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All-22: Colin Kaepernick is the 49ers' biggest bright spot through two weeks

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It's been an up and down two week for the 49ers, but in the middle of it all, Colin Kaepernick continues to show signs of improvement.

Through its first two weeks, Colin Kaepernick’s development has been the most encouraging aspect of the San Francisco 49ers’ season. When you turn on Kaepernick’s tape, there are tangible signs of his improvement over a dismal 2014 campagin.

When reviewing Kaepernick’s season opener last week, I noted that Kaepernick benefited from a number of easy throws set up by boot action plays that got him on the perimeter and put clear options in front of him. Rather than putting too much stock in those plays, I opted to focus on his work from the pocket.

Even though he wasn’t forced to deal with much pressure against the Vikings, Kaepernick’s accuracy from the pocket was suspect, and he struggled converting third downs through the air. That said, there were clear steps forward in Kaepernick’s decision making and movement between the tackles.

Kaepernick continued to build on the signs he showed in Week 1, at least from a qualitative perspective. With another week of tape under our belt, let’s revisit a few of the things I wanted to keep an eye on from last week to see where Kaepernick has already improved and where he needs to still make some strides.

Work From The Pocket

In the past, Kaepernick struggled moving subtly within the pocket. His movements often featured these big, exaggerated steps that weren’t effective for avoiding pressure and took him out of a throwing posture. You rarely saw him slide up in the pocket to avoid the outside rush and get a pass off downfield. That changed in Week 1, and continued in Week 2.

Kaepernick showed off his improved pocket mechanics on several occasions against the Vikings, and we continued to see it in Pittsburgh.

Carlos Hyde does an excellent job picking up the blitzing linebacker on this play, giving Kaepernick the time required to make the throw (something that didn’t always happen in this game). Kaepernick shuffles left to create some extra space to step into the throw and fires a rocket to Torrey Smith on the curl route, picking up 14 yards on third-and–11.

Accuracy was Kaepernick’s biggest issue in the opener. On passes from the pocket, he was accurate on less than half (46.7 percent) of his throws, leaving several plays on the field because of it. Against the Steelers, however, we saw notable improvement. Kaepernick threw from the pocket more frequently in Week 2, and his accuracy rate rose considerably even with the increase in attempts. I charted 24 accurate throws on 34 attempts from the pocket (70.6 percent) in Pittsburgh, including several impressive passes down the field.

Touch has been the thing to watch with Kaepernick so far this season, but it’s throws like this where you can see what a difference his arm strength makes. Torrey Smith gets soft coverage on his post route from Steelers cornerback Brandon Boykin, and outside linebacker James Harrison carries Vernon Davis a little too far inside. This opens a passing window for Kaepernick, who puts the ball on a rope right on the money for an 18-yard gain.

Early in the third quarter, we got another example of Kaepernick’s arm strength and improved accuracy working in concert.

Kaepernick is again looking for Smith on this play, who is again receiving a sizable cushion from a Steelers defensive back. Harrison does a better job getting depth on his zone drop here, and would’ve been in position to get his hand on an off-target pass. But the ball is thrown outside, away from the defense, and Smith makes a nice grab for an 11-yard pick-up.

Ball location is huge for NFL passers, and on throws outside the numbers like the one above, it can be the difference between a completion and a pick-six. Kaepernick was much better in this area against the Steelers, and to his credit, even when he missed, he typically missed in an area that would not hurt him. By my charting, Kaepernick has thrown just one interceptable pass in his 72 attempts on the season. If that rate (1.45 percent) were to hold up over the entire season, or just stay in that ballpark, it would be a marked improvement over 2014, in which I charted Kaepernick with an interceptable pass on 7.23 percent of this attempts.

Throws in Critical Situations

Ultimately, how Kaepernick fares in critical situations — third downs, red zone, or when the 49ers need a score to stay in the game — is going to be the primary determinant of his success this season. It’s one thing to look good when you’re up big and the ground game is running on all cylinders, but how are you performing when your team most needs you to come through? So far, the production hasn’t been there.

Among the 32 quarterbacks with at least 10 third-down attempts this season, Kaepernick ranks 21st in passer rating and 26th in yards per attempt. Only four teams have averaged fewer than the 49ers’ 3.24 yards per third-down pass attempt so far in 2015. San Francisco’s conversion rate when passing on third down (38.1 percent) is actually slightly above league average, but that’s only because they’ve been fortune enough to have a decent number of short conversion attempts. When looking at third-and-long situations (7+ yards to go), the 49ers’ conversion rate (18.2 percent) falls well below the league average (26.4 percent) in the same situation.

Cardinals safety Tony Jefferson, who the 49ers will be facing in Week 3, recently had some thoughts about Kaepernick’s third-down performance. "Well, we’re just seeing on third downs, we’ve been seeing him tuck the ball away and running," Jefferson told Mike Florio on PFT Live. "Every time it looks like on third down, he’s looking at one option and when that option’s not open, he’s looking to run."

