Run It Back: The Weakness the 49ers Must Improve To Make A Playoff Run
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As time ticked away on Super Bowl LIV, George Kittle stood on the sideline and said “I will be back here. I will be back here, and I will be back with a [expletive] vengeance.” Maybe Kittle was talking teammate to Ahkello Witherspoon, who was standing next to Kittle, maybe he was talking to himself, or perhaps he was talking to the rest of the league. In any event, the words Kittle spoke have become the unofficial team motto for 2020.
Watching the player media availability during the start of training camp, it is clear that getting back to the Super Bowl is on everyone’s mind and it is showing in the early preparations. Newly-acquired left tackle Trent Williams, who is entering his tenth year in the league, said “It was a game.” when describing the energy of the team’s first walk through during his media availability adding, “You could tell this was a hungry group of guys.”
Before they get back to the Super Bowl, the team must navigate the regular season and then a playoff run. Where do the 49ers need to improve if they are to make another playoff run?
Arik Armstead feels like the run defense is the biggest opportunity for the defense is in the run game, saying “We were middle of the pack (in run defense),” adding “we’re definitely looking to get better in that aspect.”
The 49ers defense ranked seventeenth in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game and twenty-second in yards per carry allowed; both were outliers for what was otherwise a stellar unit in 2019.
The most direct route to the playoffs is to win the division, and for the Niners that means beating the Cardinals, Rams and Seahawks. Seattle finished in the top five in rush yards and top ten in yards per carry in the NFL last season; additionally, the 49ers have nine games in 2020 against teams that finished in the top half of the league in yards per carry average, so improving the run defense will be key.
A full season of D.J. Jones and the addition of first-round pick Javon Kinlaw along with more experience in the Wide 9 alignment should help tighten things up along the defensive front but the biggest area were the Niners can improve to help their run defense is red zone offensive efficiency.
Yes, red zone offensive efficiency.
Last season the 49ers had the best pass defense in the league, measured by passing yards allowed, giving up 169.2 yards per game. The Niners also finished the season with 48 sacks, good enough for fifth in the NFL.
Pass defense was clearly the 49ers’ strength, and the best way for them to play to their strength is to make sure they are playing from in front and forcing opponents to throw in order to catch up.
Last season, Kyle Shanahan called an offense that finished as the second highest scoring unit in the league at 29.9 points per game. Despite all their offensive success, the team finished twentieth in the NFL in red zone touch down percentage.
The 49ers scored touchdowns on 55.56 percent of their trips inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. To put that in perspective, that is worse than Miami, Carolina and Detroit, teams that finished with 5, 5 and 3 wins, respectively.
On 63 red zone drives, the 49ers had 24 made field goals to go along with 1 that was missed and 1 that was blocked. Four additional drives into the red zone resulted in zero points thanks to four drive killing turnovers.
Moving into the top third of the league in red zone touchdown percentage would require going from 55.56 to 60 percent. Getting to 60 percent would require scoring touchdowns on just four additional drives and while that does not sound like much over the course of sixteen games, the 49ers lost just three regular season games by a total of 13 points.
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