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All-22 Breakdown of the 49ers inept passing offense

An in-depth analysis using All-22 film of how the 49ers struggled to provided pass protection, Kaepernick's inability to toggle through his progressions and how the Vernon Davis's replacement, Vance McDonald, missed on a glorious opportunity.

Ezra Shaw

2.1 yards. Yes, a whopping 2.1 yards was the average net yards per pass attempt for Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers Sunday against the Panthers. Ever since the 49ers began their five game winning streak following a 1-2 start, the story around the 49ers offense was their return to the running game, to smash mouth football, and how they had finally gotten back to 49er football. In reality, the 49ers simply overpowered the lesser opponents they faced and the lack of outside weapons, competent pass blocking and quarterback play were masked by the talent differential between the teams.

On Sunday, the elite Panthers defense exposed the 49ers for what they are, a one dimensional offense. After a dreadful performance Sunday, 49ers fans were left wondering if Kaepernick and his current crop of receivers could produce against a quality defense. In order to answer this vital question, let’s look at how the 49ers failed on at every level of throwing the football.

Pass Blocking: Long touted as the league's best offensive line because of the investment of high draft picks and ability to control the line of scrimmage in the run game, Joe Staley and Co. have always been ordinary at protecting the passer. Against one of the best defensive lines, if not the best, Kaepernick was under siege early and often, exposing this weakness.

Game Situation: 4th Quarter, 14:18, 3rd and 25 at the SF 29, 49ers 9, Panthers 7

Offensive Personnel: 2 WR (Anquan Boldin, Mario Manningham) 2 RB (Frank Gore, Bruce Miller) 1 TE (Vance McDonald)

Formation: Strong

Offensive Concept: Triple Option

Defensive Scheme: Cover 2

Pre-Snap: The Panthers begin to drop into their deep Cover 2 due to the down and distance.


Post-Snap: TE McDonald releases off the right end of the offensive line vertically on a seam route, which leaves RT Davis without help against DE Johnson on the right side.


As both backs slip out of the backfield on check down routes, RT Davis lunges forward to engage DE Johnson, a cardinal sin in pass blocking. With his weight and momentum forward, RT Davis is off balance allowing DE Johnson to control his next move.


As any quality defensive linemen would do, DE Johnson redirects RT Davis’s momentum upfield and slips past him towards QB Kaepernick.


This immediate pressure off the edge forces QB Kaepernick to scramble forward but DE Johnson manages to trip him up for a 4 yard loss.

Summary: Known as a mauler, Anthony Davis illustrated his inability to provide consistent pass protection on this play. The lack of technique displayed was even evident to someone with limited offensive line knowledge like myself. The lunge forward and subsequent loss of balance will be exposed by any NFL defensive linemen, let alone a top notch pass rusher like Charles Johnson.

As we know this sack in the fourth quarter was not an isolated incident on Sunday. Let's look at how fellow tackle Joe Staley and tight end Vernon Davis combined to let DE Hardy into the backfield with surprising ease in the 1st quarter.

Game Situation: 1st Quarter, 2:23, 1st and 10 at the SF 23, 49ers 3, Panthers 0

Offensive Personnel: 2 WR (Anquan Boldin, Mario Manningham) 2 RB (Frank Gore, Bruce Miller) 1 TE (Vernon Davis)

Formation: I Formation

Offensive Concept: Play action In Routes

Defensive Scheme: Cover 3


Pre-Snap: The 49ers motion TE Davis across the formation to an inline left position. The Panthers show a Cover 3 coverage with the two CBs playing with outside leverage and S Mitchell in a deep center zone.


Post-Snap: QB Kaepernick takes the snap and pivots on the fake handoff to RB Gore in the backfield. This action sucks up the defenders responsible for the underneath zones except for S Mikell who has walked into the box to give an 8 man front. On the outside, WR Boldin and Manningham run a 10 yard in route and 15 yard comeback route, respectively, with the expectation that the play fake will create space between the levels of the zone coverage.

On the left side of the offensive line, LT Staley and TE Davis are tasked with containing DE Hardy. They initially fail to do so with Staley reaching forward to create contact and Davis sliding too far inside giving DE Hardy an outside avenue.


QB Kaepernick’s first read is WR Boldin 10 yard in route but the drop of S Mikell has taken away the throwing lane. Instead of quickly progressing to his next read, WR Manningham’s comeback that was open due to LB Davis failing to recognize the playfake, QB Kaepernick continues to stare down WR Boldin.

After gaining outside leverage on LT Staley and TE Davis, DE Hardy displays excellent use of his hands to fend off blocks which allows him to continue unimpeded towards QB Kaepernick's blindside.


