Sunday's game against the Raiders netted some uncharacteristic results for the 49ers in the red zone, but they still found a good deal of success down inside the 20. Late in the second quarter, the team was driving down the field in the final two minutes. However, the drive stalled on the Raiders seven in part because Alex Smith needed to spike the ball on 2nd and 4. This resulted in a rare field goal inside the red zone. Not awful, but not the norm when the team has gotten into the red zone.
The other rarity was that the 49ers scored their first touchdown from outside the red zone. The team's lack of big scoring plays had been a problem and so it was nice to see the big 32-yard touchdown pitch and catch between Smith and Michael Crabtree. It'd be nice if the team could figure out a way to do that on a slightly more regular basis, if even just one time per game. A guy can dream, can't he?
On defense, the 49ers stepped up and shut down the Raiders inside the red zone as they were able to hold the Raiders to three field goals (two in the red zone). Outside of the field goals the Raiders were never able to get into the red zone. It's certainly nice to have a solid red zone defense, but obviously you'd prefer to avoid allowing the opposition into the red zone in the first place.
Now the 49ers travel to Carolina to battle a Panthers squad that actually has been fairly solid when it comes to red zone defense. The Panthers are ranked 8th in red zone defense, 14th in passing defense and 5th in rushing defense. On the other side the 49ers are actually still ranked fifth overall in the red zone after their victory over the Raiders.
The team has guys like Vernon Davis and Frank Gore to utilize in the red zone. The real question is whether the 49ers will build on their non-red zone touchdown from this past week. I'm pleased that the 49ers are finding success in the red zone, but they need to establish that deeper touchdown threat with a little bit more regularity. I'm not expecting two or three 20+ yard TDs every week, but a long TD bomb like that every game or two can be a game-breaker. If you're up by seven or ten points and you hit a long TD pass or a long TD run, you can crush the opposition's spirit.
Of course this is all assuming the team has the lead. But even if trailing a long TD can swing the momentum back to the 49ers. Has the evolution of the offense under Mike Johnson pushed us towards more of these big plays? Or was it more just a matter of time that eventually the 49ers would start to hit some of these bigger plays? Against the Raiders we saw a huge Gore run and the big Crabtree touchdown. Is it reason for optimism, or more a matter of even the sun shining on a dog's ass every once in a while (to quote a truly classic movie - guess if you can)?