Monday, I took an extended look at the 49ers struggles on offense against Washington and why they only managed to score 17 points against a defense that had allowed nearly 26 per game up to that point. So while I’ll certainly be touching on the offense, I won’t be spending much time on those problems here. With that, here are nine things I liked and didn’t like about Week 12.
1. Anquan Boldin. Grown. Ass. Man.
Anquan Boldin had himself a game. Boldin caught nine of 12 targets for 137 yards and a score on the 49ers opening possession of the game. Seven of those receptions moved the chains and three of them did it on third down. In all, Football Outsiders pegged Boldin’s performance as the week’s second-most impressive by a wide receiver, behind only Odell Beckham Jr.
The biggest moment of Boldin’s day came late in the fourth quarter during the Niners’ go-ahead touchdown drive. How Boldin manages to haul in Kaepernick’s laser down the seam with a defender on his back, absorb the big hit from safety Ryan Clark, and somehow stay on his feet to pickup a few additional yards, I have no clue. On top of all that, Clark was flagged for hitting a defenseless receiver, tacking on an additional 15 yards to the 29-yard reception. It was the correct call, but did anyone watch that play and come away thinking Boldin was the one that was defenseless?
Anquan Boldin is not to be f#$ked with.
2. Sloppy tackling from run defense
Vic Fangio’s unit has been lights out since the bye week and their performance against Robert Griffin III and the struggling Washington offense was no exception. That said, the tackling from the Niners’ front seven was uncharacteristically sloppy.
Washington never really was able to get consistent yardage on the ground, but when they has positive runs, they ripped off some big gains. Those runs were almost exclusively the result of poor tackling on behalf of the Niners defense.
Ahmad Brooks missed a tackle four yards in the backfield on a 22-yard Alfred Morris run. Morris slid easily through a Tony Jerod-Eddie tackle at the line of scrimmage on a 16-yard run. Chris Culliver did a nice job filling the rushing lane on a toss play only to be run over, ceding 11 more yards to Morris.
Eight tackles were missed in all by the San Francisco defense, their highest total since facing DeMarco Murray & Co. in the season opener in Dallas. Washington didn’t wind up with many yards in this game, but with better tackling things could’ve been much worse.
3. Kevin Harlan citing PFF stat during the broadcast
Early in the second quarter, I heard something that I’ve never heard before during an NFL broadcast: play-by-play man Kevin Harlan cited a Pro Football Focus grade after mentioning Justin Smith.
The data that PFF provides is invaluable, and while I’m not necessarily a huge fan of their "grades," it was refreshing to hear them mentioned and a welcome departure from the typical garbage statistics that get mentioned during the majority of broadcasts (yes, I’m looking directly at you "Team X is ∞–0 when RB Y gets 20 carries" graphic).
4. Short-yardage ineptitude
The 49ers have the worst short-yardage offense in football, converting on just 44 percent of power situations this season. That number encapsulates the inability of San Francisco’s offensive line to get push up front when the defense knows the run is coming.
San Francisco actually converted on three of five power situations against Washington, including two crucial fourth down plays. However, that success rate hides the fact that those issues up front didn’t go anywhere.
One fourth down conversion wasn’t your typical short-yardage play, with the 49ers offense spreading things out on the fourth-and–2 that resulted in Michael Crabtree’s 25-yard reception at the end of the first half. The other fourth down was nearly blown up before it ever got going. No one accounted for Brandon Meriweather, who was able to shoot through the line untouched, and it took a great cut from Frank Gore in the backfield to avoid a loss.
Even the quarterback sneak that converted late in the second quarter was due to the fact Washington failed to account for the A-gap on the left side of the line, giving Kaepernick an easy hole to fall into for the first down. That wasn’t the case on the second sneak attempt in the latter half of the third quarter. Washington put a defensive lineman in each A-gap and the two of them handled San Francisco’s three interior offensive lineman.
For an offensive line that supposed to be built upon brute strength, it doesn’t seem to be working out when the 49ers offense has to get a yard. When it comes to power success, San Francisco has now been in the bottom five of the league in three of the past four seasons.
5. Harbaugh’s aggressiveness on fourth down
Even though converting in those situations has been far from a sure thing for the 49ers offense, I still loved the aggressiveness from Harbaugh in choosing to go for it on fourth down in two critical situations.
In my Monday article, many of you pointed out Harbaugh’s brilliance in choosing to let the clock run down at the end of the first half before calling timeout. The move gave San Francisco a shot to move into field goal range with the conversion while simultaneously eliminating that chance for Washington if the fourth down attempt failed. Turns out, that’s exactly what Harbaugh had in mind at the time.
Harbaugh also choose to go for it from his own 34-yard line late in the fourth quarter. With 5:28 remaining, a defense that’s playing well, and three chances to stop the clock (two timeouts plus the two-minute warning), a lot of coaches punt that ball away.
Harbaugh’s aggressiveness paid off with points on both drives and it turned out to be a big difference in the outcome of the game.
7. Keeping D-Jax under wraps
San Francisco’s pass defense put in another great outing, holding RG3 to 4.05 ANY/A and a pitiful 7.9 QBR. Seemingly constant pressure on Griffin was probably the biggest reason for those numbers, but the 49ers did a great job staying over the top of DeSean Jackson and not giving him a chance to beat them deep.
Washington attempted just four passes (including one on a reverse pass from Pierre Garçon) that traveled 15 or more yards in the air, failing to complete a single one of them.
8. Boldin getting into it with Jim Haslett on the sideline
I’m sure this probably rubbed some people the wrong way, but I thoroughly enjoyed this moment with Boldin and Washington coach Jim Haslett on the sideline:
Again, Anquan Boldin is not to be f#$ked with.
9. Kaepernick’s performance
If you listened to the Better Rivals podcast this week, you’ve heard me spend a good chunk of time talking about Colin Kaepernick already. For those of you that did not, well, you should be listening. But against Washington, I thought Kaepernick had one of his better performances of the season.
Kaepernick was great against the blitz, completing seven of nine passes for 117 yards, one touchdown, and zero sacks, according to PFF. He made several plays standing in the pocket with pressure on its way, taking an easy dump-off to Bruce Miller in the flat that turned into 20 yards on one play and connecting with Boldin on an out route to convert a third down on another, to name a couple.
There were a couple of errant throws, namely on back-to-back plays on San Francisco’s opening possession of the second half including a would-be interception if not for Stevie Johnson playing a little defense. But rarely will a quarterback be on target for every throw over the course of a game. Overall, Kaepernick was accurate, moved within the pocket well, and seemed to make good decisions as to when to take off and scramble.
Kaepernick’s final numbers were nothing special, especially considering that Washington’s defense has been one of the league’s worst against the pass. But this was an instance in which I thought the numbers undersold how well he actually played.