Welp, that didn’t go as expected. The San Francisco 49ers came away with their seventh win of the season, but it was another close victory against an opponent they should’ve been able to handle with relative ease. The 17–13 win over Washington was San Francisco’s third in a row by one score or less.
While Vic Fangio’s unit continued to exhibit the dominance they showed last week against the Giants, the 49ers’ offense struggled to move the ball consistently once again. San Francisco scored just 17 points at home against a Washington defense that allowed 25.6 per contest entering the week and had been shredded in their last two games by the likes of the Vikings and Bucs.
What in the world went wrong? I went back and re-watched all 12 of the 49ers’ meaningful offensive possessions last night to try and answer that very question. Let’s go through them one-by-one and see if we can’t identify some common themes.
Possession no. 1: First quarter, 13:31 remaining, SF 41, Tied 0–0
Washington’s opening drive went three-and-out, thanks to a failed third-and-long set up by an Aldon Smith sack on second down. A mediocre punt gave San Francisco the ball near midfield and Colin Kaepernick wasted little time taking advantage. Kaepernick’s seven yard scramble set up a third-and-short conversion to Anquan Boldin. Two plays later, the 49ers were able to get Boldin matched up in man coverage against safety Brandon Meriweather and the result was an easy 30-yard touchdown on the corner route.
Possession no. 2: First quarter, 8:21 remaining, SF 5, 7–0 49ers
This was the first of five possessions that began inside San Francisco’s own 10-yard line. The 49ers dug themselves out of that hole with a nice start to the drive. The highlight was one of those simple plays Kaepernick doesn’t make as frequently as you would like him to. Staring down the Washington blitz, Kaepernick stood in the pocket and made the easy throw to Bruce Miller in the flat, picking up 20 yards and getting the 49ers out to near midfield.
Two plays later, a failed quarterback-center exchange between Kaepernick and Marcus Martin pulled the drive to a screeching halt. Kaepernick missed wide on a third-and–12 pass to Boldin and out came Andy Lee for his first punt of the day.
Possession no. 3: First quarter, 1:41 remaining, SF 46, 7–0 49ers
Ray McDonald’s third-down sack of Robert Griffin III forced a quick Washington punt, giving San Francisco the ball back at nearly the same spot the previous drive ended. A third down conversion to Boldin moved the 49ers into Washington territory before Carlos Hyde proceeded to fumble away his second carry of the day when Meriweather put helmet to ball.
Possession no. 4: Second quarter, 13:22 remaining, SF 5, 7–0 49ers
Frank Gore’s longest run of the day, an eight-yard carry on second-and–9, left San Francisco with third-and-short. The dismal short-yardage offense predictably showed up — the one that had converted a league-worst 43 percent of power situations coming into the game — and Frank Gore was stuffed short of the sticks.
Possession no. 5: Second quarter, 5:33 remaining, SF 7, Tied 7–7
Washington took advantage of the good field position they were afforded from a San Francisco punt deep in their own territory and put together their best drive of the day, capping it with a one-yard Alfred Morris touchdown. Holding on the ensuing kickoff left the 49ers with terrible starting field position for the third time in five first-half possessions.
Short passes to Crabtree and Boldin, plus a Kaepernick scramble, provided a couple of first downs to begin the drive. Shortly after the two-minute warning, it appeared as if the 49ers’ drive would stall around midfield. Crabtree dropped a pass near the sideline, Jonathan Martin gave up a sack, and when the third-down pass to Vernon Davis ended up short of the first-down marker, the 49ers looked as if they would simply let the clock run down and send the game to halftime with a third Andy Lee punt.
Instead, Harbaugh called a timeout with 11 seconds remaining and decided to go for it on fourth-and–2. On one hand, with two timeouts still remaining, if Harbaugh wanted to go for it, you would have loved for the timeout to have come immediately after the Davis reception to allow the 49ers to run a few more plays if they managed to convert. On the other hand, you have to at least applaud Harbaugh for being aggressive in a situation when most coaches would have been content to head into the locker room.
The decision to go for it paid off. Crabtree made a fantastic catch down the right sideline with one-on-one coverage, moving the ball to the Washington 23-yard line. Phil Dawson’s 41-yard field goal gave the 49ers the lead at the break.
Possession no. 6: Third quarter, 14:54 remaining, SF 25, 10–7 49ers
Two errant throws under pressure from Kaepernick — including one in which Stevie Johnson saved a would-be interception by Bashaud Breeland on a deep throw down the middle — fell incomplete and the 49ers go three-and-out for the second time.
Possession no. 7: Third quarter, 11:37 remaining, SF 10, 10–7 49ers
An ineligible man downfield penalty on Alex Boone nullified a 16-yard completion to Vernon Davis, putting the 49ers in a hole in the down and distance. Boldin came through with another third down conversion (his third of the day), but much like his previous third down catch, the work was undone with a turnover on the following play.
Greg Ducre, Washington’s fifth cornerback who was signed off of San Diego’s practice squad just over a month ago, entered the game on the third play of the drive for an injured Tracy Porter. Kaepernick looked to take advantage of the rookie corner with a double move to Boldin, but Ducre didn’t bite. The rookie stayed over the top of Boldin, effectively cutting off the route and making the play for an interception.
Possession no. 8: Third quarter, 7:25 remaining, SF 8, 10–7 49ers
Another drive that starts with crappy field position, another drive that ends with a failed short-yardage play. The interior of San Francisco’s offensive line failed to get any movement on Kaepernick’s third-and–1 sneak attempt, bringing out Andy Lee for the fourth punt of the day.
