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Edge blocking, lack of creativity cause for Colin Kaepernick's rushing woes

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Colin Kaepernick broke onto the scene in 2012 and got everyone's attention with his rushing ability. We look at why that feels like a distant memory in 2014, and why it might not be as bad as you think.

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It feels strange writing an article on how Colin Kaepernick has struggled to run the ball just days after this happened…

… but here we are.

Kaepernick’s ineffectiveness on the ground has been a big topic of conversation this season. Let’s sort through the numbers and dig into the tape, and see if we can’t figure out what went wrong.

The Numbers

Quarterback rushing data is difficult to comb through. There’s a ton of noise — aborted snaps, sneaks, and kneel downs all get included in a quarterback’s rushing numbers and none of them are helpful when it comes to evaluating how effective that player has been on the ground. Those things are easy enough to filter out, but there are still several questions that need to be answered before you can get the complete picture.

Was the carry a designed run or a scramble? If it was a designed run, was there an option involved? Did the quarterback make the correct read on the play? Are carries from the running backs more successful because the defense is being forced to account for the quarterback as a runner? You get the idea.

There’s a good amount of subjectivity involved, and in large part because of that, the data required to fully answer these questions isn’t publicly available. Thankfully, Pro Football Focus does give us the tools to answer many of these questions, and it should be enough to give us a general idea of Kaepernick’s effectiveness rushing, as well as how he’s accumulating those numbers.

Here are Kaepernick’s career rushing numbers broken down by year entering last week’s game against San Diego: (Numbers do not include sneaks, kneel downs, and aborted snaps.)

Year Games Att/Gm Yds/Gm Y/A SR TD TD% Fum Fum%
2012 8 4.75 38.63 8.13 55.26% 3 7.89% 6 12.00%
2013 16 4.81 33.19 6.90 53.16% 4 5.19% 3 3.26%
2014 (through Week 15) 14 5.00 29.57 5.91 51.39% 0 0.00% 5 5.49%

Prior to Kaepernick’s monster rushing game against San Diego, there were clear trends developing. Kaepernick is rushing the ball more frequently — both in terms of overall attempts and on designed runs — but he’s doing so less efficiently. If you’ve spent enough time around these parts, you’ve heard that line before.

That gaudy 8.13 yards per carry figure from 2012 sticks out like a boner in sweatpants, and there are a lot of reasons why we should be tossing cold water on it. That mark came from the smallest sample we have available — an eight-game stretch (I’m including the Rams game in which he first took over for an injured Alex Smith even though he didn’t start, since he went on to play three full quarters) to close the season. Eight games is hardly enough to be considered a true representation of a player’s performance level, especially when you consider that Kaepernick’s success on the ground that year came in a perfect storm of circumstances when the league was trying, and mostly failing, to adjust on the fly to the option game and the influx of dual-threat quarterbacks.

Kaepernick was never going to sustain that type of efficiency on the ground and it was unreasonable to think so. We’ll have a much better baseline for what should’ve been expected this season if we combine those 2012 and 2013 seasons. So let’s run that table back after doing just that while also adding in Kaepernick’s monster 7–151–1 performance against the Chargers to 2014’s numbers, just to show how big an impact one game can have.

Year Games Att/Gm Yds/Gm Y/A SR TD TD% Fum Fum%
2012-13 24 4.79 35.00 7.30 53.85% 7 6.09% 9 6.34%
2014 15 5.13 37.67 7.34 53.16% 1 1.30% 5 5.10%

Hey! Kaepernick’s 2014 rushing numbers are right on par with his career averages entering the season! Of course, we know from taking a glance back up at the previous table that those numbers are a bit misleading. Kaepernick’s overall yards per carry increased nearly a yard-and-a-half after last week’s effort (a 90-yard touchdown will do that for you), and considering all of those yards came on scrambles, his yards per carry on unplanned runs jumped by nearly two-and-a-half yards. Kaepernick is now averaging 9.95 yards a pop on scrambles, over a full yard higher than at any other point in his career.

It’s important to note that Kaepernick’s game against the Chargers shouldn’t be treated any differently because it came late in the season. If this performance came early in the year, we’d likely think of it much differently. The fact that it came with the 49ers out of the playoff hunt is merely unlucky. At the same time, one game does not erase the 14 mediocre games that came before it.

We’re going to get to the film here shortly, but there are a few reasons why it feels like Kaepernick has been much worse on the ground this year than he actually has been.

First, the touchdowns simply haven’t been there. Last week’s electric 90-yarder was his first of the season; prior to this year Kaepernick scored on just a shade over six percent of his carries (seven total in our sample). There have also been more runs stuffed for no gain or a loss. Entering the season, Kaepernick’s stuffed rate was 10.43 percent; this season it’s up to 14.29 percent.

Finally, the effectiveness of designed runs has taken a plunge. Scrambles have always constituted a larger portion of Kaepernick’s production on the ground, but designed runs still account for about 40 percent of his career carries. Kaepernick’s 3.85 yards per carry on designed runs is well below the 5.24 career mark he had entering the season, and is nearly half the 7.13 figure he put up in that incredible half-season in 2012.

It’s the decline on these designed runs that we’re going to focus on today.