Despite the 49ers’ struggles on third down, I’m not sure Kaepernick becoming one-and-run is the reason. Excluding sacks, Kaepernick has only scrambled on 3-of-21 third-down drop backs so far. On only one of those plays did Kaepernick have a clear passing option he could’ve taken instead. I went back and reviewed Kaepernick’s third-down throws, and he did get the ball out to his first option quite a bit, but that was mostly dictated by pressure or game situation as opposed to Kaepernick having a specific tendency to bail if his first look wasn’t there. Pittsburgh got quite a bit more pressure on Kaepernick than Minnesota was able to, and that led to a lot of play-calls designed to get the ball out of Kaepernick’s hands quickly. Quick throws on third and short also comprised a solid chunk of those first-read passes.

Whenever the situation didn’t dictate otherwise, there were several examples of Kaepernick clearly moving through his progression before getting rid of the ball or deciding to scramble, such as this play from the first quarter in Pittsburgh:

Kaepernick is initially looking for Vernon Davis on the out route, before coming back to Anquan Boldin over the middle and delivering a nice pass that would have been enough for a conversion if not for a Boldin drop.

The 49ers need to get better on third downs, but it’s not because Kaepernick is bailing from the pocket too quickly or failing to find open receivers.

Under Pressure

We didn’t get a good look at how Kaepernick’s new mechanics would hold up under pressure against the Vikings. Needless to say, things changed last week against the Steelers.

What qualifies as pressure is a pretty subjective thing to measure, which is why you’ll see different numbers depending on the source. But by my charting, Kaepernick was pressured on 28 of his 55 dropbacks (50.9 percent). Every quarterback on the planet is worse under pressure, but Kaepernick held up pretty well all things considered.

As you would expect, timing and anticipation are two of the biggest areas of a quarterback’s performance to take a hit when facing pressure. Kaepernick was no exception there. But his accuracy actually improved under pressure against the Steelers, and his decision making remained solid.

Dealing with outside pressure is typically straightforward, you simply slide up in the pocket and allow your tackles to push the defenders right on by. We’ve seen Kaepernick become much better here through the first two weeks of the season. Dealing with interior pressure, however, is a different animal, but Kaepernick showed some encouraging signs here as well.

Late in the first quarter, we got an excellent example of something Kaepernick rarely did in previous seasons. As Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt is pushing guard Jordan Devey back into his lap, Kaepernick doesn’t have anything open down the field. But rather than looking for a way out, and potentially taking off through the lane to his right, Kaepernick simply dumps the ball off to his running back underneath and gives him a chance to make a play. Hyde breaks a couple of tackles to pick up a new set of downs on second-and-8, but even if he had been tackled immediately, this is still the right decision.

Plays like this keep your offense on schedule and set up manageable third downs. Realizing that he doesn’t always have to push the ball downfield is a notable step forward for Kaepernick.

Later in the game, Tuitt is once again giving Devey issues, and preventing Kaepernick from moving up in the pocket. But again, there’s no panic from Kaepernick, no fleeing to open space. He stands tall in the pocket and delivers a strike to Boldin in the front corner of the end zone for a touchdown.

It wasn’t always this pretty for Kaepernick when under pressure. He was sacked five times, and barely escaped for a minimal gain on a couple other plays. But it’s hard to put that on him in this game. Kaepernick was to blame for a large portion of the 52 sacks he took in 2014, but his offensive line put in some hopeless situations against the Steelers. With the offensive line situation unlikely to dramatically improve over the course of the season, Kaepernick will need to continue to build on the encouraging signs he showed under pressure in Week 2.

♦︎♦︎♦︎

There’s a reason I choose to focus on Kaepernick’s performance in specific situations. Looking at how he performs under pressure and in critical situations gives us a better gauge of the strides he’s been able to make over the offseason. But it also helps eliminate some of the fluff that comes with trailing by three scores for most of the game.

When talking with the media on Monday, wideout Torrey Smith said that the Steelers did not go to a vanilla defense late, but there’s a lot of film that says otherwise. Particularly during a 173-yard fourth quarter that accounted for more than half of Kaepernick’s 335 passing yards on the day, the Steelers spent a lot of time in a soft Cover 3 defense, giving up a lot of space underneath. Of Kaepernick’s 14 fourth-quarter completions, only the 75-yard touchdown to Torrey Smith traveled more than 15 yards in the air. That was a hell of a throw, but Kaepernick piled up a lot of yardage late on easy, open throws underneath.

Even outside of the garbage-time stuff, I thought Kaepernick showed a lot of encouraging things. Nevertheless, his box score numbers probably overstate how well he played, something that shows up in more advanced metrics such as Football Outsiders’ DYAR (where Kaepernick finished 18th for the week) or ESPN’s QBR (21st). When you produce matters, and the bulk of Kaepernick’s production came after the game had been long decided.

That doesn’t take away from the tangible improvements Kaepernick has made from the pocket, but it’s important to note. San Francisco faces a number of quality offenses this season, many featuring passing games capable of filling up the scoreboard. As last week showed, the running game isn’t always going to be there. If the 49ers have any hope of keeping up with the likes of Arizona, Green Bay, Atlanta, and the rest, Kaepernick & Co. will need to prove they can keep pace early.