Possession no. 9: Third quarter, 0:25 remaining, SF 27, Tied 10–10
Vernon Davis singlehandedly killed this drive for the 49ers, dropping an open pass on first down that would have been good for at least 15 yards before running his stick route on third-and–5 a yard short of the marker. Fun times.
Possession no. 10: Fourth quarter, 10:12 remaining, SF 29, Tied 10–10
Frank Gore fumbles on the first play of the drive. Washington recovers. It’s a good thing we’re almost done, because I don’t want to do this exercise anymore.
Possession no. 11: Fourth quarter, 7:42 remaining, SF 25, 13–10 Washington
Jason Hatcher’s sack on first down puts the 49ers behind in the down and distance once again. Boldin’s 10-yard grab sets up a manageable third down, but Vernon Davis stops his route short of the sticks for a second time in three drives leaving San Francisco with fourth-and-inches from their own 34-yard line.
Despite San Francisco’s earlier failings in short-yardage, with little choice Harbaugh keeps the offense on the field to go for it. Meriweather slips through the offensive line untouched and threatens to blow the play up in the backfield, but Gore makes a nice move to slide by the tackle attempt and secure the necessary first down yardage.
Boldin makes the play of the game on the ensuing first down, hauling in a contested pass down the seam, absorbing a big shot from safety Ryan Clark, and somehow managing to keep his balance to get a few additional yards for a 29-yard gain. It’s the type of play that makes you remember, Oh yeah, Anquan Boldin once FRACTURED HIS FACE, threw some titanium in there, and played two weeks later. He’s completely insane.
Two plays later, with Clark somehow still in the game after the collision with Boldin, Carlos Hyde runs through the Washington safety on what would ultimately be the game-winning touchdown with just over three minutes remaining.
Possession no. 12: Fourth quarter, 1:57 remaining, SF 22, 17–13 49ers
Three Hyde runs use up all of Washington’s timeouts, but produce just five yards, giving Griffin & Co. one more chance at a game-winning drive. Of course, that drive would emphatically come to an end with a Justin Smith strip sack, ending this miserable game once and for all.
So what did we learn? For one thing, overcoming terrible field position is difficult to do. Excluding the final drive — which featured only two Kaepernick kneel downs — the 49ers had an average starting field position just shy of their own 21-yard line. Nearly half of those drives started inside their own 10. Teams just don’t produce points with any kind of consistency when they’re backed up in their own territory like that.
Entering Week 12, there had been 329 drives league-wide in which the offense started inside its own 10-yard line. Teams finished those drives with a score just 20.1 percent of the time, well below the 35.9 percent scoring rate when considering all drives this season. The majority of drives that start with the offense backed up against a wall, deep in their own territory begin with lots of handoffs and generally conservative playcalling to avoid a disastrous turnover that would lead to easy points for the opponent and end with a punt.
The other thing to take away from that exercise is something that’s not new at all: the 49ers continue to make drive-killing mistakes that make sustaining drives incredibly difficult. A failed snap to set up third-and-long. Fumbles from both running backs. Stuffed runs in short-yardage. Dropped passes. These are the things that show up every week and prevent the 49ers from finding any sort of rhythm offensively.
When asked about the 49ers offensive struggles in this game, Boldin had this to say:
I think we played well in spurts, but we shot ourselves in the foot at times. Three turnovers were definitely detrimental to us on offense. Came out the first drive and felt good about what we were doing, moved the ball up the field pretty easily and we ended up scoring. It felt like we got into a rhythm and then just started making mistakes here and there. That’s the thing about offense, it takes all 11 guys to do the job. If one guy doesn’t do his job, it breaks down.
Later, Boldin added, "The mistakes that we’re making are very much correctable, so it’s not something that’s earth-shattering or anything. It’s very correctable."
That is the single-most frustrating thing about watching this offense. In large part, the issues that hold this offense back every week are the types of things you don’t expect to keep coming back. Yet, here we are 11 games later dealing with the same problems that we were dealing with early in the season.
When trying to pin down the root of these issues, I was reminded of the article written by Grantland’s Bill Barnwell following the 49ers loss to the Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII. If you remember (yes, I tried to black it out too, but bear with me here), Baltimore backed into the playoffs that season. The Ravens lost four of their final five games, firing their offensive coordinator in December, which did exactly nothing to solve their offensive woes over the remainder of the regular season.
Despite everything their performance from the regular season was telling us, Joe Flacco promptly strung together the best four-game stretch of his career and one of the best postseason runs of all-time. And well, you know the rest. Which gets us to Barnwell’s larger point: "We know way less about teams than we really think we know."
We can’t possibly get an accurate picture of what a team can do from a 16-game sample, let alone the 11 games we have to work with so far this season. I don’t know that the 49ers offense will figure it out. But I also don’t think the issues they’re having need have to stem from some larger, deep-seeded problem they can’t possibly overcome. As Boldin said, these are correctable problems. We just don’t know if they’ll correct them before it’s too late.
Here’s what I think I know about this team as we enter the final five weeks of the season… The defense is one of the best in football with Aldon Smith back on the field and will be able to keep the 49ers close against every offense they face the rest of the way… The offense is bad right now, but is full of talented players that happen to be doing dumb things… And we’ve got three years worth of evidence that suggests the coaching staff is smart and just might know what they’re doing.
You could talk me into any outcome for this team to close the season. Considering their remaining schedule, if the defense continues to play at their current level, the 49ers can get into the playoffs playing roughly the same quality of football they have for most of the season. If the defense slips up, they’re probably done. But, as we’ve learned over and over again in today’s NFL, if you can find a way to get to the postseason, it doesn’t matter how you got there. And once you’re there, who the hell knows what can happen.