The Problems

Blocking on the edge

The largest issue I found when re-watching these runs was the blocking of San Francisco’s non-lineman on the edges. We don’t have to go too far back to find an example of the struggles the 49ers have had in this area.

With just over three minutes left in the first half, the 49ers have a zone read play called against the Seahawks defense. After the snap, Cliff Avril (56) crashes hard down the line towards Carlos Hyde, giving Kaepernick an easy keep read. Even though he’s spread a bit wider than normal due to the formation, the key block to get this play going is on K.J. Wright, who is responsible for Kaepernick if he keeps the ball.

Rather than even remotely attempt something that could be considered a block, Vernon Davis steps aside, giving Wright a free run at Kaepernick. If Davis is able to pick up that block, Kaepernick is one-on-one in the open field with Kam Chancellor, and Jonathan Martin on the way to provide help should Kaepernick look to cut it back. Chancellor is a damn good player, and very well might make the play anyway. But you know who else is a damn good player? Eric Weddle. Ask him how difficult Kaepernick is to handle in space.

On other plays, the blocking is good enough for the play to at least get going, but missed blocks on the outside will become the difference between a decent gain and a score.

Way back during the home opener against the Bears, Kaepernick had an opportunity to record his first rushing touchdown of the season after a blocked punt set the 49ers offense up inside the 10 for their opening possession of the game.

Jared Allen (69) crashes inside, prompting Kaepernick to keep the ball on the zone read. Bruce Miller gets great initial position to seal off Shea McClellin (50), but is never able to prevent McClellin from forcing the play wide. Boldin doesn’t help matters by completely whiffing on his block of Tim Jennings (26). What could’ve easily been a waltz-in touchdown for Kaepernick is stopped short because of two poorly executed blocks on the outside.

There were numerous other plays with similar characteristics. Stevie Johnson overran an arc block against the Giants that could’ve been enough to get Kaepernick in the end zone. Derek Carrier and Alex Boone missed blocks that allowed the Chiefs to stop well-designed quarterback draw for a minimal gain. The list could go on.

These blocks on the outside are often the critical ones on designed quarterback runs, especially when it comes to producing explosive plays, and this was an area that took a large step back this season.

Iffy decisions from Kaepernick

It wasn’t nearly as frequent of an occurrence, but there were a few plays in which Kaepernick left potential big runs on the field by making a questionable decision on a read option play.

Defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka (94) and linebacker Mark Herzlich (58) both move inside with Gore on the give. Even safety Stevie Brown (27) is cheating that direction, yet Kaepernick decides to hand the ball off to Gore.

The rule for the quarterback here is that if you’re unsure, always go with the give. But even giving him the benefit of the doubt, this seems like a pretty clear keep read for Kaepernick. If he were to have kept the ball, he’s able to get the edge with ease and has Vance McDonald and Bruce Miller leading out in front him — there’s legitimate 60-yard touchdown potential here.

Kaepernick had a few other questionable decisions you could point to — cutting back inside when it looked like he had more room outside, or just generally not taking the optimal path off his blocks — but in the big picture, it feels nit-picky to even bring them up. Those types of things will happen. No player is going to make the perfect decision every time in the moment, and there wasn’t enough here for me to really be concerned.

Lack of schematic creativity

I’ve been a staunch supporter of Jim Harbaugh and the offensive coaching staff, and I maintain that on the macro level the biggest problem with the 49ers offense this year has been a lack of execution on behalf of the players. That said, the shortage of creativity in the read option game is probably my biggest gripe with the coaching staff this season.

The read option attack appears to have been the aspect of the offense that was most left on the cutting room floor when the 49ers looked to simplify things this offseason.

When you think back to that 2012 season, the creativity in the running game was the hallmark of this team. What San Francisco was doing in the read option game was far beyond what any other NFL team was doing at the time. The blocking schemes utilized and the myriad ways the 49ers would set them up was graduate-level stuff; this season has flunked them all the way back to Read Option 101.

Even without all of the extra bells and whistles that made San Francisco’s read option attack so difficult to prepare for, you can make a strong case that the 49ers still should’ve run their simplified read option plays more often. Yes, Kaepernick was worse on designed runs this year, but this play against the Cowboys is emblematic of the benefits the read option can provide to the entire running game.

The personnel and formation gives the 49ers a light box to work with. The threat of Kaepernick running the ball allows you to block a defensive end with air and a cornerback with your tight end. For an offensive line that struggled in the run game more than any other point in recent history, these advantages can make their lives much easier.

There’s no publicly available data that I’m aware of that shows an offense’s rushing statistics when using read option plays compared to standard runs, but from all of the tape I’ve watched, I’d be shocked if the 49ers didn’t post a significantly higher yards per carry figure when going to the read option.

People say it’s a copy-cat league. And a lot of things that we have done, we see other teams doing. And if they choose to do it, so be it. But, we’ve kind of taken it and given it our own little flavor because our players are a little different. We don’t do it exactly like anybody else, or anybody else has.

Greg Roman made that comment while getting ready to face the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII — it seems like such a long time ago that the 49ers read option attack was the talk of the NFL. San Francisco’s "own little flavor" disappeared in 2014, and it’s one of season’s biggest disappointments.