Entering Sunday Night's game against the Bears, 49er fans were in a wonderful place. The 49ers were about to unveil their new stadium for the first time, both Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall were less than 100 percent, and more importantly, the Seahawks had just lost a thriller to the Chargers.
It only got better for 49ers fans once the game started as Marshall and Jeffery were noticeably limited, Aaron Lynch blocked a punt and the 49ers cruised to a 17-0 lead. It was looking like a repeat of Week 1's smothering of the Cowboys.
Then it all fell apart.
The downward slide started with Brandon Marshall's ridiculous one handed touchdown grab right before halftime that cut the 49ers lead to 10 points. The slim advantage wasn't representative of the 49ers dominance in the opening 30 minutes. Not only did the touchdown get Chicago on the scoreboard, it gave the Bears some hope; something the 49ers should have crushed in the second quarter.
The 49ers failure to put away the Bears proved to be fatal when Kaepernick and Co. completely unraveled in the 4th quarter. The collapse was fueled by a myriad of issues including an absurd number of penalties, an inability to generate pressure on Jay Cutler, some poor pass protection and the Bears offense coming to life.
While those issues were at the heart of the 49ers collapse, the game changing plays that ultimately decided the football game were Kaepernick's three interceptions.
Kaepernick Four Turnover Night
Since Harbaugh took control of the 49ers in 2011 San Francisco has been the very best team at limiting turnovers. With only 59 giveaways in 58 games the 49ers have been able to win the turnover battle consistently. It is a huge reason behind their success over the past few seasons-after all turnover margin is the stat best correlated with winning-and Harbaugh has successfully imbued this ability into both Kaepernick and Alex Smith.
But on Sunday Night, Kaepernick was uncharacteristically careless with the football leading to a fumble and three interceptions. After getting off to a fast start and leading the 49ers to a 17-0 lead Kaepernick struggled with his eye discipline, ball placement and decision making.
Let's look at the All-22 film of three interceptions to see exactly what went wrong and how Kaepernick gave the Bears a lifeline back into the game.
Any good quarterback will tell you that controlling the safety(s) with you eyes-looking off your intended target to hid your intentions until the last moment-is a key element of quarterbacking at the highest level. It isn't easy but if done properly-Drew Brees is the best in the NFL in my opinion-it can be devastatingly effective and keep unlock a defense.
If done poorly or not at all it can be just as devastating but in a negative way. Let's look at how Kaepernick's inability to hold the middle safety in a Cover 3 defense on a seam route led to a 49er turnover.
Game Situation: 2nd Quarter, 9:30, 1st and 10 at the SF 50, 49ers 7, Bears 0
Offensive Personnel: 2 WR (Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin) 2 TE (Vernon Davis, Vance McDonald) 1 RB (Carlos Hyde)
Formation: Shotgun 3 Wide Strong
Offensive Concept: Curl/Flat Combo/Seam route
Defensive Scheme: Cover 3
This pick is all about Kaepernick's staring down Boldin from the snap. That focus on one of his favorite targets keys the entire zone defense-which is reading his eyes-to where he is going with the ball before he even releases it.
With that knowledge free safety Chris Conte starts breaking on the ball well before it leaves Kaepernick's hand and successfully undercuts the seam route. Still, it was an incredible play by Conte to cover that much ground and make the diving interception but Kaepernick simply can't stare down his receivers like this against a Cover 3 zone.
Ball placement is pretty straight forward, a quarterback needs to deliver the ball on target to ensure his receiver has the best chance of catching it. If it is off target not only do the chances of a completion drop drastically the defense has a great chance to come away with an interception.
This is especially true against zone coverages where the defender is watching the quarterback and has the ability/time to adapt to off target throws-often more of a chance than the receivers themselves. Rookie Kyle Fuller did just that against Kaepernick's wide throw directed towards a Crabtree hitch route and came away the Bears third takeaway of the game.
Let's look at the tape and examine how the underneath zone likely effected Kaepernick's throwing lane and led to another interception.
Game Situation: 4th Quarter, 13:29, 1st and 10 at the SF 20, 49ers 20, Bears 14
Offensive Personnel: 2 WR (Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin) 1 TE (Vernon Davis) 2 RB (Frank Gore, Bruce Miller)
Formation: Ace 3 Wide Strong
Offensive Concept: Backside Hitch
Defensive Scheme: Cover 3
The errant throw is certainly the main culprit of this turnover but Kaepernick might have been caught off guard by the Bears Cover 3 defense. It seems surprising given the single high safety that screams Cover 3 pre snap. But throwing a backside quick hitch over the underneath zone and towards a cornerback that is playing off technique is asking for trouble and seems like an unlikely route to target against Cover 3.
That combined with the Bears cornerbacks doing a good job of hiding the Cover 3-they show coverage without the tell tale outside leverage before bailing at the snap-leads me to ponder whether Kaepernick misread the defense.
Either way the real problem is the fact that Kaepernick's throw arrives two to three yards outside of where it should. McClellin jumping underneath the route likely influenced Kaepernick's inaccuracy but isn't a valid excuse for such a misplaced pass. If Kaepernick feels that he cannot get the ball to Crabtree accurately without jeopardizes an interception due to the underneath defender, he needs to toggle to his second option.
