I've mentioned many times before that one of the pluses to a relatively "lost season" is the ability to evaluate the players you've got and whether they can be counted on next season and beyond. An ideal player for this sort of analysis is 49ers QB Shaun Hill. The team really doesn't have a long term solution at quarterback and needs to determine whether they can buy some time with Hill.
Last week I took a look at the videotape of the Cardinals loss and threw out some thoughts. This week, I thought I'd try and mix in some of Hill's quotes from his day-after press conference from yesterday. I find it useful to look at his performance and then his thoughts after he's had time to check out the film from the game. He didn't have a lot of specifics, but he had a couple thoughts worth noting.
In the second quarter, Hill scrambled for a one yard touchdown run to put the 49ers up 28-3. Hill was lined up in the shotgun on 3rd and 1 and after a mere two seconds of decision-making, pulled down the ball and dove into the end zone. He discussed the touchdown yesterday:
RE: The touchdown run you had: was that a called play or was that an option you always have if it’s open?
“No, it was a called pass play and I just kind of stepped up in the pocket and just kind of reacted to avoid, let’s say.”
RE: But a run is that always an option you have? Is that built into the play or is it all just whatever develops?
“Just like any time, you just kind of scramble any time you don’t feel like there’s a throw there or something just flashes in front of you, you can run. It was just one of those types of things. Just a scramble.”
You could look at most of Hill's performance from Sunday and see smart, efficient football. Before going any further I definitely want to discuss his second half performance. Hill was 3 for 6 for 21 yards in the second half, 18 of which came on a Michael Robinson dump off that was all Robinson's work. However, I place very little blame on Hill.
His only real mistake was pump faking on third down and proceeding to get sacked. However, no quarterback is going to sense the sack every single time. Other than that, the Rams got a lot of pressure and Hill spent most of the second half handing the ball off to Gore or throwing little dump offs to Gore, Foster and Robinson. I realize it would have been nice to drop another couple touchdowns on the Rams, but in reality, this was one time when a super conservative game plan made sense. You've shown what you can do, now let's just get through the game without any big injuries.
Now to the fun stuff. One area of criticism about Hill is what most describe as a weak throwing arm. He isn't a guy who will throw many deep balls to keep the defense honest. The good news is that what throws he can make, he has done with precision and accuracy. His two weakest throws were throws that actually needed that kind of soft touch. The first was his 31 yard pass to DeShaun Foster. He ran a play action fake and bootlegged to his right before lofting an arcing pass to the wide open DeShaun Foster, who had slipped into a big hole between the linebackers and the secondary. The other saw Hill in the shotgun and pressure forming around him. He stepped up and lofted another arcing pass, this time to Michael Robinson, who had slipped past a covering linebacker and took the 36 yard reception down to the Rams 1.
While the touch Hill showed wasn't the prettiest thing in the world, he hit the spots absolutely perfectly. Soft passes certainly have a shot at being intercepted, but Hill wisely chose the perfect time to get the ball past the defenders.
One thing I found particularly interesting was the game plan for the passing game as compared to the Monday Night game. Against the Cardinals, the 49ers used a lot of short crossing patterns that allowed the receivers to use their speed advantage against linebackers in the middle. Hill was 19 for 40 and struggled at times with his rhythm. Against the Rams, Hill threw downfield a bit more and showed great accuracy and efficiency, as evidenced by his perfect rating in the first half.
The team also used numerous quick slant passes to wide receivers. The trio of quick slant patterns, the aggressive use of the shotgun and Hill's ability to step up in the pocket allowed the offensive line to put together as good a game as they've had all year. It's also ironic that J.T. O'Sullivan got into the game and on his first pass he got creamed in the backfield (although he did get the ball off). My favorite reason for having Hill starting is his decision making, whether it be getting rid of the ball quickly or knowing when pressure is coming. JTO just lacked that instinct. One possible reason for this could be that Hill knows he lacks the physical tools so he has to use his smarts, whereas O'Sullivan thinks he has the physical tools to wing it a little more.
Whatever the case may be, we're going to need the Shaun Hill from this past week to show up if we want to beat the Cowboys. Cleary the Cowboys are several notches above the Rams and it won't be so easy. However, if Shaun Hill continues to make quick, good decisions, I think he could excel against the Cowboys. A big plus would be to get Josh Morgan back, but those groin injuries can be tricky. If Morgan misses more time, maybe Hill can continue to develop chemistry with Bryant Johnson and Jason Hill. I think the offense is talented enough to hang with the Cowboys. They'll just need to play a smart, efficient game. Fortunately that is a speciality of Shaun Hill.