It is my opinion that our offensive line is primarily to blame for our offensive woes. I hope the various sections of this post below will shed some light on that issue. We are going to look at our offensive line from the perspective of both rushing and passing. On the whole, it should be obvious that we employ one of the worst lines in all of football and that Frank Gore and Alex Smith have somehow managed to look very good in spite of this fact.
Who Dat Say Dey Gonna Stop da Pass Rush?
Most of us have seen Alex's numbers against the blitz at some point this season: 3rd in the league behind only Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady (not bad company). Arizona was able to mix up some effective blitzing this Sunday, and their pass rush on the whole was disastrous for the 49ers. Combine that with the number of silly false start penalties we incur and it becomes slightly more obvious why we face so many third-and-longs. Same story against the Ravens, who boast the league's best pass rush; same story all season long.
Going into this past Sunday's game our offensive line led the league in acquiescing quick sacks (defined as sacks taken in 2.5 seconds or less). That's the correct word, too:
Acquiesce. verb. - To accept something reluctantly but without protest.
The blame for quick sacks is put on the line or the blocking scheme, while long sacks are typically put on the quarterback or the receivers. For example, Roethsliberger taking a long sack is usually on him holding the ball, while Bradford taking one is probably because his receivers suck.
Combine the number of quick sacks with Smith's usual effectiveness against the blitz and the real culprit in our pass rush woes becomes pretty clear: the offensive line.
None of this is to say Smith cannot improve, or that he did not have a pretty underwhelming day against both Baltimore or Arizona. It is more to say that Smith's performance on-the-whole this year has been among the best in the league at his position - and when you take into account that he has the league's worst offensive line in regards to quick sacks and total sacks per drop-back, his performance as an individual looks even better. I mean, honestly, he's not just doing as good as one could expect given our line; he's doing better.
Here's the relevant data concerning Alex Smith and the 9 other quarterbacks who lead the league in quick sacks (not including Week 13 or Week 14, which would put Smith's up further and some of these others down):
- Rank. NAME - Percent (# of sacks); QB Rating
- C. HENN - 5.08% (06); 79.0 rating
- J. SKELT - 4.10% (05); 66.8 rating
- T. TEBO - 4.03% (06); 83.9 rating
- A. SMITH - 3.87% (12); 91.5 rating
- C. PAINT - 3.57% (09); 66.6 rating
- T. JACKS - 3.57% (12); 77.9 rating
- M. MOOR - 3.52% (08); 86.1 rating
- K. KOLB - 3.40% (08); 81.1 rating
- B. GABB - 3.30% (09); 65.3 rating
- B. ROET - 3.27% (13); 96.8 rating
Out of the whole group, only Big Ben and Alex broke the 90's in terms of rating. But Smith is getting sacked quickly on a much larger percentage of his drop backs. For comparison, here are the 8 quarterbacks who are beating Smith in rating this year and their quick sack rate (other than Roethlisberger, who was listed above):
- A. RODG - 2.69% (10); 123.3 rating
- T. BRADY - 1.86% (08); 106.0 rating
- D. BREE - 1.92% (09); 105.9 rating
- T. ROMO - 1.30% (05); 100.6 rating
- M. SCHA - 2.34% (07); 96.8 rating
- E. MANN - 1.95% (08); 95.5 rating
- M. STAFF - 1.77% (08); 92.6 rating
If Smith had taken as many drop-backs as some of these guys, he'd be nearing 20 quick sacks. On the flip side, imagine if Smith had the protection of, say, Drew Brees or Tom Brady - what would Smith's numbers look like? It would be really naive to assume his rating would not improve. Tony Romo, who most would consider below "elite" level, is getting three times more protection from quick sacks than Alex. If Alex had that protection, would his rating jump up 10 points to 101.5 - just ahead of Romo? Let's be more modest and say 5 to 6 points. That still puts Smith among the top 5 quarterbacks in the league in terms of strict passer rating.
Why would Smith's numbers not improve at least that much if he had even half the protection some of these guys are privileged with?
Normal and Long Sacks
First, I need you to stop laughing at that header.
Second, there are only 7 quarterbacks in the league who take more normal sacks (2.6 to 2.9 seconds) than quick ones (one of them is Vince Young, whose sample size is very small). On average the number of sacks a quarterback takes drops 0.7805% between quick and normal ones (0.845% if you don't count Vince). Alex Smith is above that average at 0.94% - which is good; it means as Smith has more time he is taking less sacks than average. What this means is there is a positive correlation between reducing quick sacks and reducing normal ones, which also says that, much like quick sacks, there is a correlation between normal sacks and line play. Better lines give up less quick sacks, and even fewer normal sacks.
