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49ers film room: QB Jimmy Garoppolo’s success on third downs

49ers Garoppolo
© Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Can new franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo solve the San Francisco 49ers’ third-down efficiency problems?


In the NFL, there is a strong correlation between victory and third-down efficiency. This season, teams that converted over 45 percent of their third-down attempts are a combined 41-14, while the lone team that converted less than 30 percent on third down is still searching for its first win.

The San Francisco 49ers are near the bottom of the NFL ranks in third-down efficiency at 34 percent — nearly 10 percent less than head coach Kyle Shanahan’s 2016 Atlanta Falcons. The 49ers often force themselves into difficult third-down situations due to poor play, sacks and penalties on early downs. The Niners also haven’t had a playmaker at quarterback who can execute with precision under pressure.

But they do now.

When Shanahan and 49ers general manager John Lynch traded with the New England Patriots for Jimmy Garoppolo, the quarterback’s third-down efficiency and calm under pressure likely played a major role in the team’s decision.

Garoppolo played behind perhaps the NFL’s premier third-down passer, Tom Brady; yet in replacement of Brady in 2016, Garoppolo was the better third-down quarterback. While Brady posted a gaudy 127.7 quarterback rating on third downs, Garoppolo’s was 141.3 — approximately 65 points higher than the combined quarterback ratings of C.J. Beathard and Brian Hoyer this season.

In the two games Garoppolo started during Brady’s 2016 “Deflategate” suspension, he dropped back to pass on 18 third downs; on those plays, Garoppolo completed 14 of 17 passes, which resulted in 13 first downs or touchdowns.

While Shanahan doesn’t expect Garoppolo to continue his 72-percent third-down conversion rate with his new team, Shanahan does expect his new quarterback to continue to build upon the strong foundation he developed during his time in New England.

Over the next week, we will dig into Garoppolo’s third-down film to determine why he was so successful on third downs, and to see if his past success can translate to future success with the 49ers.

Before we begin, here’s my one-paragraph profile on Garoppolo:

Garoppolo has decent size, at 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds. He has an above-average arm, but he makes up for any lack of arm strength with a lightning-quick release. He negotiates the pocket fairly well for a player with limited NFL experience, but he will need to continue to improve in this area. He’s not a threat as a runner, but he’s athletic and mobile enough to avoid pressure, and always continues to look downfield when he’s on the move. He does a good job of controlling defenders with his eyes, and he has put in the work to improve his footwork from his college days.

Now for the tape. We’ll begin with a play that tests Garoppolo’s ability to read a defense post-snap. Although the Patriots have the correct play called for the defensive coverage, the defense is hiding its coverage pre-snap, so Garoppolo will be forced to decipher the coverage after the snap, and complete the pass to the correct receiver.

The Patriots have a third-and-nine from the Dolphins’ 20-yard line. New England is in 11 personnel, with Garoppolo in the shotgun, and both outside receivers in wide splits. Miami is showing a 2-Man look, with a defender across from each receiver, and two deep safeties just beyond the line-to-gain:

49ers Garoppolo

Wide receiver Julian Edelman motions to the numbers as the ball is snapped. The Patriots only run three receivers beyond the sticks; Garoppolo’s first read is wide receiver Malcolm Mitchel, who runs a corner route that could be effective against a variety of coverages:

49ers Garoppolo

The Dolphins are actually playing Cover-3 Buzz, which can be a dangerous coverage to play in the red zone due to potential vulnerabilities down the seams:

49ers Garoppolo

Garoppolo first looks to Mitchell, as safety Isa Abdul-Quddus prepares for a potential post route by the receiver. With the outside corner sinking back, Abdul-Quddus in the deep middle, and safety Reshad Jones dropping down between the numbers, Garoppolo recognizes that the Dolphins are likely in Cover-3:

49ers Garoppolo

Garoppolo continues to look left to hold the two safeties, even though Mitchell is covered, and Edelman is well short of the sticks:

49ers Garoppolo

Meanwhile, tight end Martellus Bennett breaks to the outside, and then cuts up the seam. Linebacker Kiko Alonso — responsible for the flat — tries to beat Bennett to the sideline, and is unable to redirect Bennett when he cuts back inside:

49ers Garoppolo

Garoppolo has done the mental work, now he needs to do the physical work to finish the play. He demonstrates the quick feet needed to reposition his body to make the pass, and the quick release and power behind the throw to get the ball to his intended receiver:

49ers Garoppolo

Alonso can’t catch up to Bennett, and Abdul-Quddus isn’t in position to protect the seam. Garoppolo hits Bennett in stride for the score:

49ers Garoppolo

Here’s the play from both angles. Pay specific attention to Garoppolo’s footwork as he positions his body to make the throw — this is a skill that he was taught in New England, and he perfected through repetition:

On this play, Garoppolo correctly recognized the coverage post-snap, used his eyes to move the secondary, and fired an on-target pass to his receiver. In our next segment, we’ll take a look at how Garoppolo reads a defense pre-snap, and how he adjusts his offense accordingly.

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Chris Wilson is the Lead Writer for Locked on 49ers, a FanRag Sports network partner. You may have seen Chris’ work on NFL game theory, statistical analysis and film breakdowns at FanSided, NinerNoise, 49erswebzone, Insidethe49 and others. Follow Chris on Twitter @cgawilson.

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