Two Changes the 49ers' Offense Can Make to Assure a Playoff Ticket
Image Credit: 49ers
We are in the middle of weird times, Bubba. Professional football, chiefly your San Francisco 49ers, has never been immunized to oddities, especially in a global pandemic.
But while the NFL was burning, the 49ers had found a winning edge. Last week, the team traveled to Tennessee with high expectations to roll through the Volunteer State and fly home with a victory.
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo's dismal performance was the chief reason the 49ers lost last week against the Tennessee Titans.
No, Gentle Reader, the offensive line was not the problem. The trenchmen only allowed seven total pressures of any kind, and both sacks can easily be attributed to Garoppolo's indecisiveness.
The 49ers' averaged 4 yards per carry, despite only 21 running plays, so the ground game was doing its part. And yes, the 49ers' receivers were open; Garoppolo couldn't get them the football.
The 49ers still have a shot at the playoffs thanks to the Miami Dolphins, but it is still in the hands of the men with gold helmets. Here are two immediate changes the team can make this week to punch a ticket to the postseason.
The Return of the Rookie
Injury aside, starting rookie quarterback Trey Lance this weekend against the Houston Texans might rejuvenate the 49ers' offense.
Garoppolo is a good quarterback when the world is spinning in his direction. He needs all his weapons, a natural rhythm to the play-calling, and a clear vision on his reads.
Football operates at the whims of the Great Magnet, ever-changing with the ebb and flow of his will. Garoppolo needs to succeed when the universe is crashing down around him like the other NFL quarterbacks.
Unfortunately, he has failed to find a way around adversity.
Garoppolo has not grown as a quarterback in Shanahan's system, whether it's an unseen defender or a collapsing pocket.
Week 16: 2nd Quarter – 3rd & 10 at the SF 22 (3:56)
The 49ers' began their fourth possession on their 22-yard line and a dual opportunity to put points on the board and end the half.
After a batted pass and a run for no gain, Garoppolo was staring at a third-and-10. Shanahan called in what looked like a new version of "blade" with a shallow cross rather than a "now-return" route.
In its previous version, the quarterback would read the "go" route first, the "chase" route second, and the "now-return" route third.
I assume the new look has a similar progression – first look at the deeper routes, then come back to the shorter route if necessary.
Garoppolo never looked at wide receiver Jauan Jennings' on the shallow cross. Instead, Garoppolo stood statue-still, took a sack, and hurt his thumb on the play.
I will not assume that Lance would have seen Jennings, but I will believe that Lance's ability to scramble is what will help keep drives going. Too often, Garoppolo won't move outside the pocket when things get muddy and thick. His feet stay planted to the turf as he scans the field for an open target.
Those are prime situations to take off and make a play with your feet, which is what Lance brings to the table.
A Heavy Hand on the Run Game to Improve the Pass Attack
A balanced game plan or one that asked Garoppolo to throw more than 30 times has rarely been a recipe for success.
During Weeks 10-12, the 49ers ran the ball 125 times and threw 67 times. During these three games, the team averaged 4.28 yards per carry and controlled the ball for 1.9 hours.
The ground game fell off against Seattle and Cincinnati but roared back against Atlanta.
What's impressive is the 49ers have found a way to run the ball even with rookie Elijah Mitchell out of the lineup. But Shanahan has to overcommit to the ground attack for the 49ers' offense to continue to roll.
Mitchell on the field this Sunday brings back the threat of a constant barrage of unpredictable runs from the 49ers. Samuel might line up in the backfield if Mitchell's on the sideline. If Shanahan wants a play with Samuel in the slot, then the Texans may have to deal with running back Jeff Wilson, Jr.
Additionally, a real ground game threat allows Shanahan to utilize more of the movement series for Lance. These are plays that feign an outside zone run and then have the quarterback boot in the opposite direction.
Week 5: 3rd Quarter – 1st & 15 at the SF 36 (5:10)
Lance ran a few movement plays in his Week 5 start against Arizona, but these can be far more effective this week against Houston.
Also, ignore the outcome of the play. Instead, note the following:
First, getting outside the pocket offers Lance a clear line of sight. He can be patient with nobody in his face and let the play develop or hit an open receiver quickly.
Second, observe the ease of the progression. Lance has three receivers - one deep, one intermediate, and another short. All three are roughly in alignment, making it simple to find an open target.
Third, the "slide" route is an easy way for Lance to get the ball to Samuel or tight end George Kittle.
The play above was "Far Right Close F Left Fake 18 Keep Left Z Slide." Aiyuk has had two big plays on "slide" - the game-winning touchdown against Cincinnati and a 17-yard gain last week against Tennessee.
The 49ers are not on their way to greatness this season, but they are on the cusp of turning what was once lost into something successful. And while the franchise does not raise division or NFC Championship banners, it can be proud of this year's squad if they can win the next two games and find themselves in a Wild Card match-up.
All images courtesy of NFL.com.
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless noted.
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