Carlos Hyde and a surprisingly dominant rushing attack stole the show offensively in the San Francisco 49ers’ season-opening victory over the Minnesota Vikings, but Monday night also marked our first real opportunity to see the new-look Colin Kaepernick in action.
Kaepernick, of course, spent much of his offseason working with Kurt Warner and quarterbacks coach Dennis Gile retooling his biomechanics and sharpening his mental approach to the game. The focus was on getting Kaepernick to exhaust plays from the pocket before turning to his athleticism to improvise and make something happen outside the structure of the play. It’s one game, and a game in which the pass offense was very limited from a schematic standpoint, but we got some encouraging signs that Kaepernick’s offseason work is going to pay dividends on the field in 2015.
Offensive coordinator Geep Chryst kept things simple for Kaepernick in Week 1, giving him plenty of easy throws on boot action and not generally looking to put a whole lot on his plate. It remains to be seen whether that will be the game plan on a weekly basis or if Chryst is looking to rebuild his quarterback’s confidence from the ground up, slowly adding more complex concepts each week. But against the Vikings, we got a whole lot of this:
San Francisco ran this boot concept from a few different formations and personnel groupings, but the basic structure for Kaepernick remained the same: Leak a player into the flat, get a tight end or a wideout with a reduced split on a corner or deep out route to the front side (or maybe a comeback route from a receiver split further out wide), and bring someone across the field on a crossing route from the backside. Kaepernick gets to work in space outside the pocket and is given three targets in his field of vision at varied levels, making for an easy 1–2–3 progression. It’s a concept every team in the NFL runs some variant of, and is something you’ll see all the way down to the high school level.
Chryst went to this concept over and over, and Kaepernick found a lot of success with it. By my charting, Kaepernick went 8-of–8 for 66 yards when the 49ers used boot action, repeatedly taking easy throws in the flat, or when that was covered, coming back to his crosser over the middle.
Setting up your quarterback with those types of throws is great, and every QB in football benefits from easy throws in some form or fashion. But you can’t really build a successful passing game off of them in the long term. At some point, you are going to be forced to drop back in the pocket and make throws against a defense expecting the pass, and it’s in these situations where I’m most interested to see how Kaepernick is developing. We know he can excel on the move outside the pocket, he’s done that his entire career. But can he win from the pocket when the defense knows it’s coming?
From a production standpoint, the early answer is no. At least not consistently. Kaepernick attempted 15 passes from the pocket without the benefit of play action, completing just 53.3 percent of those passes at a clip of 4.73 yards per attempt. Focusing in on the third-down throws from that group, Kaepernick was 3-of–6 with only a single conversion. There were a lot of things Kaepernick did right in these situations (we’ll get to the positive stuff, I promise), but accuracy was his biggest downfall. On those 15 non-play action throws from the pocket, I charted Kaepernick with a 46.7 accuracy percentage (judging solely his ball location, not whether the pass was actually completed), compared to 81.8 percent accuracy on play action passes. It was a problem that really stood out early in the game.
On this red zone play early in the first quarter, the 49ers bring Vernon Davis in motion to the left and run a sail concept (streak-corner-flat) to that side of the field. Davis gets position on safety Harrison Smith on the corner route, opening a window to the front pylon for a touchdown completion. But Kaepernick’s footwork is off, perhaps bothered by Alex Boone getting driven back into his face, and he ends up falling to the side as he throws, leading to an off-target, underthrown pass.
At the start of the second quarter, we get an excellent example of the strides Kaepernick has made moving within the pocket but also how he hasn’t quite put it all together just yet. Kaepernick does everything right on this play right up until the moment he releases the ball. He does an excellent job feeling the outside rush closing in, sliding up in the pocket and keeping his eyes downfield as opposed to looking for an escape route as he would’ve done so often in the past. Kaepernick finds the right receiver in his progression, Quinton Patton, who is settling in right at the first-down marker in an open spot in the Vikings’ zone coverage. But the ball sails, leading Patton upfield toward defenders who are closing quickly rather than keeping the pass low and on Patton’s body where he can make the reception and shield himself from the incoming hit.
