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49ers-Bengals recap: 9 things I liked and didn't like

Jimmie Ward, single-high coverage in the red zone, and strong defensive line play. Here are nine things I liked and didn't like from the 49ers Week 15 loss to the Bengals.

Another week, another loss for the 49ers. Let’s cope together by doing some Christmas Eve drinking (only if you’re of age, of course) and running through a nine things that I liked and didn’t like from San Francisco’s Week 15 defeat.

1. Jimmie Ward Da G.O.A.T.

Too early to go with G.O.A.T.? OK, fine. But it’s been quite a stretch for the former first-round pick. Ward has been a solid performer in his slot cornerback role throughout most of his brief career, but has lacked the splashy highlight plays to offset a few high-profile mishaps. Now over his past three games, Ward has been splashing like a puppy in a kiddie pool.

Ward took his first career interception back to the house to kick things off a couple of weeks ago against the Bears. Versus the Bengals, Ward made plays all over the field and was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise lackluster performance from the 49ers at home. There was a pass breakup early in the second quarter on a third-down slant pass to A.J. Green. Later, Ward shot into the backfield and chased down Gio Bernard from behind for a three-yard loss before closing out the third quarter with a third-down sack of McCarron.

Toss in a tackle short of the sticks on another third-down play and Ward had four defeats, tops on the day and tied for the most by a 49ers defender in any game this season. His 12 defeats on the year — as a reminder, defeats are turnovers, plays that stop the offense for a loss, or plays that prevent a conversion on third or fourth down — are now second on the team behind Aaron Lynch.

Ward is finally building up his highlight reel and if he can continue to pair these newfangled big plays with his usual solid work in coverage, he just might make some people believe he was worth that first-round selection.

2. Vance gonna Vance

At the opposite end of the spectrum we have Vance McDonald. He’s had some egregious drops in the past, but this game was especially brutal with two Blaine Gabbert passes deflecting off his hands and into the arms of a Bengals defender. The first came on one of Gabbert’s better throws of the day that would have converted a third-and–11 had McDonald made the reception. Cincinnati dialed up a seven-man pressure, leaving man coverage across the board on the backend. San Francisco’s offensive line does a nice job picking up the blitz, Gabbert finds the correct receiver and gets the ball out before the free rusher off the edge gets home, but…

The second McDonald-assisted interception came with just over a minute to go in the first half and set the Bengals up at the 49ers’ 20-yard line. McCarron wasted no time taking advantage, throwing a touchdown pass up the seam to backup tight end Tyler Kroft, pushing Cincinnati’s lead to 21–0 and effectively putting the nail in the coffin on this contest.

McDonald’s career drop rate now sits at an absurd 22 percent, worst among qualifying tight ends over the past three years, per Pro Football Focus.

3. Single-high coverage in the red zone

Kroft’s touchdown at the end of the half was notable for another reason, as it showcases why single-high coverages are such a poor idea in the red zone.

In any area of the field one of the primary weaknesses of Cover 3 is the seams, particularly if no pattern-match elements are used. As I touched on a month ago, the 49ers have played a heavy amount of Cover 3 this season and have been torched by routes that take advantage of this inherent weakness. In the red zone, defenders have less time to react, exacerbating this problem further. Offenses love to attack the seams once they reach scoring range, and some route combinations can be difficult to defend regardless of the coverage you’re using. But by running single-high coverages, especially Cover 3, you’re making it far too easy on them.

4. "You talkin’ Guido?!"

5. Cadet makes business decision in pass pro, gets cut two days later

I’m not really sure how Cadet could possibly justify his actions on this play outside of, "I wanted nothing to do with Vontaze Burfict." Two days later, the 49ers waived the former Saints running back and signed DuJuan Harris off the Ravens’ practice squad. There are no coincidences.

Shaun Draughn has been surprisingly effective given the circumstances with this offense, but at what point do you stop rotating waiver-wire fodder in and out of the lineup and give Jarryd Hayne another opportunity? I haven’t been the biggest Hayne supporter, but after watching Cadet actively sabotage Gabbert’s well being like he did in the play above, can Hayne really be any worse?

There are a lot of things not to like about this coaching staff and how they’ve handled things, but their unwillingness to assume any sort of risk even as the season has gone down the toilet is near the top of the list.

