On a macro level, one of the biggest differences between last year’s 49ers and the current iteration is the lack of a dominant victory. Jim Harbaugh’s team rolled through a Charmin-soft middle of the 2013 schedule, picking on the dregs of the AFC South on their way to five straight wins by an average margin of 22.6 points. The schedule hasn’t been as friendly this go-around, and as a result the 49ers lack the type of start-to-finish demolition of an opponent we’ve seen from them numerous times over the past three seasons.
San Francisco’s average margin of victory in 2014 is just 7.3 points, and thanks to a 25-point loss to Broncos, the 49ers have actually been outscored by a single point on the season. Their biggest win, a 14-point contest in St. Louis, was never truly out of reach. The Rams had the ball with just over a minute to go and a chance to tie before Dontae Johnson picked off an Austin Davis pass and took it to the house to provide the final margin.
Five Eli Manning turnovers a week ago gave the 49ers ample opportunity to secure their first blowout victory of the campaign, but repeated visits into the red zone all came up short and San Francisco ultimately required a 4th-and-goal stop late to preserve the win. Now, as they head back to the west coast for the remainder of the regular season, the Niners will have another opportunity to impose their will on an inferior opponent. What pitfalls must they avoid this week against Washington to make it happen? Let’s run through some of the most important.
Take Advantage of Washington’s Coverage Blunders
The names on the backs of the jerseys in Washington’s secondary might be different than a year ago, but the results have been mostly the same. With DeAngelo Hall on IR after suffering a torn Achilles, only safety Brandon Meriweather remains from last year’s starting four.
Veteran safety Ryan Clark made his way over from Pittsburgh this past offseason, and at cornerback Washington starts a pair of youngsters in rookie Bashaud Breeland and last year’s second rounder David Amerson. Unlike the 49ers, who have successfully integrated three new starters into their secondary, Washington’s new pieces on the backend haven’t meshed into a cohesive unit.
There are too many instances in which receivers are running free through Washington’s secondary. Most of my film study focused on Washington’s last two games (once RG3 returned from injury) against the Vikings and Bucs, but judging from their 29th-ranked pass defense on the season, this issue extends well beyond the past couple weeks.
Lapses in the secondary showed up against both Minnesota and Tampa Bay. However, the Vikings missed several opportunities while the Bucs capitalized.
Amerson (39) is lined up in press coverage over Cordarrelle Patterson at the top of the image, with Ryan Clark (25) as the deep safety in the middle of the field. Amerson does a poor job jamming Patterson at the line of scrimmage, putting him a little further behind in his trail technique than he’d probably like against a player with Patterson’s speed. Once he gets to midfield, Amerson suddenly decides he’s had enough of chasing Patterson, pulls up, and points as if he expects Clark to pick him up from there.
The problem with that is Clark was completely unaware of Amerson’s plans, as he’s breaking upfield on the tight end’s crossing route. Patterson is left with nothing but green grass ahead of him and no Washington defenders within 15 yards. It’s an easy touchdown… except Teddy Bridgewater overthrows it.
Josh McCown didn’t have as much trouble exploiting Washington’s mishaps. Rookie receiver Mike Evans topped 200 yards on the day and his first of two touchdowns featured a breakdown similar to the one in the Patterson play above.
Washington is in a Cover 2 look here. Evan’s comes in motion to the bottom of the image and Breeland (26) backs off as a result, preventing him from being able to get any kind of jam on the big receiver. Even though he starts much closer to the line of scrimmage than your typical deep-half depth, Clark stops his sprint to settle into a backpedal and look into the backfield only to realize McCown is already preparing to toss the ball over his head. Evans streaks uninhibited down the sideline for an easy score.
These shot plays have mostly been absent from the 49ers offense this season. Colin Kaepernick is throwing deep passes at roughly the same rate as he has in previous seasons, but he’s having less success when he does. Take a look at Kaepernick’s numbers on passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air, per Pro Football Focus:
Kaepernick was never going to continue completing deep balls at the insane rate he did in his first half-season as a starter, but the drop-off is larger that you would’ve hoped for considering his skill set.
San Francisco has been dialing up shot plays more frequently over the past couple weeks with mixed success. Sustaining drives running the ball and mixing in the short passing game is difficult to do on a consistent basis. Offenses have to be able to generate chunk yardage if they want to put points on the board, and against Washington the Niners should have those opportunities. They must take advantage.
Don’t Fall Behind Early
At their most effective (which still isn’t that great), Jay Gruden’s offense is able to give you a steady dose of Alfred Morris while setting up easier throws for Robert Griffin III by getting him on the move and utilizing play action. That conservative approach is fine when you’re playing with a lead or the game is close. It’s far more difficult to stick with once you fall behind. As it turns out, offenses with struggling quarterbacks aren’t very good at playing catch-up. Right now, Griffin is a struggling quarterback and Washington has one of those offenses.
An early 49ers lead not only limits Washington’s most effective element on offense, its run game, it also plays right into the strength of San Francisco’s defense. The Niners have the best pass defense in football through 11 weeks, and with the return of Aldon Smith, it only figures to get better down the stretch.
San Francisco’s defense has been stellar on early downs. Football Outsiders has the Niners as the league’s best first down defense and its second-best on second downs. That ranking falls all the way down to 24th on third downs, mostly stemming from the lack of a consistent pass rush. As I wrote about yesterday, that’s no longer an issue with no. 99 back in the fold.
