Are the 49ers offense in need of a Red Zone Threat?
Is Shanahan’s offense and Garoppolo’s arm enough to find success inside the twenty yard line?
Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman. Jim Tomsula and Geep Chryst. Chip Kelly and Curtis Modkins. Kyle Shanahan and Kyle Shanahan (I guess). All proud men, titans in their field, but they all shared one flaw. Harbaugh’s power running game, Tomsula’s belief in a quarterback that can threaten with his arm or legs, Kelly’s inside zone running game, to Shanahan’s outside zone. They all came up short, literally, each head coach and offensive coordinator had trouble finding the end zone. Oddly enough that’s not entirely true, during the 2016 season the 49ers ranked second in touch down percentage when in the red zone at 68.18%. But exclude that 2016 season, and the 49ers haven’t finished higher then 15th in red zone scoring percentage when adjusted for touchdowns only.
Last year, with a collection of rookies and free agents at the skill positions and a new offense being installed, the 49ers ranked 27th in red zone touch downs with a lowly 47.60% success rate. As with all things Garoppolo, there was a significant jump after he took over as the starting quarterback. The offense finished the last 3 games with a 60% scoring rate, which if they held that efficiency throughout the year would have put them solidly in the top 10.
As the offseason approached and the team jumped into free agency, a large portion of the fanbase wanted to see the team make a splash and target a large bodied wide receiver to help make plays in the red zone. Allen Robinson was at the top of the wish list, but eventually landed with Chicago after signing a three-year, $42 million contract. The team also passed on big bodied wide receivers Courtland Sutton from Southern Methodist University and Calvin Ridley from the University of Alabama.
While the 49ers stayed away from players that have gotten the “red zone weapon” label, they were still aggressive picking up players that they believe will help the offense. The team brought in halfback Jerick McKinnon from the Minnesota Vikings, and drafted wide receivers Dante Pettis from the University of Washington and Richie James from Middle Tennessee State.
The argument has been made by some that Shanahan’s offense worked so well in Atlanta due to having a wide receiver like Julio Jones that can win one on one match up and come down with contested throws. But unfortunately, players like Jones don’t come along often, so gearing an offense towards players that elite can lead to problems. I would argue that that the catalysts for the offenses success were halfbacks Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. The versatility that Freeman and Coleman brought to the offense allowed Shanahan to get creative with his play calling and take advantage of positional mismatches.
With his limited workload in Minnesota, McKinnon showed a similar skill set to Freeman. McKinnon had to share carries in Minnesota’s backfield, limiting his rushing numbers. But where he shined was as a receiver. McKinnon has 51 receptions for 421 yards and two touchdowns, including 11 receptions for 86 yards in the NFC Championship games versus Philadelphia. This is where I believe McKinnon will shine, and be the greatest asset to the offense in the red zone.
Hear me out, I’m not talking about McKinnon being a traditional red zone guy in the way that he’s scoring a bunch of touchdowns, although I wouldn’t be surprised if he has 8-10 by the end of the season. But he’s going to create mismatches for himself and by consequence mismatches for other players. The number of linebackers that can cover McKinnon in open space is small, so does a defense commit a cornerback or safety to him when he comes out of the backfield? Great, plug that linebacker on Trent Taylor or George Kittle and watch them both dominate in the middle field.
The silent killer in the red zone for the offense was penalties. While their scoring efficiency dramatically improved with Garoppolo, the offense still struggled to turn field goal attempts into touchdowns. For example, in their week 13 matchup with the Chicago Bears, the offense made five trips into the red zone but had to settle for five field goals, with two of those possessions stalling due to costly penalties. After the game the 49ers lead the league in red zone penalties accepted (13) and total called penalties in the red zone (15). While this is a point of concern, it should be something that is cleaned up by next season as players get more familiar with the playbook and more comfort in their roles
Overall, I feel McKinnon was a sneaky pickup as a red zone weapon. His versatility will give Shanahan the ability to open the playbook and become more aggressive inside the twenty-yard line. With Garoppolo’s quick release and McKinnon’s ability to make plays all over the field I expect the 49ers offense to see the top ten in red zone production for the first since 2009.
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