For the most part, therefore, normal sacks are at least partly the fault of the offensive line. The reverse can pretty much be said of long sacks (again, for the most part). The average quarterback takes 1.30% more long sacks than normal ones, and 0.57% more long sacks than short ones. Again, Smith is on the good side of both these averages, at 0.00% and -0.94%, respectively. This roughly means that, given the pressure Smith is receiving in general, he is taking less long sacks than most quarterbacks. Most quarterbacks, despite receiving less pressure in general, give up a higher percentage of long sacks than Smith.
In the Red Zone
Speaking from a very narrow perspective, it would be better to throw one touchdown and one interception every two red zone trips, then to settle for two field goals. Not only is that true in general (7 points verse only 6), it might be even more true given the stellar play of our defense. Who cares if we throw a pick in the red zone if the opposing team now has to start within their own 10? Most of the time they will not go much of anywhere, and Alex and company will have fantastic field position on the ensuing drive.
Prior to Smith's red zone interception the first time we played Arizona, he had gone 142 consecutive passes without one - trailing only Peyton Manning (again, not bad company). While this has typically been lauded (along with Smith's overall red zone numbers) as impressive, I would say not so much. Historically, yes, because while Smith was not turning the ball over in years prior, he was also scoring touchdowns. This year, however, not throwing interceptions has been less impressive because the team is consistently walking away with 6 points in two red zone attempts rather than 7, or even 10.
Mind you, just because we are willing to accept more red zone turnovers does not mean we have to believe it will occur 50% of the time. Let's say we accept a still-incredibly-high turnover-over percentage of 25. That leaves us with 3 scoring drives (out of 4). Make two of those touchdowns and one a field goal and next thing you know we're getting a 50% touchdown percentage (good for 18th in the NFL - better than 32nd!) and putting up 17 points in 4 red zone visits rather than 12.
While the above is more-or-less academic, it has philosophical relevance. Overall red-zone performance has taken a significant decline and it is clearly time to throw caution to the wind. While Smith has historically played conservative in the red zone, there was a time where his red zone numbers had Rodgers-like vigor. Not so much this year:
Smith inside the red zone: 19 of 48, 39.6%; 130 yards; 7 touchdowns; one interception; 78.5 rating.
That's pretty absurd.
Smith outside the red zone: 202 of 310, 65.1%; 2435 yards; 8 touchdowns; 4 interceptions; 92.34 rating.
So what is the difference between this year and years prior? Well, sadly, along with all the blatant improvements of this team, our one glaring step backwards might also have to be placed on Jim Harbaugh.
Criticizing Harbaugh is hard because he seems like a God compared to Singletary and Nolan; and at the end of the day I do think Harbaugh is a genius and is usually just trying to work with what he thinks he's got to work with. Having said that, there is legitimate criticism to be made of the conservativeness of his and Roman's game plan. Early on in the season the criticism seemed misplaced because we were a team coming off a 6 - 10 record with no off-season and a totally new scheme to learn. While we all wanted to shake our heads at Harbaugh declining that penalty against Dallas that would have resulted in a first down and instead accepting the Akers field goal, at the same time we had to sort of cringe with patient understanding. The decision was objectively incorrect - no matter how you look at it - but maybe it could be tolerated in the grand scheme of things.
Still, there is a sense that this team plays scared on offense, and that magnifies as we get closer to the red zone where our play-calling really tightens up.
In 114 red zone plays, we have rushed 66 times for a very underwhelming 2.1 yards per attempt. This includes, as many of you will remember, very frustrating 4th down runs up the gut for little-to-no gain. The one time we passed in the red zone on 4th down we beat Detroit at Ford Field (true, but slightly misleading sentence for the sake of dramatization). While the conservative play-calling does not help anyone's numbers, you could call as many runs up the gut as you wanted if your line was half-way decent; but our ineffective red zone rushing is symptomatic of just that: terrible line play.
Oh, the Irony
The creativeness of some of our run plays works in the open field where we can rely much less on power and more on quickness; and the guys up front do have to be given credit for their intelligence in executing such plays. But compare our red zone rushing numbers above to those outside of it:
Outside the red zone rushing: 325 rush attempts for 1514 yards; 4.65 per attempt.
More-than-respectable numbers, and ironic considering two things: first, Gore's reputation as a power running back; and second, Harbaugh's reputation for utilizing a power running scheme.
Well, as things often go with media-types, both these common stereotypes are wrong when applied to this year's Niners. On the whole, we employ the worst power/inside running game in all of football - and this is not an exaggeration. When we run outside the tackles with the very clever Harbaugh/Roman blocking schemes, or with the constant experimentation of sweeps and reverses, we are mostly successful. Anything we do between the tackles, however, is doomed to fail.
