The San Francisco 49ers have head coach Kyle Shanahan’s second-down play calling and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s poor third-down play to blame for the Niners’ offensive troubles in 2018.
New head coach Kyle Shanahan and new quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo turned the San Francisco 49ers’ offense into the NFL’s most lethal offensive unit over the final five games of the 2017 season. With the benefit of a full offseason together, the duo was expected to do great things in 2018; unfortunately, the 49ers weren’t an offensive powerhouse over the first three games of the season, and after Sunday’s season-ending knee injury to Garoppolo, San Francisco will need to wait until 2019 for the pair’s next opportunity for success.
The 49ers have still put points on the board in 2018 — their 24 points-per-game ranks 12th in the league — but they’ve relied on their running game, which ranks sixth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, as opposed to their 22nd-ranked passing game. Ironically, their potent rushing attack — and particularly Shanahan’s utilization of it — has played a major role in San Francisco’s passing problems.
During his time with the New England Patriots, one of the most promising aspects of Garoppolo’s game was his success on third downs. Technically, Garoppolo was the most proficient third-down quarterback on the Patriots’ roster, as his 141.3 quarterback rating on third downs topped that of fellow QB Tom Brady.
While Garoppolo wasn’t able to equal his 72 percent third-down conversion rate in 2016 after his trade to San Francisco, the 49ers still converted on 50 percent of his third-down throws last season, which was tops in the NFL. Garoppolo’s ability to extend drives helped the 49ers lead the NFL in points-per-drive, yards-per-drive and scoring percentage during his time with the team in 2017.
Unfortunately, Garoppolo didn’t continue his third-down success in 2018. In the three games prior to his injury, Garoppolo converted just 25 percent of his third-down tries — but more surprising was Garoppolo’s inability to convert on third-and-long:
Digging into the 49ers’ stats over their first three games… The Niners have faced 3rd-and-8+ yards 16 times so far this season. They’ve converted zero. 0/16. NFL average is 25%, and JG converted 38% in 2017. #49ers #GoNiners #49wz
— Chris Wilson (@cgawilson) September 25, 2018
While Garoppolo certainly shoulders a considerable portion of the blame for the 49ers’ lack of effectiveness on third down, a major reason the Niners were forced into so many difficult third-down situations was Shanahan’s play calling on second down:
— Chris Wilson (@cgawilson) September 23, 2018
In general, running the ball on second-and-10 is a losing proposition; NFL teams are successful on less than a third of these runs. This season, the 49ers have an 11 percent success rate when rushing on on second-and-10 — and when they’re unsuccessful, they average just one yard per rush, which forces the team into a third-and-long situation that results in a punt or field-goal try on the following down. Unfortunately, this hasn’t stopped Shanahan from attempting to pound the rock on second-and-10:
On 2nd-and-10, the #49ers run the ball at the NFL's 3rd highest rate, but their success rate on those runs is the 4th worst in the NFL. Meanwhile, they pass at the 3rd lowest rate, yet their success rate on those passes ranks 5th in the NFL. #GoNiners #49wz
— Chris Wilson (@cgawilson) September 26, 2018
Shanahan ranks among the NFL’s more forward-thinking coaches, but one of his holes as an offensive coordinator is his propensity to continue doing things that don’t work.
In 2017, Shanahan’s 49ers led the NFL with a 45 percent success rate on second-and-10 runs. That’s a fantastic success rate, although it’s still less than 50 percent. One reason why the 49ers were successful on these rushing attempts is they ran the ball on second-and-10 less often than most teams in 2017 — until Garoppolo was named the starter.
In the 49ers’ first 11 games of 2017, they ran on second-and-10 well below the NFL average, and had a 52 percent success rate on those plays. With Garoppolo under center, Shanahan raised their second-and-10 rushing rate dramatically, and the team’s success rate fell to 25 percent.
Why have the 49ers been so successful running the ball on second-and-10 without Garoppolo, and so unsuccessful with him under center? It may be that the 49ers were never that successful in the first place.
Pre-Garoppolo, the 1-10 Niners spent much of the 2017 season playing from behind. Playing with the lead against a San Francisco team with an anemic offensive attack, opposing defenses were happy to trade 5-yard runs for time off the clock, which lead to a 60 percent success rate on second-and-10 runs. But in neutral game scripts or when the 49ers had the lead, their second-down rushing rate jumped to 53 percent — equal to their current 2018 rate — and their success rate plummeted.
