It didn’t take long to realize there wasn’t going to be a whole lot to like about the San Francisco 49ers’ 2015 season, and I had to retire the "things I liked and didn’t like" series after only two games. But after Jim Tomsula’s squad pulled off their first road victory of the season in Chicago, it felt like the time was right for it to make a comeback. So, in no particular order, here are nine things I liked and didn’t like from the 49ers’ overtime win over the Bears.
1. Shaun Draughn
It’s rarely been pretty, but Draughn continues to provide competent play at the running back position for pennies on the dollar since the 49ers signed him just over a month ago. Against the Bears, Draughn effectively was San Francisco’s entire offense for much of the game — prior to Gabbert’s 44-yard touchdown scamper with 1:52 remaining in regulation, Draughn had accounted for 48.9 percent of the 49ers’ total yardage.
Draughn’s season-long 3.3 yards per carry is hardly impressive, but running behind the 49ers offensive line this season has been no small order. Carlos Hyde’s yards per carry in the six games following his Week 1 explosion? 3.3.
Now before you race to the comments to yell at me for saying Draughn is as good as Hyde, hold up for a moment. No one is making that claim. But those numbers illustrate how difficult it’s been to pick up yards on the ground for San Francisco’s running backs this season.
Draughn’s impact in the passing game has been more significant. He’s been targeted at least five times in each of his four games with the 49ers, including an 11-target game in Seattle, and he’s caught over 80 percent of the balls thrown his way. Only Anquan Boldin has been targeted more frequently during that stretch, checking in with 31 targets to Draughn’s 27.
He’s not the guy you necessarily want as your feature back, but he’s perfectly capable of being an effective complementary back to help take some of the workload off Hyde next season. In essence, he’s been what the 49ers hoped Reggie Bush would be, but for a fraction of the cost.
Another Texas route, this time from Draughn, for a third-down conversion pic.twitter.com/t5OJwhUjOS— David Neumann (@davidneumann_) December 8, 2015
Draughn’s relative success provides yet another case among the myriad reasons why investing so many resources in the running back position is generally a bad idea. Trent Baalke has selected a running back in the first four rounds of each of the past five drafts, and the best player from that lot, Hyde, has only started seven games due to injury troubles.
Generally, I think many of Baalke’s processes have been good ones — though you can’t say the same for the execution — and many of the arguments against him as a general manager are rooted in hindsight. But given what we know about how the running back position has evolved over the past decade or so, this is clearly a strategy that was a bad idea as it was happening. While there are running backs who come out of nowhere to be productive every NFL season — whether as late-round draft picks, UDFAs, or discarded journeyman free agents — Baalke has continued to spend valuable draft capital on one of the league’s most devalued positions.
2. Converted a third-and-long!
When reviewing Blaine Gabbert’s performance against the Seahawks and Cardinals last week, I mentioned that the 49ers had yet to convert a third-and-long (eight or more yards to go) since Gabbert became the starting quarterback. Well, they finally got one!
Another throw short of the sticks on 3rd-and-long, but designed well enough to get YAC needed for conversion. pic.twitter.com/m29ij4sFTA— David Neumann (@davidneumann_) December 8, 2015
Gabbert’s throw was still short of the first-down marker, but a good play call to defeat man coverage and a nice Texas route by Vance McDonald opened enough space in the middle of the field to pick up the YAC necessary for a conversion. San Francsico is now 1-for–25 in third-and-long situations with Gabbert at the helm, and they remain the most conservative non-Alex Smith-led offense in these situations.
3. Bears’ All–22 camera angle
It’s the absolute worst. That is all.
4. 49ers run defense
One week after shutting down Arizona’s rushing attack, the 49ers surrendered 143 yards on 33 carries (4.3 YPC) to the combination of Matt Forte and Jeremy Langford. This continues the season-long trend of poor run defense on the road, as San Francisco has yet to post an above-average run defense DVOA away from Levi’s Stadium in 2015.
Arizona stayed in personnel groupings that allowed San Francisco’s base defense to remain on the field for many of the Cardinals’ run snaps, which helped the 49ers a great deal. Chicago opted to spread things out a bit more and get San Francisco’s sub-packages on the field, and those sub-packages proved ill-equipped to handle the Bears’ eighth-ranked run offense. Guards Matt Slauson and Patrick Omameh had their way with San Francisco’s interior defensive lineman, paving the way for steady yardage from Chicago’s backfield duo.
Just as their success a week ago was a team effort, just about everyone contributed to the 49ers’ poor showing in Chicago, particularly along the defensive line. Quinton Dial, who I’ll be breaking down in a separate post still to come, found himself on the ground far too often. Arik Armstead continued to show little against the run. Ian Williams and Mike Purcell weren’t much better.
