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Do the 49ers settle for too many field goals in the red zone?

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After settling for five field goals last week against the Chiefs, we take a look at the 49ers ability to finish drives in the red zone.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco 49ers offense has a problem finishing drives and it was a problem that reared its head frequently against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Leaning on Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde — especially in the second half — the Niners offense moved the ball effectively, physically beating up the Chiefs front seven for most of the game. San Francisco punted just twice, which also happened to be their only two three-and-outs. Six additional drives on the day (excluding the final drive, which featured only kneel downs) all produced points, including four drives that traveled 50 yards or more on 10-plus plays.

In all, San Francisco’s eight drives averaged nine plays, 46.1 yards, and 2.75 points. All three would lead the league after five weeks of the season. Yet, with five of those six scoring drives falling short of the end zone, it was hard to come away from that game without feeling like the Niners failed to capitalize on some opportunities.

Frustration with long drives that turn into field goals is nothing new for 49ers fans. It’s right up there with politely requesting that Colin Kaepernick snap the ball before the play clock expires and wanting the team to do the opposite of whatever Greg Roman actually did… you know, unless it works. But is frustration over San Francisco’s supposed propensity to settle for field goals on otherwise successful, time-consuming drives actually warranted? Turns out it is.

Team Drives (10+ plays) FG att %FG Rank
49ers 92 57 61.96% 1
Vikings 86 46 53.49% 2
Titans 74 39 52.70% 3
Ravens 95 47 49.47% 4
Texans 83 41 49.40% 5

Since Jim Harbaugh took over as head coach in 2011, the Niners have had 92 drives of at least 10 plays (what I’ll be referring to as "long drives" from here on out). Nearly 62 percent of San Francisco’s long drives have resulted in a field goal attempt, the highest rate in the NFL by a significant margin. The Vikings, with the second-highest percentage, are closer to the 16th-ranked Dolphins than they are to the 49ers.

Team Drives (10+ plays) TD %TD Rank
49ers 92 27 29.35% 32
Jaguars 78 23 29.49% 31
Vikings 86 26 30.23% 30
Buccaneers 75 23 30.67% 29
Bears 81 25 30;86% 28

As you would imagine with such a large gap over the rest of the field, the Niners don’t rank well in percentage of long drives that result in a touchdown. In fact, there isn’t a single team — not even the Jaguars — that has turned long drives into touchdowns at a lower rate than the Niners (29.35%) since 2011. Focusing in on long drives that make their way into the red zone, the exact same pattern holds true; San Francisco has the highest field goal percentage (57.35%) and the lowest touchdown percentage (38.24%).

Before we attempt to look at some of the reasons why San Francisco is stalling at the end of drives, it’s important to note that, despite the above numbers, Harbaugh’s offense has generally been pretty good in the red zone. According to Football Outsiders’ DVOA, San Francisco fielded the eighth-best red zone offense in 2013 and the 11th-best in 2012. They’ve been a bit worse so far in 2014 (19th) but it’s still early enough in the season that one or two poor games — such as last week against the Chiefs — can skew the data.

Beyond including all red zone plays rather than just the ones occurring on long drives, the discrepancy between what DVOA sees and the data in the above tables is primarily due to the Niners avoiding outcomes worse than kicking a field goal. Of their 68 long drives that ended in the red zone, San Francisco has failed to produce points on just six of them. Those six drives resulted in three missed field goals, two turnovers on downs, and an interception.

While it might not always be indicative of optimal decision making, field goals aren’t evil and putting points on the board is clearly preferable to turning the ball over. Under Harbaugh, there’s no denying the Niners have been able to do exactly that.

That said, there’s a lot of value in getting into the end zone rather than sending out the kicker. The most successful teams at finishing long drives with touchdowns are also the teams most would consider to be some of the best offenses in football over the last few years: the Packers (48.28%), Seahawks (47.69%), Saints (46.85%), and Broncos (46.24%).

So what is it that’s causing San Francisco’s offense to stall at the end of drives? It would take a more exhaustive look at the drives in question to say with certainty, but there are a few possibilities.

Many will point to more conservative play-calling from Greg Roman once the Niners make their way into scoring range. While I think that’s overblown in many cases, Roman and Harbaugh aren’t as aggressive as they probably should be going for it on fourth down, especially inside the red zone. The quality of opposition is another significant consideration. San Francisco has faced a top-10 slate of opposing defenses for each of the last three seasons, per Football Outsiders, including the third-toughest schedule in 2013. Having to face the quality defenses of the NFC West for six games a year doesn’t exactly make life easier for your offense. Another strong possibility is simply a lack of execution on behalf of the players.

Given that we’re talking about 53 game sample in the Harbaugh era, it’s likely that San Francisco’s issues have been some combination of those factors (and possibly a few others). However, last week against the Chiefs it was the offense’s inability to execute that was the largest reason why Phil Dawson got so much work.

