Finding Beauty in the Dissonance: Defragmenting a Fragmented Team
Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
I played my fair share of NCAA Football in college and brought the wrath of my roommates when I’d reset the game if things were not going my way. If my star middle linebacker succumbed to an injury, or if I was down twenty points, I’d play God and reset the electrical destiny.
The 2018 San Francisco 49ers need the Football Fates to hit the celestial reset button. For reasons unknown, the team cannot walk three steps without a player succumbing to an injury, fumbling the ball, missing a tackle, or blowing an assignment.
Snap reactions to the Week 5 debacle against the Arizona Cardinals ranged from firing the strength and conditioning coach, placing defensive coordinator Robert Saleh on the “hot seat” and, once again, blaming Solomon Thomas.
The 49ers are not a broken team. Nobody needs to be fired, though there is plenty of blame to share equally within the organization.
Instead, the team is missing critical elements needed to see head coach Kyle Shanahan’s vision become a reality.
Let’s dive into a black, airless vacuum and examine a few statistics from Week 5. Shanahan called a 92-play game that resulted in 447 net yards of offense. 49er running backs averaged 4.3 yards-per-rush, and the offense was 10-for-17 on third down. Quarterback C.J. Beathard completed passes to ten different people, completing 63 percent of his throws, and tossing two touchdowns.
On defense, the 49ers held the Cardinals to five 3-and-out series, only allowing 21 net yards on those series. In fact, the 49ers' defense allowed 19.4 yards per drive (not including the final kneel-down series to close the game).
Further, the 49ers missed only three tackles, and opposing quarterbacks still refuse to throw in Richard Sherman’s general direction.
In our comfortable vacuum, those numbers should be more than enough to result in a victory.
I cannot remember the last time the 49ers played 60 minutes of football under Shanahan or any previous coach.
When is the last time you remember offense, defense and the special team unit playing as one unstoppable force?
Great football teams get contributions from the three parts of the squad. Good teams can survive on two, and below average teams try and coast to wins on one unit.
The 49ers’ defense looked hapless on the opening touchdown. Minus that play, the eleven men on defense allowed the Cardinals to gain only 145 of net offense and 14 points. I’d be hard pressed to find a defensive coordinator who wouldn’t see those stats combined with five 3-and-out series as huge successes on a Sunday afternoon.
With 5:50 left on the game clock, the 49ers defense held the Cardinals to three yards on three plays. The 49ers’ offense trotted on the field and on the third play, Beathard was strip-sacked, and the Cardinals returned the fumble for a touchdown.
On the next possession, Beathard threw his second interception.
One cannot blame a coverage lapse or the coaching staff when the offense refuses to grasp five momentum shifts generated by the defense. At some point, professional football players need to start acting as such.
Special teams also played a significant role in Sunday’s loss.
Against the Cardinals, the 49ers had approximately three total yards on punt returns and 61 yards on kickoff returns. Not only did special teams fail to score a touchdown, but the returners also couldn’t set the offense up with a shorter field. The average starting position for the 49ers’ offense was its own 23-yard line; Arizona started its drives on its own 40-yard line.
Also, the last time the 49ers have failed to score a special-teams touchdown in 116 games.
Sunday’s loss was not about the faulty scheme or lousy coaching; Sunday’s loss was what happens when two parts of a football team demand the third conjure luck and big plays to win the game.
Filling the in the Gaps
Some of Beathard’s better passes and better series came when Shanahan called bootleg play-actions, shallow crossing routes, and pass plays using three-to-five step drops. Longer developing plays are not in Beathard’s wheelhouse, but the 49ers can’t rely on one explosive play to fix problems on offense.
By my math, the 49ers had 242 of yardage after the catch. There’s nothing wrong with chewing the field with underneath receivers and letting those men gain rack up green grass. If the 49ers find success with the short passing game, and fans then have a problem with the lack of vertical attack, then the Faithful need to check their collective football “brilliance” at the door.
Additionally, I am unclear why Shanahan has not used the run to balance his offensive attack. Only 37 percent of the plays called on Sunday were runs, though running back Matt Breida was averaging 7 yards per carry. Veteran Alfred Morris also had a handful of excellent runs and is proving to have the legs to play a role in the run game.
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh is dialing up the right plays to stop the run game. As of today, the 49ers are allowing only 3.7 yards per rush attempt.
Saleh’s job is to re-teach the passing defense to his secondary. The 49ers defense is going to face an angry Aaron Rodgers, who’s probably salivating at the thought of confusing Ahkello Witherspoon and K’Waun Williams. No moment is wasted this week explaining even the simplest of coverage concepts to the defensive backs.
Months ago, I wrote that Saleh should move Thomas inside, keeping him no more extensive than a 3-technique. Last season, Thomas had more pressures playing inside than from the edge. Saleh needs to shake up his defense a bit, and why not move Thomas back to the position he played in college? The Packers have two subpar guards that Thomas could pick on, and it’s not going to cause mass chaos within the locker room to try Thomas at an inside position.
Let’s face a football fact: Kick and punt return touchdowns are often a lot of luck and very little skill. The new kickoff rules all but erase touchdown returns, so the 49ers need to squeeze more than three total return yards from the punt return.
One special team touchdown does not defragment the unit but averaging 15 to 20 yards a return would help the 49ers’ offense considerably. That would be a small step to take but would fill in a gaping hole in the team’s overall play.
It’s difficult not to feel a little bit disappointed or passed over with a team that had such high hopes coming into the season. Shanahan needs to find a way to bring the pieces back together to continue building this season and into the future.
(h/t to Maynard James Keenan for the inspiration.)
All statistics courtesy of NFL.com unless otherwise noted.
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