Defensive line was a massive question mark entering the season after losing Justin Smith and Ray McDonald. While none of the players getting regular snaps up front have been terrible, no one has stepped up to consistently fill those voids either. Right now the 49ers have what amounts to a unit full of role players and there’s still a lot of development required before we can expect consistent play from this group.
5. Jimmie Ward
It took him 20 games, but Jimmie Ward finally came up with the big play we’ve all been waiting for since the 49ers used a first-round pick on him two years ago, picking off a screen pass to Alshon Jeffery and taking it to the house for the game’s first touchdown.
I discussed Ward at length a couple weeks ago, so I’m not going to spend too much time on him here. But it was great to see a player who has been hammered by a large chunk of the fan base, despite generally solid play, garner some positive attention.
6. Torrey Smith
It’s no secret that Smith’s usage has been absurdly low this season, and it’s probably not worth bringing up, but it’s no less maddening every time I look at the numbers.
I noted Smith’s low number of deep targets when looking at Gabbert’s performance against the Bears earlier this week, but his lack of involvement in the passing game regardless of pass type is staggering.
With Boldin missing some time due to injury, Smith has seen the largest share of offensive snaps among 49ers receivers (77.9 percent). Despite taking the field more than any other receiver on the team, Smith has been targeted on just 11 percent of San Francisco’s pass attempts this season, per Mike Clay of Pro Football Focus.
No one is saying Smith is DeAndre Hopkins or Julio Jones or something, and should be seeing 30-plus percent target rate. But the 49ers thought highly enough of him to open up the checkbook and make him the highest-paid free-agent signing of Baalke’s tenure. Smith has proven to be an effective weapon during his time with the Ravens and he’s clearly the most explosive offensive player on San Francisco’s roster. To use him as little as the 49ers have this season is pure negligence.
7. Pace on offense
Tempo on offense was one of the major themes of training camp and offseason workouts, but has largely gone undiscussed once games started happening and more significant storylines took hold. Way back when the 49ers still had a winning record, I mentioned the 49ers’ situation-neutral pace, as measured by Football Outsiders, was the ninth-fastest in Week 1.
Now, with three-quarters of the season booked, the 49ers actually rank fifth in the same metric. They didn’t exactly become Chip Kelly’s Eagles, who clock in first in situation-neutral pace by a significant margin, but it’s clear Jim Tomsula’s offseason emphasis on tempo has carried over to the regular season even if it hasn’t helped the 49ers offense be more productive.
8. Jim Tomsula’s challenge
First, this happened (which felt like a pretty good representation of the 2015 49ers):
Hey remember that time Patton made that cool PR save and like 8 49ers pointlessly failed to jump on it? That was fun pic.twitter.com/5YUnsgbwYK— David Neumann (@davidneumann_) December 8, 2015
Then, Tomsula showed off his mastery of the rulebook and tossed out the red flag for a challenge he had literally zero chance of winning.
It’s not the first time Tomsula has shown poor judgement with his challenge decisions this season. Football Outsiders recently looked at the in-game decision making of NFL head coaches in a piece for ESPN Insider, using a simple metric they developed called Strategy Score. Challenge mistakes make up one-third of a coach’s Strategy Score, with fourth-down aggressiveness and time management mistakes as the other two components. So far this season, only Bills coach Rex Ryan has made more challenge mistakes than the five by Tomsula.
Tomsula’s overall Strategy Score ranks him 30th. One of the two coaches beneath him in the rankings? Browns head coach Mike Pettine, who has been one of the league’s least-aggressive coaches on fourth down and has more total mistakes (7) than any other coach. How NBC didn’t jump all over the opportunity to flex this epic coaching duel into the Sunday Night Football slot is beyond me.
In-game decision making represents only one small part of an NFL coach’s responsibilities (and one could argue it’s the least important part). But for everyone outside the organization, these strategic decisions are one of the only measurable things we have to go on when trying to assess their relative value. And considering what we know about Jim Tomsula, it’s not a surprise he’s been among the NFL’s worst coaches in this regard.
9. Jaquiski Tartt
There’s been a lot to like about Tartt’s rookie season. He seems to have a couple plays per game that just jump off the tape, such as this one last week in which Tartt flies into the backfield off the edge, takes out the lead blocker, and pulls down Forte for a loss:
Tartt doing Tartt things pic.twitter.com/ojxwS5eCKT— David Neumann (@davidneumann_) December 9, 2015
Unfortunately, there’s also a lot of this:
According to Jeff Deeney from Pro Football Focus, Tartt has now missed 10 tackles on the year, fourth on the team. That’s obviously not good, and then you remember that Tartt was a part-time player to begin the season and has still played less than 60 percent of San Francisco’s defensive snaps, and that number gets even worse. Tartt ranks 56th among 69 qualifying safeties in tackling efficiency (Eric Reid ranks 62nd).
Tartt has the potential to become an impact safety in this league, but he’s got to clean up the shoddy tackling.