Coming fresh off the bye week, it seemed as the 49ers offense was still on vacation. Many have focused on the last two minutes of the game at the 1-yard line, with four downs to win the game. Then, there was the officiating. But, as frustrating as it was to watch, the offensive play the entire game was horrendous. What gives?
Is it all on the line?
Considering the offensive line is made up of about 1,600 pounds of human beings whose job is to buy time and protect the quarterback, 49ers have to be concerned with the inept play at the line. Since Week 1, it has struggled.
True, the line was breaking in a new center, rookie Marcus Martin, who was making his NFL debut in the wake of Daniel Kilgore breaking his left ankle two weeks ago in Denver. But the rest of the line was the same unit that dominated defensive fronts the past two years: left tackle Joe Staley, left guard Mike Iupati, right guard Alex Boone and right tackle Anthony Davis.
We can no longer blame Jonathan Martin or Joe Looney and insist the play will get better. Yet, the 49ers had a brand new center, who is fresh off a knee cap dislocation, starting against the Rams. And, that is no easy task for a rookie. The center is the brains of the offensive line, usually the one responsible for calling out protection schemes at the line of scrimmage. But he also has to possess the strength to take on a nose tackle without getting bull rushed back, as well as the agility to get out on a linebacker (on a 4-3) if need be.
I doubt the 49ers entrusted the rookie center with the task of making the line calls. It is hard to know for certain, but it appears Boone was likely making the calls. Experience is very important for centers. They are essentially the quarterback of the offensive line, making all the protection calls and adjustments. If Boone was making the line calls, that is a significant change to the line.
"They blitzed a s--- ton," Staley said. "We have all the talent in the world. We've been doing some dumb stuff and they took advantage of [it]." By "dumb stuff"? "Penalties," Staley said. "Dumb blocks. Dumb techniques and dumb schemes. We played like (expletive)."
Those are Staley's words, not mine. A team pays its left tackle big money for one reason: the ability to pass block by himself. That is the top priority for the man protecting the blind side of the quarterback. An added bonus for Staley is his ability to run block, but every game, he is going to go up against the other team's best pass rusher and most of the time he needs to take on that guy all by himself.
Denver defensive end DeMarcus Ware had lined up across from Staley two weeks ago. Ware used quick arm pumps, creating the impression he was going straight upfield. Instead, he rammed his left shoulder into Staley's right arm. Staley assumed Ware would transition into a spin move. As Staley wheeled around toward the center, Ware juked with his head, then never spun. Staley blocked air as Ware wrapped up Kaepernick for a 9-yard loss. Adding Von Miller to the mix created havoc for the offensive line.
As if Miller and Ware did not hammer home the lesson, instead of double teaming the pass rusher and the outside linebacker, the 49ers offensive line slid their protection to help out, leaving the tackle man-to-man.
Against the Rams, the risk did not pay off. It was another rough game for the offensive line. The "dumb blocks" and "dumb schemes" resonates with me. The problem is two-fold.
Out played or out schemed?
Probably both. While it is true Colin Kaepernick could have avoided some of the problems, the 49ers were constantly out-schemed. 49ers had no answer for the "s---ton" of blitzes" that left the middle of the field vulnerable. The 49ers could not block the Rams, who recorded eight sacks for a negative 54 yards. Against the Arizona defense, it was unfortunately a similar story.
Neither Davis and Iupati were the powerful run blockers we have seen in the past. Both seemed particularly vulnerable in pass situations, with little help from the tight end or a running back. The 49ers were unable to establish a point of attack in the running game and Kaepernick faced long third downs all game long.
It is difficult to understand, but 49ers football is hard to recognize these days. 49ers have seemingly lost their identity and it is hard to understand. The 49ers offensive coordinator should expect offensive opportunities when defenses bring their zero blitz packages (seven pass rushers and just four in coverage). They may have very little time to take advantage of them, but there should be options. If Greg Roman has provided options, they are difficult to decipher. If the offensive line cannot execute the plays, Roman needs to design and call plays the players can execute. However, even if Roman were to go, there is still one fundamental flaw: execution.
There's always going to be big-play ability when the middle of the field is left open, but the offense still has to pick it up. If a defense is going to bring one more than you can block, the coordinators and the players have got to find a way to make sure the quarterback gets the ball out of his hand and still gets something positive out of it.
Execution, not effort, lacking for 49ers
There is no excuse at this point. The players are not executing when they should. As examples, Crabtree cannot continue to drop certain passes and Kaepernick needs to deliver the ball properly to his receiver.
Not one person is at fault or is to blame, but collectively the mistakes have taken a toll. A "read" quarterback always wants to see a blitz. Dan Marino practically dared defenses to blitz him. He saw it coming and he knew where the defense was a man short, and he made them pay. The Chargers blitzed Ryan Tannehill nearly half the time (17 of 35) on dropbacks on Sunday, but still failed to record a sack against the quarterback.
Kap is struggling in this area with the blitz, but I still believe he can get better. Some quarterbacks are naturally better at this than others. The more reps he sees over time, the more he can understand what the defense is trying to do to him. Decision-making improves when you know what you're looking at. Further, even if Kap made the read and changed the play, the center (or line caller) had to change the protection. And, the Rams exploited this weakness.
Further, every player is involved in picking things up; whether it's route-running, change of plays, change of protections, line calls and communication. Frank Gore stated, "We've got to just, as a team, come in Tuesday and make our mind up on where we want to go. We've got to play better ball as a team and we've got to make plays when it's there. We just haven't been consistent and in this league you can't do that. You can't win like that." And, that is the truth.