The San Francisco 49ers had little trouble with the St. Louis Rams on Sunday in winning 26-0, but there was one area of concern for most of us. The 49ers were unable to punch in any touchdowns while in the red zone. While they got two big 50+ touchdown passes, they were 0-for-4 in punching the ball in when they got inside the 20. They came away with 12 points on field goals, but against better teams, touchdowns down close are key.
The 49ers have struggled in the red zone much of this season, with Football Outsiders ranking them 27th in the red zone heading into Sunday's game. That link goes to their premium content so it probably won't help many folks. Prior to Sunday, FO ranked the 49ers 15th in red zone passing offense and 29th in red zone rushing offense.
I took a look back at the film of the 49ers four red zone opportunities and I noticed a couple things, although nothing particularly earth shattering. I've got a quick breakdown of the red zone opportunities after the jump. The 49ers did not get particularly creative in the red zone, rushing nine times and passing three times. The most creative they really got was a Kendall Hunter Wildcat play.
On their first red zone attempt, the 49ers attempted a pass on 3rd and 7 at the Rams 18. Michael Crabtree ran a slant pattern from the right side of the field and Alex Smith fired in a pass. The ball went off Crabtree's hands and incomplete. Crabtree had a great game, but this was his only significant gaffe on the day. The middle of the field was wide open and the only tackler was DB Josh Gordy who was behind him. The ball might have been thrown a bit hard, but it is hard to tell in real time on the film. Crabtree probably should have caught it, but these things happen (see Vernon Davis later in the game).
The second red zone attempt came when the 49ers recovered an A.J. Feeley fumble at the Rams six. After a first down Frank Gore rush gained two, Gore attempted a second run on a sweep left. He was tripped up at the one, just shy of the end zone. They ran again on third and goal at the one but nothing materialized.
The third red zone attempt started at the ten yard line after Frank Gore ripped off a 20-yard rush. The defender just got a hand on Gore's leg and tripped him up, otherwise he gets into the end zone. On the first play, Chris Long got around Anthony Davis to sack Smith. I would argue Adam Snyder was a bit more responsible for this sack. The defensive tackle had gotten around him and forced Smith to step up into the pocket. Anthony Davis had moved Long past Smith, but then Long did a spin back and got on Smith for the sack. Anthony Davis could have done a better job, but this wasn't a straight blown assignment.
The second play on that attempt was a shotgun run and the third play was a short pass to Delanie Walker in the left flat that fell incomplete. Smith didn't appear to look towards the end zone on this play. He had a couple receivers running towards the back of the end zone, and I think he might have been better suited trying for something in the back corner or back middle of the end zone. At the same time, if he felt there was not enough room to get sufficient air on the pass, concerns of an interception might have been the reason for the short pass.
The final red zone attempt came when the 49ers were up 16-0. Kyle Williams ran a reverse to get them down to the Rams 17. On the first play, Frank Gore rushed seven yards down to the Rams seven. He was then stuffed for only a one-yard gain on the next play. On 3rd and a long 2, the 49ers decided to run the wildcat with Kendall Hunter. A seven-yard loss later and it was David Akers time once again.
I recognize the need to keep teams off balance with the wildcat, but I'm just not sure how valuable it is for a team like the 49ers. While they do have incredible athleticism to run the wildcat, it seems like they can get plenty creative and keep teams off balance without putting a non-QB into the shotgun snap. I don't think a reverse is necessarily the play they run in that situation given how close they were to the end zone, but maybe an i-formation fake handoff pitch sweep sort of play? It's just one option, but I've got to think it is better than the wildcat.
The 49ers red zone performance was fairly blah on Sunday. Although there were a couple extenuating circumstances, it seemed like the team was focused on pounding the ball against a normally porous rush defense. It didn't quite work out, but I can see why they chose to do what they did. Had that been another defense, I doubt we see the same heavy rushing in some of those circumstances.