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All-22: Blaine Gabbert's rushing, not passing, propels 49ers to first road victory of 2015

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The San Francisco 49ers picked up their first road win of 2015 in Chicago, and on offense it was Blaine Gabbert's rushing, not passing, that made the difference. We break down the tape.

Blaine Gabbert can officially add "late-game heroics" to the 49ers section of his résumé after piloting two touchdown drives in the final five-plus minutes of game time in Chicago to give San Francisco their first road win of 2015. And no, it doesn’t get any less weird the more you read that sentence.

Before we get to the conclusion of last week’s game, let’s start with what Gabbert and the 49ers passing game did over the first 57 minutes, because well, that seems important, too.

It wasn’t anywhere near Gabbert-in-Jacksonville bad, but his performance against the Bears was easily his worst as the 49ers’ starter. Gabbert was 56 yards below replacement as a passer, per Football Outsiders’s opponent-adjusted metrics, which ranked him ahead of just four of the 33 quarterbacks to attempt a pass in Week 13. ESPN’s expected points added (EPA) metric liked the performance a bit more, but Gabbert still ranked just 21st in pass EPA for the week. As a result, the 49ers posted a below-average pass offense DVOA (minus–26.0 percent) for the first time since Gabbert took the reins.

Gabbert’s dip in production was mirrored by a dip in the distance he was throwing the ball downfield. His average pass traveled 6.3 yards in the air versus the Bears, topping only Ryan Fitzpatrick and Alex Smith in Week 13, per Pro Football Focus. Of his 32 pass attempts, just five of them cleared 10 air yards and only the game-winning pass in overtime to Torrey Smith was completed. This was a far cry from Gabbert’s 9.4-yard average depth of target against the Seahawks, and nearly a yard-and-a-half short of his previous low, 7.7 yards, against the Cardinals.

Air yards have come up frequently in this space to describe the 49ers’ generally conservative approach to pass offense this season, with both Colin Kaepernick and Gabbert under center. It’s important to note having a low average depth of target isn’t inherently bad — Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, and Derek Carr are all among the quarterbacks below the median figure (8.6) and all command pass offenses ranked in the top 10 this season. As long as you’re consistently avoiding Alex Smithian-level air yards, it’s possible to find success throwing the ball short.

Offenses must balance those short throws, however, with enough shots downfield to prevent the defense from creeping up and taking away those underneath passing lanes. Which gets us to one of the larger issues with San Francisco’s passing game this season: too many horizontal stretches and not enough vertical stretches.

At their most basic, passing concepts can be divided into a few buckets depending on how the offense wants to attack the coverage (and the type of coverage they are expecting). Horizontal stretches look to outnumber the underneath defenders and attack the width of the field, whereas vertical stretches look to attack the length of the field by getting receivers at multiple levels of the defense. Geep Chryst’s offense uses a good amount of the former.

Horizontal stretches have their place in every offensive playbook, and are effective against the right type of coverage. But when you rely on them too frequently without also stretching the field vertically, they become easier to defend and those underneath passing windows begin to shrink. This is the point where I remind you the 49ers gave $40 million to Torrey Smith this offseason to help address this exact problem, yet he’s only been targeted on 17 deep passes (15 or more yards in the air) in 12 games. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Though San Francisco’s offensive scheme isn’t doing Gabbert any favors in many situations, we also saw him miss more opportunities downfield against the Bears than in previous contests.

On the opening third down of the game, Gabbert gets tight end Vance McDonald, aligned in the left slot, open on a crossing route beyond the sticks. Anquan Boldin’s curl route holds linebacker Shea McClellin, who would’ve been the most dangerous defender on a throw to McDonald, underneath. Safety Adrian Amos, who is trailing McDonald on the route, is the other nearby defender and it’s unlikely he would have been able to contest an accurate pass. Gabbert is looking down the middle of the field, which you can see from the end zone angle, and undoubtedly sees McDonald break open. But he fails to pull the trigger and instead dumps the ball off in the flat to Shaun Draughn.

Early in the second quarter, this time on first down, it looks as if Gabbert wanted to make up for his earlier mistake and nearly made a worse one in the process. McDonald is running the same crossing route, this time from an inline position on the right of the offensive line, and is open for a moment as he breaks over the middle. Gabbert ends up holding to the ball too long and delivering it late with only an inaccurate pass saving him from an interception. Had he recognized that his window had closed, Gabbert would’ve been able to move on in his progression to Quinton Patton on the dig route for a likely completion.

