just how he is. He voiced his opinion and now we must go on."
"Every game is a game we want to go out and win," 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia said. "We don't want to continue to lose these close games. We need to get on a roll, whether we're 3-0, 0-3 or 1-2, like we are."
Linebacker Derek Smith said with the nature of the league, and all its parity, and the fact that there figures to be a logjam of teams seeking playoff berths or improved playoff seeding, the must-win attitude prevails throughout the entire season.
"Every game is a must-win," Smith said. "We should've won the last two games, so we must win this next game."
"Our offensive front didn't play that bad," Erickson said. "There are always a number of reasons for not having success. There are times when we missed blocks and also there were times where we did a lot of other things on both sides of the ball. To me, it is not the offensive line. They did a lot of good things."
Beasley was stopped inches short of the goal line on third- and fourth-down runs to halt the 49ers' opening drive against Cleveland. Erickson challenged the fourth-down play. And although it looked as if Beasley had broke the plane of the goal line, replays did not offer indisputable evidence.
"Of course teams are expecting me to get it down there," Beasley said. "In goal-line situations, they're going to look for me to get it up the middle. It's up to me to get into the end zone. I'm sure the offensive line did its part, I just have to get in there."
Beasley has not gained any yards this season on six rushing attempts, but Erickson said the strategy was sound.
"Fred is 250 pounds," Erickson said. "If you come off and block somebody, you think that he would get a foot. If you had a chance to do it over again, I would do exactly the same thing again. Sometimes you have to be aware of when you are going to go over the top or not going to go over the top. If you go over the top it is sometimes good and sometimes when you go over the top there are some things that you cannot see as far as holes to run in."
Garcia was the leading rusher for the 49ers last week, as he gained 40 yards on five carries. Not once did he slide feet first, instead deciding to either take the hit or dive for extra yardage. Garcia's aggressive style of play is something Erickson has addressed without much results.
"Jeff is Jeff," Erickson said. "You can tell him to take a dive, but he won't take dives. He will go down, he will slide, but if he thinks he has a chance to make a first down or a big play, he is not going to go down. He will never do that."
Beasley said the system is not fair to either running back because they do not get a chance to set up the defense and utilize what might have happened on a previous series for their benefit. But Erickson does not agree.
"No, that doesn't have anything to do with it," he said. "The first two football games we ran the ball successfully using two different backs and all last year it was ran pretty successfully alternating those backs. To me, that doesn't have anything to do with it."
BY THE NUMBERS: 7 - The 49ers are second in the league with a plus-seven turnover margin but have turned those 11 takeaways into just two touchdowns in three games.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Sometimes after you lose two straight, you feel like you have played 15 of them, but this season is a long way from being over, so we have to rally the troops. ... When you lose a football game, it doesn't matter what level, it rips your heart out. It rips the coaches and players heart out. That is just how it is. You have to make corrections, but you can't sit back and dwell on it. You have to get on to your next game" -- 49ers coach Dennis Erickson.