Once Garoppolo arrived, the 49ers were no longer consistently playing from behind, which lead to more first-down runs — and fewer incomplete passes on first down — which lead to less second-and-10 opportunities. When the 49ers faced a second-and-10, Shanahan rushed more often, both in an attempt to run time off the clock when the team had the lead, and because he could count on Garoppolo to bail the offense out of potential third-and-long situations.
Fast forward to 2018. The 49ers fell behind early in two of their three games, and their passing attack has been less efficient on first down, which has produced more second-and-10 opportunities. Shanahan has continued to run the ball in these situations, but with defenses knowing the 49ers are capable of putting points on the board, they’re no longer willing to give the team the free second-down yardage that would put Garoppolo in manageable third-down situations.
The 49ers have been able to convert manageable third-down attempts, but their inability to execute on third-and-long has continued to prematurely end drives, which has kept points off the scoreboard. While Garoppolo didn’t impress on his third-and-long attempts in 2018, does the blame fall on the QB, or on the coach who continued to put his quarterback in a position to fail?
49ers vs. Packers: San Francisco Week 6 Game Balls & Highlights
We hand out a pair of game balls to the San Francisco 49ers from the Niners’ heartbreaking last-second loss to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers under the lights on Monday Night Football.
On Tuesday’s Locked On 49ers Podcast, host Brian Peacock provided a rundown of the Niners’ game — including game notes and key takeaways — and handed out two game balls from the San Francisco 49ers’ near-upset of the Green Bay Packers in Week 6 of the 2018 NFL regular season.
After what will hopefully be the 49ers’ worst game of the 2018 season, San Francisco put up a fight during their Week 6 matchup at Lambeau Field, as the team held the lead over Green Bay from the second quarter until the two-minute warning. Unfortunately, the Niners allowed the Packers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers to stay within a score in the closing minutes of the game. Two drives later, Green Bay kicker Mason Crosby finished the 49ers off as he booted his fourth field goal of the day through the uprights as time expired.
Although the 49ers weren’t able to pull off the upset, their players showed heart by rebounding after last week’s poor showing. Our weekly game balls go to two Niners who kept San Francisco in the game with their strong offensive performances:
49ers QB C.J. Beathard
After losing the game for his team in Week 5, 49ers quarterback C.J. Beathard came to play against Green Bay on Monday Night Football, and outplayed Rodgers over much of the game. Beathard was nearly perfect in the first half of the contest, as the QB connected with wide receiver Marquise Goodwin on a pair of long touchdown passes.
Although he was in an obvious groove, Beathard wasn’t given the opportunity to continue at the same pace in the second half. 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan made an obvious attempt to milk the clock, although San Francisco only held a one-score lead. Then, at the end of a passive second half, Beathard picked the wrong time to take a risky shot downfield, after he was given great field position and had minimal yardage to gain for a game-winning field goal try.
On a crucial third down, instead of going with a high-percentage throw, Beathard elected to air it out deep to Goodwin. Unfortunately, the duo’s first-half magic was gone, as the poorly thrown pass was intercepted by Green Bay. Given one final opportunity, Rodgers — with a bit of help from the officiating crew — led the Packers down the field to victory.
Even though the 49ers weren’t able to leave Lambeau Field with a win, Beathard played near peak levels until the final drives of the game. When a backup quarterback hangs tough against a future Hall-of-Fame QB, he deserves a weekly game ball:
49ers WR Marquise Goodwin.
As 49ers top wide receiver Marquise Goodwin returned to the field from injury on Monday, so did the explosiveness of San Francisco’s offense. A week after each of the Niners’ wideouts failed to average over 10 yards a reception, Goodwin averaged over 30 yards per catch against the Packers on Monday night.
A healthy Goodwin is the missing piece the 49ers’ offense has lacked in 2018, as his ability to stretch the field gives the Niners a true deep threat, while also opening up San Francisco’s intermediate passing game. Goodwin’s blazing speed combined with his improved route-running skills places cornerbacks into constant conflict; when corners try to keep pace with the wideout, he shows off his ability to score from anywhere on the field, but when defensive backs respect his deep game, Goodwin simply works his way open for easy receptions.
Goodwin finished the contest with 126 yards on four catches, including touchdown scores of 67 and 30 yards. If Goodwin remains healthy, expect more of the same from the San Francisco 49ers’ No. 1 wide receiver:
Listen to Locked On 49ers host Brian Peacock’s review of the San Francisco 49ers’ Week 6 loss to the Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football — including game notes and key takeaways from the Niners’ last-second loss — on Tuesday’s Rapid React podcast:
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