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

Tomsula's challenges, red zone woes, and RPOs. Here are 9 things I liked and didn't like from the San Francisco 49ers' loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 2.

Balance is something I attempt to achieve with these articles. But when you lose by 25 points, as the 49ers did in Week 2, it becomes difficult to find many positives. I discussed one of those positives at length earlier this week, looking at Colin Kaepernick’s growth through two games, so give that a look if you need to feel better after reading this. With that, here are nine things I liked and (mostly) didn’t like from the 49ers’ loss against the Steelers.

1. Torrey Smith Needs to be Focal Point

If it wasn’t clear when the 49ers signed him back in March, it should be after Week 2: Torrey Smith needs to be the focal point of San Francisco’s passing game.

After getting only three targets in the season opener, Smith caught 6-of–7 targets for 120 yards and a touchdown against the Steelers. That performance left him third on the team in targets (10) through two weeks, trailing Anquan Boldin (15) and Vernon Davis (13). Going forward, the 49ers need to make a more concerted effort to get him the ball on a weekly basis, and that starts with building shot plays into the offense.

Deliberate shots deep down the field have been mysteriously absent from the 49ers’ offense through two weeks. Colin Kaepernick has targeted receivers more than 20 yards downfield on a measly 5.6 percent of passes, per Pro Football Focus, tied with Sam Bradford for the league’s lowest rate among qualifying quarterbacks. Even Alex D. Smith has thrown the ball deep at a more frequent rate. With a deep threat like Torrey on the roster, bringing up the rear in deep pass rate is downright negligent on behalf of offensive coordinator Geep Chryst.

Chryst and the 49ers offense have attempted to go the dink-and-dunk route, which has led to a lot of empty yards that don’t result in points. San Francisco leads the NFL in plays per drive, and is third in yards per drive, according to Football Outsiders. However, they’re 14th in points per drive. It’s simply too difficult to move down the field four and five yards at a time and wind up in the end zone. As we witnessed firsthand in Week 2, picking up chunk yardage is the most efficient way to put points on the board. Smith is the 49ers’ only quick-strike threat in the passing game, and they need to at least attempt to take advantage of that ability on a more consistent basis.

2. Red Zone Woes

Of course, it would also help to take advantage of the scoring opportunities you do get when those dinks and dunks pan out. But the 49ers simply can’t shake their red zone scoring problems. After finishing 30th in points per red zone drive in 2014, San Francisco has somehow managed to one-up their red zone ineptitude so far in 2015.

Five red zone trips against Minnesota resulted in two touchdowns, two field goals, and a blocked field goal. Three more trips in Pittsburgh produced one touchdown and a pair of turnover on downs. Add it up and the 49ers have scored 3.33 points per red zone drive, the second-lowest mark in football through two weeks.

It’s too early to definitively pin down the root of San Francisco’s red zone woes, but two things stick out so far. For all of the strides he’s made so far this season, Kaepernick continues to struggle with accuracy as the 49ers get closer to the goal line. Kaepernick is completing just 38 percent (8-of–21) of his red zone passes in 2015. That number drops to 14.3 percent (1-of–7) on throws from inside the 10.

The play calling hasn’t been doing Kaepernick any favors either. Geep Chryst continues to call for Kaepernick to make low percentage throws in the back corner of the end zone, throws he’s never been effective on. And then you have series like this one…

3. Goal Line Play Calling

This series of plays from inside the 3-yard line late in the third quarter drove me insane:

  • 3rd-and–1: Play action boot right. Looking for Mike Davis in the flat. Pass thrown away due to pressure.
  • 4th-and–1: Heavy Pistol set. Power run. Barely converts.
  • 1st-and-goal: Jumbo set. Power run. Stuffed for no gain.
  • 2nd-and-goal: Jumbo set. Play action boot right. Nothing open. Pass thrown away.
  • 3rd-and-goal: Jumbo set. Run up the middle. Gain of one yard.
  • 4th-and-goal: Jumbo set. Play action boot right. Throw to Bruce Miller in the flat. Dropped.

That’s one of the most unimaginative goal line series I’ve seen in a minute. And yes, I’m still making this point if Miller holds on to the ball. Chryst effectively ran the two most basic goal line plays, from the most basic goal line formation, over and over again.

For comparison’s sake, consider the following play from the Patriots last week:

New England also comes out in a jumbo set, getting Buffalo to match with their defensive personnel. But rather than sit in that set and run the two plays every defense expects at the goal line, the Patriots shift their tight ends out wide, creating mismatches against the Bills’ linebackers and setting up an easy touchdown throw. New England has used a similar look multiple times in their first two games with lots of success.

The 49ers don’t have Gronk, but they have several tight ends capable of beating a Steelers linebacking corps that isn’t very good in coverage. And at some point, they need to start experimenting with more creative looks because the stale approach they’ve gone with thus far isn’t working.

4. TJE’s Kick Return

No. Just no.

