Kyle Shanahan admitted this week that he has not been able to get into a rhythm as a play-caller this season. Multiple times during his last two media sessions, Kyle has mentioned how staying out of third downs has been the key to touchdown drives. On today’s Oh, Hey There Podcast with Leo Luna and Javier Vega, the guys put the team’s struggles on 3rd down into perspective.
The 49ers are just 6 for their last 36 on third downs in their last three games. They are 30th in third-down conversion rate on the season, with only the Jaguars and the Bears being worse. So far this year, the team has converted just 31.4% of all their third-down opportunities. For context, in 2019, the 49ers were 5th best in the league at 45%. Just to twist the knife a little bit more, in 2020 (even with all those injuries), the 49ers converted 39.1% of their third downs, which was 23rd in the league.
In case you aren’t following- the team did better on the most important down of the possession last year with Nick Mullens and a bag of cats than they are in 2021 with the starting quarterback, starting offensive line (save for one game), and starting wide receivers all healthy and playing.
Why is this the case? It’s probably a combination of factors. First, defensive coordinators save their most exotic looks for third downs because they are often the difference between extended drives and punts. Second, offenses tend to go to their most familiar plays in those situations. Everyone and their mother know that means Deebo Samuel is less than 10 yards from the line of scrimmage, almost exclusively between the hash marks.
Moreover, third downs are more often than not passing downs, and teams are sending their best pass rushers right at the weakest point of the 49ers’ offensive line (also known as the entire right side). Daniel Brunskill and Mike McGlinchey are at their worst in must-pass situations and frequently find themselves overwhelmed quickly in critical moments. That also allows the team to get pressure without bringing extra rushers, which is a massive advantage for the defense.
Finally, because of all the factors listed above, there aren’t usually a lot of wide-open plays on third downs. Defensive linemen get their hands in passing windows, coverage gets tighter, and the margin for error on passes gets even smaller than normal. The 49ers are very risk-averse. Kyle Shanahan abhors turnovers, and Jimmy Garoppolo doesn’t like to put the ball in harm’s way. He has literally only made one big-time throw this entire season.
Jimmy G finally had has first Big-Time Throw last night— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) October 25, 2021
He now has one (1) on the season pic.twitter.com/64OmvhHOFf
Add it all up and what you get is the drek that has been the 49ers' offense this season. Whether it’s largely ignoring one of their best weapons in Brandon Aiyuk, holding penalties, or being too conservative on offense in general, San Francisco has consistently played with one hand tied behind its back this season.
For more on this, as well as a discussion on whether Kyle Shanahan should give up play-calling, listen to today’s Oh, Hey There Podcast now!