Giving Aldon and Aaron Lynch the opportunity to pin their ears back and rush the passer on third and long only spells disaster for Robert Griffin & Co. Griffin has obviously been on the sideline for a large chunk of the season after dislocating his ankle early on, but when he’s played no quarterback has been pressured more frequently. Per PFF’s data, Griffin has been pressured on 52.1 percent of his drop-backs. Austin Davis is second (42.8%) and the gap between Davis and Griffin is roughly the same as it is between Davis and Kyle Orton, the 21st-most pressured quarterback.
All that pressure has contributed to a passing game that hasn’t been very good in most situations, and has been especially poor on third downs. Like, league-worst bad. And that was with their best offensive lineman, left tackle Trent Williams, in the lineup, a place he’s not likely to be on Sunday. Williams suffered a sprained MCL and ankle last week against Tampa Bay, and though he’s currently listed as questionable, it appears unlikely he’ll suit up in San Francisco.
In his place will be rookie third rounder Morgan Moses. Washington’s offensive line had already had its issues in pass protection this season, ranking 28th in adjusted sack rate. Removing one of the best left tackles in football from that equation could spell absolute disaster against a 49ers pass rush that seems poised to be a major problem the rest of the way.
In the last meeting between these two teams, Aldon was also searching for his first sack after an extended absence. He wound up beating Williams for two of them and a total of eight pressures on the day. Lining up against a rookie making his first career start on the road would seem to setup a similar fate this week.
Washington has a chance to avoid (or rather limit) that disastrous fate if they can jump out to an early lead. And if they manage to do so, it’s likely going to be because a certain speedy wide out got loose…
Don’t Let D-Jax Get Loose
When the 49ers have struggled defending the pass, it’s been a result of lapses on the backend that have led to big plays. Brandin Cooks getting free for a 31-yard touchdown. John Brown doing the same for two scores of more than 20 yards. Wes Welker down the left sideline for a 39-yard score. You get the idea.
None of those players are in the same hemisphere as DeSean Jackson as a vertical threat. And while there’s been a lot of ugly in Griffin’s two starts since returning from injury, he’s had success when targeting Jackson, including two plays over 40-plus yards.
Washington prefers to take their shot plays on first down, usually off of play action so that Griffin can get as much time as possible before launching the ball downfield. That’s exactly what we get on this play in the first quarter against the Vikings.
Jackson is aligned in the slot. The Vikings load up the box and have their corners in press man coverage with a lone safety deep over the top of Jackson. Jackson’s inside release beats the press and his move to the corner turns around the safety. On just a two-man route, Jackson is able to create a big play opportunity for Washington’s offense. Griffin drops it in over the top and the result is a 45-yard gain.
Griffin hasn’t yet shown the ability to make these throws consistently since returning from injury, especially when under duress. But he’s more than capable of making that throw if he gets time and with Jackson on the field, the threat is always there.
Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea will need to be on their game and cannot get sucked up by shallow routes and leave space for Jackson to get deep. Washington’s offense is unlikely to do much damage if you make them work for it; you can’t give them freebies by losing track of Jackson.
Avoid Special Teams Mistakes
The formula for many upsets tends to include a big special teams play or two. A blocked field goal. A kickoff return for a touchdown. A muffed punt that sets up the other team’s offense with great field position. You know the type.
Fortunately, this should be one of the easy ones to check off for the 49ers. Washington is one of the few teams that have had worse special teams than San Francisco this season. Football Outsiders currently pegs Washington’s special teams as the third-worst in football (one spot below San Francisco). Considering Washington fielded historically poor special teams a season ago, this doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon.
Almost a year ago to the day, the 49ers traveled to Washington for a Monday Night Football matchup in Week 13. San Francisco entered the game 6–4. Washington was struggling at 3–7. They might have taken different paths to get to those same records this season, but there are some parallels.
After dropping back-to-back games at the hands of the Panthers and Saints, the 49ers offense was a serious question mark entering last season’s game in Washington. New Orleans and Carolina sold out to stuff Frank Gore and the Niners’ rushing attack, exposing San Francisco’s inability to throw the ball against a quality opponent in the process. The prescription for righting the ship through the air proved to be Washington’s porous secondary.
Colin Kaepernick put up one of the most efficient games of his career that night. Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis made several big plays downfield as Kaepernick completed 15 of 24 passes (62.5%), compiling 235 yards (9.4 Y/A) and a 3-to–0 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Kaepernick’s 12.29 adjusted yards per attempt in that game still ranks as the second-best mark of his career, narrowly behind his debut as a starter against the Bears in 2012.
That performance proved to be a catalyst for the 49ers’ passing game. Over the final five games of the regular season, Kaepernick completed 61.7 percent of his passes, averaged 8.23 yards per attempt, and tossed seven touchdowns against just a single interception. Advanced math was also a fan. The 49ers pass offense DVOA was positive in all five games and topped 30 percent in four of them, a mark that was on par with the league’s third-best pass offense last season. And most importantly, San Francisco won every one of those games on their way to a 12–4 record and a Wild Card berth.
The big question is whether the 49ers can pull off a repeat performance. Colin Kaepernick & Co. are again leaving doubt in the idea that the 49ers can make a push towards the playoffs and need Washington’s defense to help correct their course. They’ll have every opportunity to make that happen on Sunday. And if they don’t, there will be no one to blame but themselves.
Prediction: 49ERS (–9) over Washington