San Francisco settled for three field goals inside the Minnesota 11-yard line, and all three came on the heels of a Kaepernick pass that failed to convert on third down. The play above from late in the third quarter was the worst of the bunch for Kaepernick. Needing five yards to convert, the 49ers look to get Anquan Boldin the ball on a quick slant route from a trips look to the left side. Kaepernick gets the look he wants from the Vikings defense. Vance McDonald’s flat route takes safety Andrew Sendejo (34) with him, clearing space for Boldin’s slant. With Boldin’s defender, Xavier Rhodes, in off coverage, this should be an easy conversion. However, Kaepernick’s timing is off (drop isn’t properly timed to the route), and the ball arrives errant and late.
If Kaepernick is able to clean up his accuracy (mostly by smoothing out some kinks in his footwork), there was a lot to like from this performance. Something that had plagued Kaepernick in the past was his throw/scramble decision making. Too often he would take the seven-yard scramble and leave a 15-yard completion on the field. Against the Vikings, however, he was excellent in this respect. Outside of one play midway through the first quarter (the one where Kap was lit up on the sideline by Harrison Smith) where Kaepernick passed up an open Torrey Smith on a hitch route at the sticks, whenever Kaepernick took off out of the pocket in Week 1, it was because he had exhausted his options downfield and a clear rushing lane had opened up.
Pull up any of Kaepernick’s five scrambles on NFL Game Pass, and you’ll find a solid example of his improved decision making. This one near at the 3:19 mark in the second quarter stuck out to me. San Francisco dials up a four verticals play from a condensed, three-tight end formation (something straight out of the Harbaugh playbook) on second-and–7, but Minnesota happens to be in quarters coverage, the perfect look to take it away. Kaepernick remains calm in the pocket even as center Marcus Martin is getting planted on his ass right in front him, shuffling to the side and keeping his eyes downfield. But with everything taken away by the Vikings defense, including Jarryd Hayne on the checkdown, Kaepernick takes advantage of the open space in the middle of the field to go and get a first down with his legs.
Just as important as when Kaepernick did decide to scramble were the plays where he had an opportunity but found an open receiver instead.
While calling the game, Trent Dilfer nearly had an out-of-body experience when watching this play, and it was one instance in which his excitement was justified. If he wants it, Kaepernick has quite a bit of green grass to cover with his legs off to the left side. Instead, he remains in a throwing posture with his eyes downfield, coming all the way back to Anquan Boldin on the backside dig route, the final option in his progression. Ball location is still a little iffy here, and better throw probably gives Boldin some YAC opportunity. But man, as someone who has spent an excessive amount of time watching Kaepernick over the years, it was remarkably refreshing to watch him subtly maneuver the pocket and ignore an open rushing lane to find an open receiver downfield.
As with anything, particularly Week 1 performances, it’s important to keep things in the proper context. Chryst and the coaching staff didn’t put a lot on Kaepernick’s plate and set him up with a lot of easy throws, something evidenced not only by the amount of boot action that was called, but also by Kaepernick’s average depth of target. According to Pro Football Focus, Kaepernick’s aDOT was 7.6 yards versus the Vikings, ranking him 23rd among the 35 quarterbacks who saw action in Week 1. That number was well below Kaepernick’s average in his three previous seasons, when it ranged between 9.5 and 10.1 yards. And as NN reader Gregor Bozic pointed out on Twitter, Kaepernick didn’t need to make many contested throws.
When the running game is chewing up grass the way it was on Monday night, the 49ers might not need anything more than a few conversions from Kaepernick on play-action passes to have success offensively. Nevertheless, there will inevitably be times, when due to game situation or opponent, when the offense is put on Kaepernick’s shoulders. He didn’t produce at the level you would hope in those situations in Week 1, but a closer look at his underlying performance revealed a number of promising signs. There’s still work to be done before Kaepernick’s transformation as a quarterback is complete, and there’s no telling whether his new mechanics and pocket presence will crumble against a defense that is able to pressure him more frequently. But for one game, Kaepernick looks like a passer primed to turn over a new leaf in 2015.