One of the hot topics of the 49ers seems to be whether they should "open things up" as the season goes on. On KNBR Steve Young said they would have to if they wanted to go far in December in January. The 49ers currently rank 31st in passing yards. It's safe to say the 49ers have gone 6-1 due to a defense that is flirting with an elite status and a running game that is both creative and punishing.
So far this season, the most prolific passing game was against the Eagles week four. Specifically, it was the third quarter, where Alex Smith completed all nine of his pass attempts for 179 yards and two touchdowns. Let's take a look at that quarter and see what made the 49ers so successful.
1st and 10 (14:56): 2 WR-1 TE-1 RB Formation
That formation is not a typo. The 49ers used their jumbo package and had Alex Boone lined up as an extra tackle...or tight end. Whatever you want to call it. Just know he didn't pull a Joe Staley on this play and go out for a pass. The 49ers max protected on this play, as Kendall Hunter stayed in to block. The Eagles rushed four, so Smith had plenty of time to throw. The Eagles played very soft coverage on the outside and Smith found Joshua Morgan on the sideline. It's hard to see what route he ran due to TV angles, but he either ran a deep out or a deep comeback.
2nd and 17 (13:23): 2 WR-2 TE-1 RB Formation
Both wide receivers were out wide to the right, while Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker lined up off left tackle. The Eagles played press coverage on Morgan, who was lined up in the slot, but played soft coverage on the outside. Walker ran a deep comeback route against the soft the coverage and Alex Smith completed an easy 11-yard pass. The Eagles showed blitz with their linebackers up the middle but then dropped them into coverage. They rushed four defenders again.
3rd and 6 (12:35): 3 WR-2 RB Formation
The Eagles again sent four rushers and the 49ers kept six in protection. The protection was decent, but defenders were pushing the line back to where Smith's drop was. Smith found Michael Crabtree underneath for a short two-yard pass, but the Eagles were all over it and he wasn't able to get any yards after the catch. Vernon Davis seemed to be coming open over the middle, but Smith took the first receiver who was open.
1st and 10 (9:30): 2 WR-2 TE-1 RB Formation
The Eagles sent four rushers and the pocket started to collapse pretty quickly. Smith took a three drop and threw a quick pass to Delanie Walker for a four yard gain. Not a big play, but a positive one. Smith again just took what the defense gave him and got the ball out quick.
2nd and 6 (8:50): 5 Wide Formation
One of the few times I have seen the 49ers go with an empty backfield. Kendall Hunter was split out wide to the right. The Eagles again played pretty soft coverage. Smith was flushed out of the pocket to the right and scrambles to buy time. Hunter does a great job of finding a soft spot in the Eagles defense on this play, and Smith is able to throw an accurate ball across his body to Hunter, who gains 44 yards on the play. This was two football players showing great awareness on a broken play.
2nd and 8 (7:28): 2 WR-2 TE-1 RB Formation
The Eagles blitzed their strong safety on this play, and Smith did a great job of recognizing it. Asante Samuel was playing a soft zone on Joshua Morgan, who was lined up on the strong safeties side. Morgan ran a quick slant right to the softest part of the Eagles defense and Smith hit him in stride for a 30-yard touchdown. It was a great read and throw by Smith, who lets Morgan do the rest with his running ability. Samuel didn't adjust to the route and stayed in his zone for far too long. The quick timing of the play didn't help matters for him either.
1st and 10 (5:30): 2 WR-1 TE-2 RB Formation
Michael Crabtree lined up to the left with Nmandi Asomugha playing soft man-to-man coverage against him. He was lined up about nine yards off of Crabtree. The Eagles rushed four on the play. Crabtree makes a great double move on the outside and Asomugha bit on it, which allowed to Crabtree to get by him. Smith made a great throw, dropping the ball between the cornerback and safety. Crabtree gained 38 yards on the play, which caused some boo's from the Philly crowd.
1st and 10 (4:08): 2 WR-1 TE-2 RB Formation
Bruce Miller ran to the left flat and Smith made a nice throw to him in stride. Miller caught the pass, beat the defender to the edge and turned up-field for a 15-yard gain. It was another quick pass where Smith threw an accurate ball that let the receiver make a play after the catch.
2nd and 8 (3:02): 3 WR-1 TE-1 RB Formation
Vernon Davis ran a five-yard out. Smith took the snap from shotgun, set his feet and threw a quick pass to Davis as he made his cut. The pass was on time and accurate, which allowed Davis to turn up-field and do what he does best: find the endzone.
Like the coaches said after the game, the 49ers did not change their game plan and open things up. This wasn't like the 2009 game against the Texans, where the 49ers went shotgun and three to four wideouts for the rest of the game. The Eagles got a 23-3 lead and their defense backed off. They played a lot of soft coverage, especially on the outside, and they mostly sent four rushers at the quarterback.
Considering the coverage the Eagles were playing, it's a good thing the 49ers didn't open it up and try to throw down the field. That would have played right into their hands. Instead, Smith took what the defense gave him. Only two of his nine passes went past the first down marker, yet he averaged about 20 yards per attempt.
The 49ers took advantage of the soft coverage they were seeing and ran comeback, short out and slant routes. Smith made smart, quick reads and let his receivers make plays by throwing the ball accurately and putting them in position to run after the catch.
That being said, I do agree that the 49ers need to open thing up as the season progresses. If they really want to contend with the Packers, Patriots, Steelers and Saints, then they have to be able to throw down the field effectively. They are already getting the reputation of being a "dink and dunk" team. Teams aren't going to start games playing soft coverage like the Eagles did in that third quarter.
They are going to have to make teams pay for loading up the box or playing underneath coverage. Smith has shown he can make the right reads and accurate throws on the short routes. The next step is hitting those big plays. With the run game the 49ers have, they can set up some big play action plays.
The good news is it's still early. The team has been in this system for about four months. They are only going to get more comfortable and are only going to gain more chemistry. They have time to develop their passing game. But until they realize its potential, the 49ers will be holding themselves back.