In Kaepernick's defense this was another outstanding interception by a Bears defensive back. Fuller was simply looking to break up the pass but the ball managed to bounce directly into his arms and missed throws like this usually result in incompletions not interceptions.
With his incredible athleticism and ability to create spectacular plays the 49ers encourage Kaepernick to escape the pocket. It is there, outside of the pocket where Kaepernick is the most dangerous as the definition of a dual threat quarterback.
But in those situations where Kaepernick is in space-that routinely end up on SportCenter's Top 10 plays in the form of long scrambles or broken tackles turned into a 40 yard completion- are inherently risky. At that point the play is play no longer functioning as well orchestrated and practiced set of movements. Instead it is six skill players essentially free styling against the defense.
The randomness lends it self to big plays, both bad and good. 49er fans will happily point out more than one or two great plays Kaepernick made out of nothing, often at critical times. But the reverse is also true as Kaepernick has thrown his fair share of interceptions trying to create something special.
Against the Bears, Kaepernick was flushed out of the pocket and presented with one of those feast or famine situations. On this occasion it didn't go Kaepernick's way but the 49ers have accepted these negative plays as part of Kaepernick's quarterback DNA.
Let's look at the tape to see how Kaepernick's attempt to convert a big 3rd down outside of the pocket resulted in his third interception.
Game Situation: 4th Quarter, 9:19, 3rd and 12 at the SF 35, 49ers 20, Bears 21
Offensive Personnel: 3 WR (Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Stevie Johnson) 1 TE (Derrick Carrier) 2 RB (Frank Gore)
Formation: Shotgun 3 Wide Strong
Offensive Concept: 4 Verticals/Scramble Routine
Defensive Scheme: Cover 3
If this ends up in Carrier's arms everyone is celebrating what a special talent Kaepernick is. But it doesn't so Kaepernick gets the reverse and rightfully so. His intentions to hit Carrier after escaping the pocket are correct but he simply never sees Fuller in his Cover 3 zone..
As for Kaepernick's day as a whole it was disappointing but not as bad as the stat sheet indicates. The interceptions weren't terrible plays-just compared them to Romo's interceptions last week-and were more the result of good plays from the defense than poor plays from Kaepernick.
They also represent what Kaepernick offers right now as a quarterback. He has the raw potential to win games with his athleticism and big play ability but he is far from a finished product-especially in the pocket-that is susceptible to a turnover or two.
Against the Bears, Kaepernick did more bad than good. He was the primary reason the 49ers lost with his four turnovers. But that shouldn't be discouraging for 49ers fans as Kaepernick doesn't have a history of turning the ball over like some quarterbacks and is still growing as a passer. Yes, he need to continue improving his pocket passing skills-including but not limited to the aforementioned eye discipline and ball location-but Kaepernick gives the 49ers the X factor they need to compete for a SuperBowl.
The Offensive Performance as a Whole
Obviously the turnovers were the big story surrounding the offense. Kaepernick's four turnovers undid a fairly successful first three quarters and there were some positives despite the unfortunate loss. The run game-especially the zone read in the 1st half-was as effective as many predicted it to be, Crabtree got going with 7 catch, 82 yard 1 touchdown performance that will hopefully jump start his season after a lack luster Week 1 performance and Alex Boone returned to the line up.
But for all the good that happened in the first half-including Frank Gore actually out running someone on his 50 yard touchdown that was called back for holding-there was more bad in the second half. The first problem was the 49ers inability to put the game to bed with a touchdown on the opening drive of the third quarter.
After eating up nine minutes of the clock on the opening drive of the third quarter the 49ers had to settle for a field goal, missing an opportunity to extend their lead to 17 and leaving the momentum with the Bears. The 49ers had 1st and five at the Bears six yard line but settled for three run play that yield zero yard combined. Kaepernick blamed the lack of production on poor execution on the runs and not play calling but the plays seemed a little conservative give the game was there for the taking.
It was the one of many examples during the game of the 49ers failing to put the game to bed-something they also failed to do against the Cowboys-and the players knew it. Frank Gore referenced it in his post game interview, "When you're up like that, you've got to go for the kill. We let them get back into the game. We didn't finish and they beat us."
Once the opportunity was missed and the Bears force the 49ers to chase the game other issues were exposed. The big one was the lack of pass protection. On the 49ers final drive Kaepernick was under siege and stand in right tackle Jonathan Martin gave up two bad sacks.
But Martin was alone in failing to protect Kaepernick as the Bears generated 18 hurries on Kaepernick's 42 drop backs highlighting the issue that causes so much worry in the preseason. The hope is Anthony Davis's return will fix this problem but his inclusion won't cover up poor play from the other four offensive linemen.
Next week's game against the NFC West leading Cardinals will be a huge one. Falling two games behind the Cardinals this early in the season would be tough situation to overcome, especially with the Chiefs and Eagles coming up the following weeks. In order to avoid that the 49ers offensive will have to avoid the turnovers that undid them against the Bears, protect Kaepernick and strike if an opportunity to finish the game presents itself.
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