Going with the veteran option over someone who has barely played professional football is a justifiable decision for a playoff contender that could potentially have their season come to an end if a high-variance option like Hayne backfires. But San Francisco’s season ended sometime between the moment they fired Jim Harbaugh and the middle of October. Why not see what you have in an unknown and allow Hayne to get some on-the-job training? He might prove to be awful, but at least you have meaningful snaps to gauge his ability on as you move into the offseason and begin constructing your 2016 roster.

6. Defensive line rounding into clear strength of the team

Ian Williams and Quinton Dial both turned in another excellent performance this past week. Williams produced the splashier plays of the two with a pair of defeats, including a fumble recovery that resulted from him knocking right tackle Andre Smith backward into Jeremy Hill right after the handoff to force the fumble. Both were key contributors, along with a monster game from NaVorro Bowman, in another standout effort at home against the run for this 49ers defense.

With Williams and Dial rounding into strong anchors against the run, and the promise Arik Armstead has shown rushing the passer, this has to be the position group San Francisco can feel strongest about entering the offseason. Dial has one more year left on his rookie contract and Williams is entering unrestricted free agency, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see both players get extensions before the start of next season. Williams has likely earned himself some extra cash with his play recently, but San Francisco is expected to have ample cap space next year and there’s no reason they shouldn’t look to keep this group intact.

7. Gabbert falls into Bengals’ trap, lives to tell about it

Needless to say, it was an ugly day for Gabbert & Co., but it could have been worse as they just missed out on adding "pick-six" to the list of carnage.

Trap coverage, which is what we see from the Bengals on this play, is a great way for defenses to create chaos for the quarterback. Effectively, the cornerback is reading the No. 2 receiver (counting outside in). If that receiver breaks outside, the cornerback will jump the route and pass off the No. 1 receiver to the safety. The setup creates the illusion of a safe throw underneath for the quarterback, but often results in an easy turnover for the defense.

Dre Kirkpatrick doesn’t quite get there in time and Gabbert is saved from a fourth interception, but in true 49ers’ fashion, Carlos Dunlap would rip the ball from Anquan Boldin’s grasp and the Bengals would get their turnover anyway.

8. Third-down offense continues to be the worst

We’ve talked at length on multiple occasions now about San Francisco’s abysmal third-down offense. At this point, no further analysis is really required. The play calling is hyper-conservative in most situations. Blaine Gabbert is getting more tentative about throwing downfield by the game. Vance McDonald screws everything up in the rare instances in which neither of the first two things happen. You know all of this. So instead, just a quick update on some third-down numbers:

  • Gabbert is rapidly approaching Alex Smith territory when it comes to throwing the ball short of the sticks on third down. Gabbert’s ALEX — which measures the difference between the yards needed for a first-down conversion and the distance the ball travels in the air and is, in fact, named after Smith — is now at minus–2.3, putting him ahead of only Smith among 36 qualifying quarterbacks.
  • In third-and-long situations, Gabbert is throwing the ball 7.9 yards short of the marker on average, which is the most conservative figure in football. The 49ers have converted on just 11.4 percent of these situations.
  • Surprisingly, the 49ers are not the worst team on third down this season, at least according to DVOA. That honor belongs to the Dolphins; the 49ers rank 29th.
  • Gabbert has needed an average of 9.0 yards to convert his average third-down pass, the highest figure among 36 qualifying quarterbacks. For comparison, Colin Kaepernick required an average of 7.7 yards.

9. Defense trending in the right direction

If you’re looking for something to feel somewhat good about going into 2016, the defense is where you want to set your sights. After spending much of the season with a defensive rank that started with a "3", the 49ers are up to 25th in defensive DVOA on the season, and are 22nd in weighted DVOA, which places less importance on games from early in the season to give a better indication of how the team (or unit) is playing right now. That’s still not great, but "below-average" is a solid step up from "worst in football."

There’s no evidence that shows a team is likely to carry strong (or weak) performance from the second half of one season into the following season, but it makes a lot of sense when you consider the specific context of the 49ers. This was a team with a ton of question marks following all of the roster turnover last offseason, especially on defense. It was always overly optimistic to assume all of those question marks would be answered positively, especially to begin the season. But with so many young players in the mix, it makes sense that we would see Eric Mangini’s unit start to gel late in the season.

With another offseason of development for young players like Jimmie Ward, Jaquiski Tartt, Quinton Dial, Arik Armstead, and the rest, if San Francisco can add another quality pass rusher in the offseason, there’s a good chance we can expect some real improvement from this group in 2016.