This is not Gore's fault - and most of us know this. How many times have we seen him run into a pile of bodies with no hole anywhere? Which is doubly odd for Gore given his propensity for finding even the tiniest of holes. How many times has he been swallowed in the backfield for negative yards? How many of you are prepared to put that on Gore's lack of vision, or lack of knowledge about the game, or lack of ability, or lack of youth when he's put together five consecutive 100 yard rushing games this season? 'Cuz I'm not. He has had yet another 1000 yard season and is doing great outside the red zone, where he is definitely one of the top 5 backs in the league. The only thing holding Gore - and our team - back is our offensive line.
The folks at Football Outsiders rank our offensive line in terms of the rush 24th, including a power rushing rank of 31st (ahead of only the Rams). Our power success is determined by the percentage of times on 3rd or 4th down, with two or less yards to go, that we gain a first down or a touchdown. Our between the tackle running is also ranked 31st. Basically, when it comes to running it down people's throats in short yardage situations, or just up the gut in general, we do mostly nothing.
A large part of our offensive inefficiency in the red zone is the result of our inability to punch the ball down the middle; which is a result of poor line play. As a result our rushing attack is largely over-rated, while our passing offense is under-rated (FO ranks the Niners' pass offense 13th in DVOA, which measures per-play value relative to defense).
What success we do have on the ground is due more to Hunter and Gore making plays themselves than it is to stellar line play. For example, our best ranking comes in the open field, where we rank 6th, along side such teams as Philadelphia and Chicago. They also have terrible offensive line rankings according to FO; and this makes it all clear that, like us, they rely heavily on their running backs to make plays themselves despite not getting the necessary blocks.
We lead the NFL with the most amount of negative runs to the left, but are tied for 7th for 10+ yard runs in that direction; and we are 8th worst in negative runs to the right, but 9th for 10+ yard runs - two perfect examples of our backs' big play ability, as well as our lack of proper, consistent blocking. And in the center, by far our worst running spot, we rank tied for 4th worst in negative runs and a measly 18th in 10+ yard runs. We also rank 28th in power up the gut.
On the whole, we have more negative runs than any other team in the NFL.
We can not convert on 3rd and short situations, we can not run the ball near the end zone, and when we run on first or second down we seem to either get a big run for more than 10 yards or we get stuffed for a loss, which sets up low percentage 2nd and 3rd and long situations. Contrary to public opinion, it is our rushing attack - not our passing attack - which is hampering our offense; and it is all the fault of our terrible offensive line. Oh, the irony.
- We employ the worst power running game in football, and the worst between-the-tackles running game. As if that did not make matters worse enough for Smith and Gore, we also employ the league's worst pass protection.
- Despite this, Smith and Gore are playing objectively well. You could approach anyone who thought our line was average and they would admit Alex Smith is having a good season. They would say the same about Gore.
- Given how bad our line is, Alex Smith and Frank Gore's numbers look superb. Some people will not like me using that word, so maybe I can get everyone to agree that their numbers are better than one could reasonably expect given the context.
- If our line actually played on par with the league average, then imagine what the ceiling would be for these two?
- Imagine what Hunter would look like with an average NFL line. Imagine Ginn blazing down the field and Smith having time to throw it to him. Imagine Crabtree and Williams going deep as well; and Vernon, Walker, Morgan, Edwards.
- Our line is bringing down our entire team. Our line alone is the single greatest factor in preventing this team's offense and all its weapons from making the next step towards becoming a dangerous unit.
- This post has been too objective, so let me now boldly declare that we will win a Superbowl this year if we fix our line play in the next three weeks - or if Smith and company play the best month of their lives in spite of it.
- Allow me to further say we are legitimate contenders for another dynastic run if our line improves. Three years from now, Alex Smith could have more rings than Steve Young (called it!).
In all seriousness, though, I think we should be using the pass to set up the run, rather than vise-versa. Games where we have come out swinging with the passing game are games where we have caught teams leaning in on us. We have actually been able to put points on the board early when we come out throwing. This sets up Gore and Hunter later. Instead, our offensive play-calling seems to really, really, really love running on really, really, really obvious running downs. I hope we come out firing on all cylinders against the Steelers. We need to throw the ball early, and not to Braylon Edwards either. I don't know who has this thought that we should throw to Braylon early, but until he gets in sync with Alex it's a bad idea. We desperately need our first drive this Monday to be a touchdown-producing one. That means you put the ball in the hands of people who can move the chains. My vote is Michael Crabtree.
Thanks for reading.