The offseason is a great opportunity for teams to look back on the previous year and figure out how to improve in every aspect. For the San Francisco 49ers, second down was consistently an issue in 2019. Why? I have no idea, but I hope we can discuss as to why. Using success rate, the 49ers were ninth in the NFL. Breaking it up by down, San Francisco was sixth on first down, 23rd on second down, and fourth on third. How can an offense have such a drastic change from one down to the other?
I went back to Week 17 against Seattle when the 49ers clinched the division and a first-round bye. Here is every second down in the game:
+12, first down
+30, first down
+15, first down
+24, first down
+13, first down
During Week 17, in a must-win game, the 49ers saw 15-second downs and were successful on eight of those plays. That gives the offense a 53% success rate on second down, which is well above the season average of 44%. Why? Those three explosive plays aren’t sustainable. Deebo Samuel, unsurprisingly, was responsible for each of those plays. If we remove one of those plays to Deebo, San Francisco is right back to their season average.
To see if there is a trend, I went back the week before to see how the offense did against the Rams. San Francisco put up 34 points, even though Fred Warner was responsible for one of those touchdowns. Still, there wasn’t much resistance, so there would be smooth sailing on second down, right?
No gain (on 2nd & 1)
+15, first down
+11, first down
+8, first down
+7, first down
I left off the final second down as the offense took a knee to set up a field goal. In a game where your score on five possessions, your second down success rate was 29%. Woof. Again, why? Is it execution? Play-calling? All of the above. This was a consistent issue during the season.
Ways to fix second down in 2020
Having established roles will go a long way for the 49ers offense in 2020. In a surprise to nobody, the successful runs were by Raheem Mostert. Samuel was the reason the offense didn’t stall against Seattle. As much as Kyle Shanahan prefers to spread the ball around, relying on your best players in critical situations is the safer option, even if defenses know what’s coming. I’d trust George Kittle, responsible for the 15-yard gain if he were bracketed more than a young, inexperienced wideout to win 1-on-1. Jimmy G is going to have more confidence throwing to Kittle anyway.
Expecting the 49ers to convert all of the time on second down isn’t reasonable. If the 49ers can improve their success rate by a few percentage points, the offense will roll in 2020. The first down that went for seven yards above was Jimmy G scrambling. One of his best traits, in my opinion, is his mobility. A year removed from injury will help Garoppolo escape pressure that he may not have been willing to run out of a year ago. Add in a first-round receiver that is deadly with the ball in his hands, Trent Taylor and Jalen Hurd, and the 49ers should be much-improved in 2020 on second down, especially if the team relies on Mostert on the ground and Jerick McKinnon through the air.