The 49ers Go Deep

Jared Wickerham

San Francisco finally called a number of deep shots in Sunday's game against New England. We take a look at what it could mean for the offense going forward.

This Sunday, Colin Kaepernick exploded for 4 touchdown passes through the air, with 3 of them going for at least 20 yards.

The 4 touchdown performance is an interesting San Francisco note, because it had not been accomplished since Jeff Garcia in 2003. But, even more interesting to me, is the fact that, this year, only one other quarterback has thrown 3 touchdown passes of 20+ yards in a single game: Aaron Rodgers. He's done it twice - once against the Cardinals, and once against Houston.

Kaepernick's performance was truly a good one in terms of aerial attack (obviously ball-handling is a different story). This game seemed to be, quite clearly, our most aggressive game through the air all season.

After checking through the game logs of every 49er game this year, our 9 shots down-field Sunday were indeed the most of any game this year, with the closest being 7 against the Jets: and that was a rather anemic offensive game where at least one deep shot involved Kaepernick.

At first, this Sunday's game gave me, and perhaps many of you, hope that our offense had turned a corner. Not that our offense was ever bad, because we are the third most efficient in the league on a per play basis, and we had done very well avoiding three-and-outs, moving the ball, and switching field position when not scoring. It's just that there is always room for improvement.

Many of us want to see an offense that can actually hit a go route every once and a while. That's all. Nothing too crazy. Just pull back on a five step drop and send one deep down the sidelines and let your guy run under it. Maybe get one of those nonsense DPI calls that the "good passing teams" always seem to benefit from.

It appeared we opened up the game a number of times against the Patriots. So have we turned a corner? Will deep shots become a regular fixture in our offense or was this anomaly? I offer some evidence and some thoughts below on what I believe, and I open the floor to anyone and everyone else, because I really want to know.

Exhibit A - Alex Smith's comments to the media

When Alex Smith was "benched/demoted", or whatever word you like to use, a lot of us speculated that it might be because he "held the offense back." Finally, with Colin Kaepernick getting the nod, Head Coach Jim Harbaugh and Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman would start taking more shots downfield.

But for weeks after The Kid had been taking every game snap, that never really seemed to happen. We were running the same exact offense as we did with Alex, except with more trickery and a more explosive, creative quarterback.

Just a bit after it was officially announced, Alex talked to the media and said something interesting that got me asking myself a lot of questions:

"I feel like the only thing I did to lose my job was get a concussion."

Okay. Wait a second, Alex. You mean, Harbaugh never once came up to you and said, "Hey, Alex. We really love how accurate and safe you are with the ball. But we need you to take more shots down the field, okay?" Harbaugh never said, "Hey, Alex, we need to get our third down success up; so we need you to be willing to force some throws into tight windows. Otherwise Kaepernick's gonna be in there sooner than later."

If he had, then why would Alex say that all he did to lose his job was get a concussion? If Harbaugh had forewarned him that more deep shots were needed, Alex would have been taking them; and Alex would have known exactly why he lost his job.

But that conversation never happened because, at least as my hypothesis goes, Harbaugh and Roman don't want their quarterback taking more deep shots.

So why did we do it on Sunday? That brings us to...

Exhibit B - New England's pass defense

The game in New England looked like someone had really let the chains loose on our passing offense, and it resulted, as mentioned, in 3 touchdown passes over 20+ yards and only 1 interception.

The interception was in the endzone on a young mistake by Kaep, but a 4-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio is more than acceptable when your offense is forcing the issue deep, in my opinion. Ideally, such a trade-off works out in your favor.

Especially against a bad pass defense.

Heading into this weekend, New England ranks dead last in 20+ yard pass plays given up. They've given up at least one big pass play in every game this year, and 67 such plays altogether. Good for about 4.7 a game. We racked up 3 against them Sunday.

For comparison's sake, Seattle's defense has only given up 33 such plays, or about 2 a game. San Francisco has done the same.

The Patriots have also given up the most amount of 20+ yard pass plays for touchdowns, at 15. San Francisco, believe it or not, has only given up 1 all year (how crazy is that?).

So if there was ever a time to open up the playbook a bit and utilize some deep throws, it would be against New England. Unfortunately, that means we have not turned any kind of corner; we were simply game-planning correctly for a team with a very poor pass defense.

One would not expect us to take shots like this against Seattle.

Conclusion

People have different opinions on the conservatism of our offense. Some thought it was Alex Smith, but with the cuteness of college plays and option reads, the still occasional use of the jumbo package, and the continuous "play for field goals" mentality under The Kid -- along with Smith's own comments -- I wonder if that's true.

We have 1.5 more losses than we should, not because Akers missed two kicks, but because we got within 50 yards for a field goal and our play-calling changed.

Some believe Harbaugh and Roman are "hiding their hand", until playoff time; but I question that. It's not like San Francisco is such a good team, so many eons beyond everyone else, that they can afford to not play their best football for 3/4 of the season, in order to have an advantage heading into the post-season.

And if that were true, then why go deep now against New England? Why not save it for the NFC Championship Game and then give your Super Bowl opponent a mere two weeks to figure out what the heck they're gonna do to stop you? Why unleash it now?

Which leaves us with the opinion I am currently holding on to: Harbaugh/Roman are going to continue to amaze, astound, and otherwise-stupify us all with their conservatism, their lack of deep shots, their college-esque play-calling, and their box-stacking runs week in, week out.

Even though there were many deep shots against New England, that was because of their very poor pass defense - it was a specific game-plan against a specific team, nothing more.

For the rest of the season, expect us to revert back to our usual offense.

At the very least, however, we can hold on to the hope and the knowledge that, when necessary, our offense can in-fact open up the game and start heaving it. Even if it's not something we continue to do each and every week, at least we know such plays exist. More importantly, at least other teams know such plays exist.

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