Feeling the incoming rush, QB Kaepernick attempts to escape the pocket by stepping up but DT Edwards, who has outmuscled RG Boone and RB Gore, is there for the sack.

Summary: Again a poor initial punch by an offensive linemen leads to a negative play for the 49ers. This time the defender responsible for the pressure managed to breeze through two potential blockers to create pressure in under two seconds and doom the play.

That being said, Colin Kaepernick should have been able to see the underneath defender drop early on the right side and switch his focus over to WR Manningham who was open on the left. This might seem harsh but the margin for error for quarterbacks in the NFL is razor thin. If he had progressed through his reads just a half second earlier he would have seen the underneath defender on the left side out of position and been able to release the ball as Manningham was breaking his route back towards the line of scrimmage. While he would have gotten crushed by DE Hardy’s, he most likely would have been able to complete the pass for positive yardage.

Despite that, the primary blame for this play’s failure still falls on the offensive line. But if Kaepernick wants to become an elite quarterback this is a play that needs to result in a chain moving completion.

The loss of Vernon Davis: The real change in the game was when Vernon Davis left the game in the middle of the 2nd quarter with a concussion, leaving the 49ers without their go to weapon in the passing game. Let’s look at how Davis’s replacement, rookie Vance McDonald, let a big opportunity slip through his hands.

Game Situation: 4th Quarter, 14:58, 2nd and 15 at the SF 39, 49ers 9, Panthers 7

Offensive Personnel: 2 WR (Anquan Boldin, Mario Manningham) 2 RB (Frank Gore, Bruce Miller) 1 TE (Vernon Davis)

Formation: Ace Trips right

Offensive Concept: Seam Route

Defensive Scheme: Cover 2


Pre-Snap: The 49ers motion TE McDonald and FB Miller from the backfield to create a trips left bunch formation. QB Kaepernick sees the Cover 2 and let's the play roll knowing his target will be TE McDonald down the seam.


Post-Snap: As Kaepernick hits the final step of his drop the route combinations of the three deep receivers become clear, WR Manningham and Boldin are running corner routes to force the safeties to slide farther towards the outside leaving TE McDonald with only LB Kuechly covering him on the seam route.seamstill3

With the play developing perfectly and TE McDonald gaining a step of separation from LB Kuechly, QB Kaepernick throws a perfect ball down the seam into the open space deep between the safeties.


QB Kaepernick’s pass arrives just over LB Kuechly’s shoulder and TE McDonald grabs it for what seems to be a huge gain. Unfortunately for the 49ers, TE McDonald fails to secure the football immediately allowing a phenomenal play from LB Kuechly to pry the ball loose.

Summary: With a healthy Vernon Davis, this is an easy 7 points. His elite speed is simply too much for any LB even one of Kuechly’s quality to run with, and given one on one coverage he has consistently hauled in deep passes for big time plays. Instead, TE McDonald gains only a step of separation and allows Kuechly to jar the ball loose creating a difficult 3rd and 15 instead of 1st and 10 in field goal range.

The importance of Davis is best reflected through the stats of his quarterback when he is in the game compared when he isn't. When Davis is on the field Kaepernick’s QBR is a ridiculous 81.7 but when Davis is on the sideline it drops to a Blaine Gabbert-esque 13.1. More so 78 percent of Kaepernick’s touchdown passes are to Davis this season a full 21 percent greater than the second highest. While a significant drop off is expected when a team loses multiple receiving weapons, 45 net passing yards and 9 points are simple unacceptable in the NFL.

While Sunday’s game can be attributed to rust or the sudden loss of Vernon Davis and Eric Reid, some troubling tendencies from the early struggles re-emerged. Mainly, the offensive line is unable to provide pass protection against elite pass rushers, the 49ers have given up 13 sacks in their 3 losses compared to 7 in their 6 wins, and Kaepernick’s limitations as a pocket passer.

We all know his weapons are significantly diminished, but outside of the Packers game, there has been no progression in his capability to read defenses from the pocket and beat teams vertically. His success throwing the ball this season having has mainly come from single read plays, like the McDonald seam route above, and throwing outside of the pocket, throws that will be taken away by quality defenses.

The good news for 49ers fans is that Kaepernick has shown the ability to pass the ball effectively if given adequate receivers that can create separation and reduce the need for reading the defense. The return of Manningham was helpful but in reality a true number 1 wide receiver is needed for a deep playoff run. Whether Crabtree can return from a torn Achilles and provide that is yet to be seen, but there's hope.