Gore: 'You can't make mistakes like we did'
There were a lot of things that went wrong in New Orleans for an offense that managed just 196 total yards. (USATSI)
The 49ers looked as if they were ready to become a top-five offense in the league when the season began.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick proved to be a dynamic threat during his 10 starts last season, which included a 302-yard passing performance in the Super Bowl. And he opened with a career-best 412 yards passing in a Week 1 victory against the Green Bay Packers.
Instead, the offense has gone in reverse. And it has been particularly dreadful in the 49ers’ four losses. The 49ers’ passing game ranks last in the NFL with a lowly 168.0 net average yards per game.
So, what’s wrong with the 49ers’ offense? The answer is simple and complex at the same time: It’s a little bit of everything, depending on the play. That’s why this is no easy fix.
First off, the Saints did a good job of crowding the line of scrimmage with eight- and, sometimes, nine-man boxes to keep running back Frank Gore in check.
Kaepernick was 8 for 15 for 65 yards and two touchdowns when blitzed, according to Pro Football Focus. He was not sacked nor was he forced to scramble on plays when the Saints blitzed.
The 49ers did a better job of calling quick-hitting pass plays on early downs to slow the Saints pass rush. With all the attention New Orleans gave to defending the run, the 49ers felt as if they could make some plays in the air.
But when the 49ers took over at the 20-yard line – after the Saints tied the score at 20-20 – with 2:06 remaining, that would have been the perfect opportunity for offensive coordinator Greg Roman and coach Jim Harbaugh to run the ball out of a spread formation.
On first down, the 49ers should have run the ball to take the game to the two-minute warning. Time was not an issue for the 49ers at that point. Instead, Colin Kaepernick was sacked for a 9-yard loss. The Saints used a four-man rush. On the left side, New Orleans performed a twist and left guard Adam Snyder did not recognize it in time to block Junior Galette, who threw Kaepernick for a 9-yard loss. Snyder was filling-in for Mike Iupati, who sustained a sprained knee at is likely to keep him out at least a couple of games,
Then, it’s second-and-19 from the 49ers’ 11 with 2:01 remaining after the Saints called their second timeout. Again, it probably would not have been a bad idea to run the ball and try to get into a third-and-manageable situation.
This time, the pressure came from the other side as Cameron Jordan collapsed the pocket against right tackle Anthony Davis and right guard Alex Boone. Kaepernick threw the ball away – a play that had the Saints pleading for intentional grounding in the end zone for a safety.
On third-and-19, the 49ers max-protected against a four-man rush. Tight end Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin ran routes on the left side of the field with six defenders all over them. Kaepernick’s best bet was to look to the right, where Gore leaked out of the backfield and would’ve had one man to beat for a big gain. Instead Kaepernick scrambled to his left and instead of remaining in-bounds, he was shoved out of bounds to stop the clock – 3 yards shy of the first down.
If Kaepernick had remained inbounds, the Saints would’ve called their final timeout. Instead, the Saints took over – after Kassim Osgood’s fair-catch interference penalty – at their own 40-yard line with one timeout and 1:41 remaining. They had plenty of time to set up the winning field goal.
Certainly, there were a lot of things that went wrong for an offense that managed just 196 total yards. Here’s a closer look at all the things that went wrong with the passing game in the 49ers’ 23-20 loss:
[RAY RATTO: Six reasons the 49ers lost to the Saints]
Throwing to the wrong man: On the first play of the game, Kaepernick chose to throw the deeper route for Mario Manningham for an incomplete pass when Boldin was open underneath on the same side.
Early in the fourth quarter, Kaepernick threw a fade to Vernon Davis on the right side of the end zone (see also “No calls” section). Boldin got separation off the line of scrimmage in the slot on a post pattern and was the better option for a potential touchdown.
Out-schemed with numbers: Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan did a tremendous job of stacking the box to take away Gore and the 49ers’ running game while also devoting a lot of resources to coverage on passing downs.
On the second drive, Kaepernick rolled right to the short side of the field and found his three potential targets covered by five Saints. He found Gore for a 6-yard gain. On the next play, the Saints dropped seven into coverage against four. Kaepernick’s best option was to dump it off to Gore but he threw incomplete for Manningham.
Early in the fourth quarter, on a second-and-9 from the New Orleans 11, the Saints sent a three-man rush. Kaepernick looked right for Davis and Boldin and saw them covered by four defenders. On the left side, there were three in coverage against Manningham and McDonald. In the middle, two guys were on Gore. Kaepernick rolled left and threw it away.
No calls: On the 49ers’ third series, Kaepernick tried to give wide receiver Jon Baldwin a chance to make a play. Saints cornerback Jabari Greer had a handful of Baldwin’s jersey on the deep route. The pass fell incomplete and no penalty was called.
Davis ran a fourth-quarter fade against safety Rafael Bush, who had ahold of Davis’ jersey as the pass fell incomplete in the end zone.
Using his feet: Kaepernick is a unique dual-threat quarterback but he has not mastered the art of sliding one way or the other to create a buffer from which to throw the ball.
On a second-quarter scramble that went for 4 yards, Kaepernick left the pocket too soon and did not see tight end Vance McDonald in the middle of the field. Two series later, McDonald was open again underneath on a second-and-7. Kaepernick had good protection and ended up running for 5 yards.
No helping hands: Baldwin should’ve had a touchdown catch in the second quarter but he juggled the ball out of bounds. The next play was a touchdown pass to Boldin, so that did not hurt the 49ers.
However, two other catchable passes that slipped through the hands of 49ers targets were big plays.
In the second quarter, McDonald could not hold onto a pass that would’ve given the 49ers a first down on a third-and-2 situation against tight coverage from safety Malcolm Jenkins on a quick slant. The 49ers settled for Phil Dawson’s 55-yard field goal.
With the 49ers leading 20-17 in the middle of the fourth quarter, Kaepernick felt pressure from defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, who got past Boone. He then tossed a soft pass to Gore around his knees. Gore could not make the catch. It would’ve gone for big yards. Fullback Bruce Miller was 30 yards downfield to block safety Keenan Lewis.
Good defense: Kaepernick took a three-step drop and delivered a pass to Manningham on a slant. Saints cornerback White jumped the route for the interception. But White gave it back to the 49ers when he lost control of the football and fumbled out the back of the end zone for a touchback.
Give him a chance: In the middle of the second quarter, Kaepernick had great protection and could’ve given Boldin a chance down the left sideline. Yes, White had good coverage on Boldin in single coverage, but this would’ve been a good opportunity to put the ball out there for Boldin to make a play. Instead, Kaepernick held onto the ball and began to run. He was tackled for a 1-yard loss.
On the wrong page: The Saints came with a seven-man rush, and Baldwin ran a slant-and-go on the right side. Kaepernick had enough time to pump-fake and then lofted a pass for Baldwin, who never saw the ball. At 6 foot 4, Baldwin seemingly had a chance of making a play on the ball, which was thrown to his outside shoulder, if he knew it was coming.
Catching it in stride: Vernon Davis had to turn around to catch a pass thrown behind him on the right side early in the second quarter. If he’d caught it in stride, he might have been able to get to the sideline for more yards. Instead, he was quickly tackled for a 4-yard gain.
Protection problems: Against the Saints, the 49ers’ pass protection was generally exceptional on the 37 called pass plays. However, Anthony Davis surrendered one quarterback sack and a couple of pressures. And, of course, there were the aforementioned protection issues on the first two plays of the final drive.