5. Jim Tomsula’s Challenge Usage

I’ve been interested to see how Jim Tomsula would utilize his challenges this season, and after no challenges in Week 1, he threw out the red flag twice against the Steelers. How did he fare?

Tomsula’s first challenge came on the opening third down of the game on an Antonio Brown catch along the left sideline. Though I thought this was a pretty clear reception, if that’s even a thing nowadays, I thought this was a good use of the challenge flag. With turnovers and scoring plays subject to automatic review, the number of high-leverage situations for a head coach to make a big impact are few. But the difference between a Brown reception and incompletion in this situation was worth a swing of over four expected points, according to the Pro-Football-Reference win probability calculator. Considering the incredible uncertainty surrounding what the hell is actually a catch in this league, that swing in expected points in a then-tie game is well worth the risk of losing a first-half timeout.

The second challenge of the day also involved a reception with the receiver going to the ground near the sideline, the time with Bruce Miller’s drop at the front pylon of the end zone late in the third quarter. This one didn’t have the same potential impact as the first, as the 49ers were unlikely to win regardless of whether they scored here or not at this point. But any hope of a miraculous comeback had to start with a touchdown on this drive. There was little question Tomsula was going throw out the red flag here, and there’s little reason to think he shouldn’t have.

6. No Pass Rush

After putting Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater under seemingly constant duress in Week 1, the 49ers’ pass rush apparently missed the flight to Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger did an excellent job getting the ball out quickly on most plays, but he was rarely even bothered in the pocket, as the 49ers managed to pressure him on only four of his 27 drop backs. San Francisco failed to record even a single QB hit on the day, let alone a sack.

Those disparate performances made one thing clear: as currently constructed the 49ers will have to manufacture pass rush or have no pass rush at all. There’s no one on this roster with a proven track record of consistently getting after the quarterback, and while it’s still very early, none of San Francisco’s young pass rushers have shown they can win one-on-one matchups and create pressure without the scheme helping them.

As I mentioned on Monday, this is concerning with the gauntlet of opposing quarterbacks the 49ers are about to face. Carson Palmer and Aaron Rodgers await in the next two weeks. Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, Russell Wilson, and Matt Ryan all make appearances before the bye week. If Mangini’s scheme fails to generate pressure, players like Aaron Lynch and Tank Carradine are going to need to step up if the 49ers have any hope of slowing down those offenses.

7. Anquan Boldin Needs to Stop Dropping the Football

Q, I love ya, man. But this has got to stop.

No one is disputing the excellence of Boldin’s hands. We’ve seen him make tough, contested receptions throughout his career, and he made a pair of nice grabs along the sideline against the Steelers. However, silly drops like the one above are piling up. Boldin had 10 drops in 2014, according to Pro Football Focus, tying him for the fifth-highest total among wideouts. He’s already added a pair through two games in 2015, which doesn’t even include the third-down play midway through the first quarter where he allowed William Gay to dislodge the ball from his grasp as he turned upfield. Even though it’s out of character for someone like Boldin, you can live with a defender knocking the ball out of his hands. Plays like the one above are more difficult to swallow.

8. Ian Williams Looks Solid

There was very little to like about the play of San Francisco’s defense last week, but I thought the 49ers’ base defensive line looked solid, with Ian Williams in particular standing out in run defense from the game’s opening snap.

Williams had three stops on the day, matching Antoine Bethea and Eric Reid for the team lead against the Steelers, and he leads all 49ers defensive lineman with five stops on the season. Here’s the full list of stops and defeats (explanation for these stats can be found here) from Week 2:

Player Stops Defeats
E. Reid 3 1
A. Bethea 3 0
I. Williams 3 0
A. Brooks 2 1
K. Acker 2 1
G. Dorsey 2 0
T. Brock 1 1
N. Bowman 1 0
Q. Dial 1 0

9. Run/Pass Options

I mentioned run/pass options briefly in this space last week when discussing them as a potential option out of the double-stack formation that the 49ers showed against the Vikings. In Week 2, we actually saw that come to fruition, albeit from a different look.

San Francisco ran this same RPO twice midway through the third quarter. The basic process for Kaepernick looks something like this: 1) If the 49ers have numbers to the bunch side, throw the quick screen to Boldin. If the defense properly accounts for the bunch, Kaepernick will read the weakside linebacker to determine whether he goes with option two or three. 2) If the linebacker stays home to play the pass, Kaepernick hands the ball off to Hyde, and 3) if the linebacker crashes inside, he throws the quick slant to Vernon Davis behind him.

The first time the 49ers ran this play, Davis appeared a little confused as to what his route was (or maybe he wasn’t expecting the ball and just ran a lazy route), but Kaepernick eventually found him for a completion after he drifted back toward the sideline. Two plays later, San Francisco ran the same look and Pittsburgh sent only two defenders to the bunch side (pictured above), so Kaepernick took the easy yardage to Boldin on the screen.

Considering that the 49ers have been committed to both running the ball and getting Kaepernick some easy throws, it makes too much sense for them to continue to incorporate plays like this going forward.