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The decline of the 49ers' deep passing game

Once among the offense's biggest strengths, San Francisco's deep passing game has fallen off a cliff this season and it's perhaps the biggest reason why the 49ers offense is a mess.

Brian Bahr/Getty Images

For the first time (and possibly the last time, I guess) in Jim Harbaugh’s tenure, the San Francisco 49ers season is over in December. Two games remain on the schedule, but last Sunday’s 17–7 loss in Seattle brought an end to meaningful football for the 49ers in 2014.

It’s a strange departure from the past three seasons — when our biggest mid-December worry was whether the Niners would secure a first-round bye or not. But our change in circumstances means that it’s already time to start reflecting on the 49ers’ season, digging deeper into the whys behind some season-long issues (as if we haven’t had enough discussion about those) and beginning to examine some of the big questions that lie ahead.

Today, I’m kicking things off with an overdue look at an area that took a somewhat surprising spill this season: the deep passing game.

The Numbers

First, a few housekeeping items. I’m defining deep passes as those that traveled 15 or more yards in the air — the NFL’s official designation for such throws. I’m also only including throws that occurred when the score was within 14 points. When evaluating really any aspect of team performance, large scoring gaps in either direction changes the calculus considerably. There’s little value to be gained in evaluating plays in which a team is trying to overcome a large deficit against a prevent defense. We’re concerned with how the team or player is performing on deep passes when they’re throwing deep by design, in normal situations. Unless specifically stated otherwise, all of the numbers in this article are using this split.

We’re also only dealing with passes that were actually attempted. So if a play was designed to take a shot deep, but Kaepernick was sacked or decided to scramble and missed an open receiver downfield, that’s not considered here.

With the preamble out of the way, let’s get into it.

San Francisco has thrown deep on 22.9 percent of their passes this season, or roughly once in every 4.37 attempts, the fourth-highest rate in football. That’s nearly identical to their deep passing rate since Kaepernick has taken over as the team’s starting quarterback — Kaepernick threw deep 21.1 percent of the time last season and 22.8 percent in his half-season as starter in 2012.

The major difference, of course, is the efficiency on these throws has fallen off considerably in 2014. Take a look at Kaepernick’s numbers on deep throws this year compared to his previous season-and-a-half as a starter:

Year Comp Att Comp% Yards Y/A TD INT Passer Rating
2012-13 54 114 47.4% 1532 13.4 9 3 109.0
2014 26 85 30.6% 754 8.9 5 6 54.7

Kaepernick’s 47.4 percent completion rate on deep passes in 2012–13 was the fourth-best mark out of the 32 quarterbacks that attempted at least 75 deep balls over that time frame, trailing only Russell Wilson, Drew Brees, and Peyton Manning. His passer rating was sixth among qualifying quarterbacks.

As you can see from that table, Kaepernick’s completion rate has been cut dramatically this year, with only 30.6 percent of his deep passes finding the hands of his intended receiver. Of the 37 quarterbacks that have attempted 20 or more deep passes this year, only a pair of rookies leading terrible offenses (Derek Carr, Blake Bortles) and a New York Jet (Geno Smith) have been worse. That’s a striking difference — in just a season, Kaepernick has fallen from Peyton to Geno when it comes to completing passes down the field.

We’re going to get into a few of the major reasons why things have been so bad shortly, but one interesting thing I found is that the 49ers are taking deep shots less frequently on first down this year. Kaepernick’s first down deep pass rate nearly mirrors his drop in completion percentage, falling from 43.9 percent in 2012–13 to 30.6 percent this season.

First down is one of the few situations when a defense must be prepared for the full array of plays an offense can throw at it. Failed first downs — and there have been many of those for the 49ers this season — lead to second- and third-and-longs, situations in which deep passes are more difficult to complete due to the higher expectation of those throws from the defense. More of Kaepernick’s deep passes have come in these situations this year. I have no idea to what extent that has contributed to San Francisco’s floundering deep passing game, but it’s something to keep in mind.

The Problems

When watching all of Kaepernick’s deep throws in succession, it’s like watching Groundhog Day — the same few symptoms pop up over and over again. The first thing that jumps out is something that I haven’t seen too many people reference this season…

San Francisco’s receivers cannot separate. I touched on this briefly when spreading the blame for the 49ers’ offensive issues last week, but it bears repeating. As talented as this group of receivers might be, the 49ers have no one that can separate from defenders down the field.

We don’t have nearly enough time to go through the multitude of plays featuring 49ers’ receivers running vertical routes completely blanketed by a defender, but this play from the Saints game is as good of an example as any:

Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin are split wide of the formation, and both players run fades down the sideline. Keenan Lewis and Corey White are up at the line of scrimmage, and with just a single safety in the middle of the field, they can’t count on safety help over the top. That doesn’t stop both Saints’ cornerbacks from playing with trail technique, completely unafraid of Crabtree or Boldin running by them.

Kaepernick hits the back of his three-step drop and lofts a jump ball down the left sideline for Boldin. However, White is in perfect position and Boldin has no chance of making the catch.