Following a misfire from Anquan Boldin on first-down trick play, Roman calls for a designed QB run from Colin Kaepernick on second-and–10. The Niners got the look they must have been hoping for, as there’s a large gap in the Chiefs defense off of right tackle Jonathan Martin. Frank Gore’s action into the flat (pulling the play-side linebacker with him) and a great seal block from Martin open up the initial alley for Kaepernick to run through. But two key blown blocks prevent Kaepernick from breaking into the open field.

Alex Boone is working up to the second level to seal off the backside linebacker, Josh Mauga (90). However, his angle is too flat and Mauga is able to easily side-step the block, make his way into the rushing lane, and assist in bringing down Kaepernick.

Coming across the formation from his initial backfield alignment, Derek Carrier is responsible for kicking out the edge defender to the play-side, Justin Houston (50). His path to the block is a good one, but he fails to get his head on Houston’s inside shoulder and doesn’t get any power behind his block. Houston knocks Carrier back before coming off the block and making the tackle.

The play was setup beautifully. If Boone and Carrier get those blocks, only safety Husain Abdullah stands between Kaepernick and the end zone. Instead, it’s just one of several missed scoring chances.

Now facing a third-and-five, San Francisco looks to spread things out. Based on Kansas City’s pre-snap alignment, Kaepernick thinks that he has Stevie Johnson singled up in man coverage to the single-receiver side of the formation. However, a deeper look at that pre-snap alignment from the Chiefs defense should’ve had Kaepernick questioning whether that’s what he would actually see once the ball was in his hands.

The combination of San Francisco’s trips look to the left of the formation with the six Chiefs defenders up at the line of scrimmage should be an indication to Kaepernick that he’s unlikely to see a two-high safety defense. Most defenses are going to check into a single-high safety look against trips and not often will a team will play with two-high safeties behind a blitz. It would simply leave too much uncovered space underneath.

Sure enough, the Chiefs bring five pass rushers and defensive back Ron Parker (38) rotates down, jumping the slant route from Johnson. Kaepernick never checks the safety after the snap and throws a pass that should’ve been taken the other way for six.

It’s fine that Kaepernick wants to work the slant to Johnson as his first option, but he needs to confirm the look he expects to see after the snap. If Kaepernick is able to recognize the safety moving into the passing lane and work his way back to the smash route on the trips side, he’s got an easy throw to Vance McDonald in the corner of the end zone for a score.

Fast forward to the 49ers final drive of the game. On first-and-goal from the 9-yard line, Roman calls the play that had worked so well for the 49ers offense throughout the game: the inside zone. From the Chiefs pre-snap alignment, the Niners should be able to get a hat on a hat to the play-side as they have five blockers for the five Chiefs defenders to the right of the formation.

Carlos Hyde is initially looking to attack the play-side A-gap — the space between center Daniel Kilgore and Boone. Martin gets a nice block on defensive end Jaye Howard (96), allowing Boone to get up to the second level immediately. Though he wasn’t able to quite hook him, Kilgore is doing a solid job on Dontari Poe (92) in the middle. Where things break down is with the lead block of fullback Bruce Miller.

Despite the success of the running game, Miller had a rough day and this was a prime example. I would love to know what Miller was doing on this play, because it makes zero sense. He jumps completely out of the hole and out of the way of linebacker James-Michel Johnson (52). Miller’s action gives Johnson a free run at Hyde, clogs up a cutback lane between Kilgore and Mike Iupati, and forces Hyde right into Tamba Hali (91) who is charging hard down the line of scrimmage.

I don’t know if Hyde ends up scoring on the play, but if Miller makes that block the Niners offense is looking at a much more manageable situation on second and third down.

A play later, Roman went back to the exact same inside zone look we saw above, but instead opting to have Kaepernick keep the ball on the boot to take advantage of Hali crashing too hard down the line. Hali decided to stay home and held up Kaepernick long enough to prevent the touchdown, leaving San Francisco with a third-and-goal from the 10-yard line.

Here, Roman calls a sprint out to the wide side of the field. After motioning to a stacked alignment, Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin give Kaepernick a hi-lo combination to the sideline; Crabtree goes quickly to the flat with Boldin running a deep out to the front pylon of the end zone.

Kaepernick gets good protection, and with the help of a push, Boldin gets separation on the deep out route. As he’s about to release the ball, Kaepernick has roughly 12 yards of open real estate to throw to in front of Boldin for the score. With an arm like the rocket attached to Kaepernick’s right shoulder, it should be an easy throw for a game-clinching touchdown. Instead, the pass sails high and Boldin is unable to bring it in. The 49ers are forced to settle for their fifth field goal of the day, keeping the Chiefs’ hopes for a game-winning drive alive.


When things don’t go as planned, it’s easy to blame the coaching staff for not doing things differently. But it’s difficult to point to anything specific Harbaugh and Roman should’ve changed. The opportunities for touchdowns were there, they were simply missed.

It’s unreasonable to expect the Niners offense to have turned all five of those field goals into touchdowns. But if even a couple of those red zone plays break the Niners direction, we’re talking about an offense that rolled on its way to a blowout victory, not one that’s struggling to put points on the board.