Later in the second quarter, Gabbert missed another one of his tight ends, Blake Bell, over the middle for another potential third-down conversion. Bell is running a drag route from the left side on the play. Chicago’s underneath defenders are late to react, and though Bell is short of the first-down marker, he has enough space in front of him to easily pick up the conversion as long as an inaccurate throw doesn’t inhibit him. But once again, even though Gabbert is clearly looking at the route, he forgoes his open tight end for an ill-advised pass (possibly a throwaway) to Draughn in the flat.

Ironically, one of the few times Gabbert actually took a shot downfield came on a third-down play where he had an easy conversion available underneath. San Francisco is running a slightly modified version of the three-man Stick concept with the vertical route coming from Boldin in the slot rather than on the outside. Bell comes open on the stick route one yard beyond the marker, but Gabbert holds on the ball, waits for the safety to break on Bell underneath, and tries to fit the ball in a narrow window downfield to Boldin.

It’s true that if you look hard enough you can find missed opportunities in just about every game from every quarterback. In short, shit happens. But for Gabbert, it happened more frequently in Chicago than it had in his first three starts and it will be something to monitor over the rest of the season.

Where Gabbert made up the difference was with his legs, starting with his ability to evade pressure in the pocket. Though Gabbert was sacked four times by the Bears defense, matching the total number of sacks Gabbert took in the previous three games combined, that total could’ve been much higher without plays like this:

You can’t see it from the end zone angle, but everything is covered downfield and Gabbert has nowhere to go with the football. When Andrew Tiller gets tossed to the ground, it looks as if a negative play is all but certain. Instead, Gabbert escapes the grasp of four different Bears defenders and picks up eight yards on second-and–6, avoiding a third-and-long that would’ve likely ended the drive.

That play came early in the second quarter, but of course, Gabbert’s biggest plays on the ground came late in the game when the 49ers needed them most. First, he scrambled for nine yards on third-and–6 to keep the drive alive near midfield. And then this happened:

Bears defensive end Willie Young quickly beats Joe Staley to the inside, forcing Gabbert from the pocket before the routes downfield have a chance to develop. But as it turned out, this wasn’t such a bad thing. Gabbert puts a nice move on the safety in the open field and outruns the rest of the Bears defense to the end zone for the game-tying score.

It was the most significant play during a very effective day running the ball — or more accurately, scrambling — for Gabbert. His 21 yards above replacement rushing was fourth among quarterbacks, per Football Outsiders’s numbers, on what ended up being a crazy day for quarterbacks running the ball. Gabbert’s 5.3 run EPA trailed only Marcus Mariota, who ripped off an 87-yard touchdown run against the Jaguars.

Of course, we can’t wrap things up without a quick look at the game-winning touchdown pass to Torrey Smith:

Chicago actually drops eight defenders into coverage on the play, but miscommunication in the secondary leaves most of them gazing helplessly downfield as Smith waltzes into the end zone. San Francisco dials up the Smash concept, which happens to be one of those elusive vertical stretches we mentioned earlier, to the two-receiver side of the formation with Boldin running a curl and Smith running a corner.

The Bears appear to be in Cover 3, or perhaps a quarters look, which means cornerback Tracy Porter (21) is the defender put into conflict by the Smash combination. If Porter sinks into his deep zone responsibility, Boldin should be open on the curl. If Porter sits down with Boldin, Smith’s corner route should open up behind him. Though it appears safety Adrian Amos is there to take away Boldin’s curl route, Porter sits down as well, putting two defenders on Boldin and no one over the top to account for Smith. Gabbert puts the ball on the money. Ball game.

♦♦♦

It seemed like it was only a matter of time before Gabbert came down to earth a bit and struggled throwing the ball more than he had over those first three games. But it says something that his worst game as the 49ers quarterback so far is light-years ahead of his worst games with the Jaguars.

As we enter the final quarter of the season, the next question for New Gabbert becomes whether his performance against the Bears is the aberration or if defenses are starting to adapt and this is our new norm. The Browns abysmal defense probably won’t help us answer that question, and it seems reasonable to expect a bounce-back game this week. But with the Bengals, Lions, and Rams to follow — all currently ranked in the top half of the league by DVOA — we’ll have several opportunities to help us, and the 49ers, determine if Gabbert can be the answer beyond 2015.