Crabtree, Boldin, and Stevie Johnson aren’t bad receivers by any stretch — they do a number of things very well. The problem is they all do the same things well, and none of them are forcing secondaries to back up. This is problematic for an offense. Defenders are able to overplay shorter routes, tightening the throwing windows underneath, forcing the quarterback into more difficult throws all around.

Vernon Davis was supposed to be the piece that made this group of receivers work, but he’s been so bad this season that, well, he’s getting his own article another time.

Most successful passing games feature a diverse group of targets for the quarterback to throw to; three or four players with differing skill sets, each presenting a different problem for the defense and allowing the unit to be greater than the sum of its parts. The 49ers have the exact opposite — a group of clones playing receiver that have brought down the performance of the entire passing game.

Poor throws, poor decisions. Compounding matters have been the struggles of Kaepernick that are independent (as much as a quarterback can be) of what’s happening around him. Accuracy, and to a greater extent decision making, are aspects of a quarterback’s play that can get very subjective, very quickly. That considered, there are a number of plays where Kaepernick forced a pass down the field, often passing up an open receiver underneath that would’ve been enough to keep the chains moving.

Take this play from the Eagles game back in Week 4:

Kaepernick forces the ball to Vernon Davis down the middle of the field, despite Davis being surrounded by four Eagles’ defenders. The throw itself is actually pretty impressive — the ball is placed in about the only spot it can be for Davis to have a chance on this play. But why make the throw that’s a nine or 10 on the difficulty scale when you have a two (Bruce Ellington wide open at the sticks) or even a five (Stevie Johnson on the outside post route) available to you?

Here’s another example from the second Rams game in Week 9:

On a four verticals play from the fringe of the red zone, Kaepernick chooses to throw towards Crabtree down the right sideline — a throw that would require perfect ball placement in the small space between the cornerback and safety to even have a chance — and passes up an easy six points to Davis over the middle.

Then there are the times where Kaepernick finds the right receiver, but just misses on the throw:

Stevie Johnson makes a nice move at the top of his post route to turn around the cornerback and the safety is occupied with Crabtree’s route to the opposite side of the field, leaving an entire field’s worth of green grass for Kaepernick to throw into.

You know those plays where Andrew Luck (or Aaron Rodgers or whoever) sets up after a deep drop, ready to heave a pass deep downfield and you just know that T.Y. Hilton is running free outside the frame of the camera? This had an opportunity to be one of those plays. But rather than putting the ball out in front of Johnson and giving him an opportunity to run under it away from the defender, Kaepernick’s ball leads Johnson upfield and would’ve gotten picked off if not for Johnson’s quick switch to DB mode.

If you want to give Kaepernick the benefit of the doubt here, maybe you say that the defensive lineman’s arm got close enough to Kaepernick at the release that it altered the throw. But I would then point you to one of any number of other Kaepernick throws that were off target. Again, accuracy can be a tad subjective, but nearly two-thirds of the plays I charted were marked as inaccurate, the vast majority of which were overthrows.

Kaepernick’s accuracy has always been a little shaky on underneath throws, but he had displayed almost preternatural accuracy on deep passes early in his career. And while you would get the occasional throw that showed he still has that in him, that accuracy failed to show up with any regularity in 2014.

Unimaginative route concepts. So you have receivers that can’t separate from man coverage and a quarterback that isn’t making the pinpoint throws necessary to complete passes to covered targets… what in the hell do you do to generate big plays in the passing game? Well, ideally you have to scheme your receivers open to create easier throws for your quarterback. Easy enough, right?

Of course, it’s much easier said than done. As they say, if it were that easy, everybody would be doing it. But that doesn’t mean Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman were without fault.

What you saw in the four plays above covers a large chunk of the passing concepts used in the 85 plays I watched — four verticals, double posts, fades down the sideline… there just wasn’t a whole lot else. The smash concept and throws down the seam (especially against teams that ran a lot of Cover 3) made some appearances, but generally Harbaugh and Roman didn’t give defenses a ton to think about from this aspect of the offense.

Isolation routes outside the numbers were featured heavily — plays that are reliant on receivers being able to win one-on-one match-ups. Earlier in the season there was a bit more creativity, but around the Chiefs game in Week 5, it felt like the deep passing game devolved into Kaepernick overthrows to covered receivers down the sideline (see: the first play above).

Using the Greg Cosell maxim that how players are used tells you what coaches think of them, San Francisco’s offensive staff is telling me that they believe one of two things (or possibly both): 1) Colin Kaepernick is capable of consistently making difficult, pinpoint throws down the field or 2) the 49ers’ receivers are capable of consistently winning one-on-one battles on the outside.

Maybe, if this season is played out 1000 times, Harbaugh and Roman are right more often than not. Considering the perceptions surrounding this team prior to the season, they certainly wouldn’t have been alone in believing this offense was capable of those things. But things obviously played out much differently, and unfortunately they’re about to lose their jobs because of it.