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The 49ers woes can be tied directly to their dreadful performance on 3rd downs

Avoiding third downs altogether would be nice

Indianapolis Colts v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

There is a lot of finger-pointing going on currently. The San Francisco 49ers lost their fourth consecutive game, dropping another winnable contest to the Indianapolis Colts at Levi’s Stadium, where the 49ers haven’t won a game since week 6 of the 2020 season. The conditions were awful, but the weather was not to blame for this loss. It all comes back to what has plagued the 49ers all season, which is a lack of execution on 3rd down on both sides of the football.

The 49ers' offense has been abysmal to this point in the season on the money down, as they currently rank 30th in the NFL in 3rd down conversion rate at 31.4%. On Sunday night vs. the Colts, the 49ers were 1-11 on 3rd downs, consistently stalling drives and never getting into any kind of rhythm offensively, except for the opening drive and a quick three-play scoring drive to start the fourth quarter.

There is plenty of blame to go around, but ultimately the success or lack thereof for any offense on 3rd down is almost always going to come back to the play from the quarterback position.

Jimmy Garoppolo’s numbers on 3rd down vs. Indianapolis:


27 yards

1 interception

1 fumble

7.81 passer rating (on a scale of 0-158.3)

Those numbers are atrocious and come back to a much larger issue that has plagued Garoppolo and this offense over the last few seasons. When the threat of the run isn’t present, and teams know Garoppolo is going to throw, his performance has been sub-par, to say the least.

Garoppolo’s numbers without play-action vs. Indianapolis:


55 yards

0 touchdowns

2 interceptions

18.5 passer rating

Compare that to Garoppolo’s numbers on throws with play-action:


126 yards

1 touchdown

0 interceptions

140.7 passer rating

It’s not ALL on Garoppolo, that point needs to be made clear. Drops, poor execution from the offensive line, and many other mistakes have contributed to the lack of 3rd down success. But at a certain point, if you have a quarterback who can’t consistently make plays when the opposing team knows that you are going to be throwing the football, it’s extremely difficult to find any kind of sustained success at the NFL level.

The 49ers defense is an interesting case study as well. They have actually been a top ten unit in 3rd down conversions allowed (they currently rank 8th at 34.7%). The issue is that they are constantly gifting fresh sets of downs by committing atrocious penalties. So far this season, the 49ers defense has surrendered six first downs via pass interference penalties on third down alone.

On these six drives where they were flagged for pass interference penalties on 3rd down, five have resulted in a touchdown for the opposing team, with the only exception being a ming boggling interception thrown by Carson Wentz to Azeez Al-Shaair inside the 49ers 5-yard line. The 49ers' defense allowed two touchdown drives to continue via pass interference penalties against Green Bay, a game they ultimately only lost by two points.

The unit as a whole has been efficient overall, but these self-inflicted mistakes have played a major role in the 49ers being below .500, as they’ve lost three very winnable games during which they gifted the opposing offense a fresh set of downs that resulted in a touchdown. I’d argue the defense has certainly been pulling its weight more than the offense this season, but these kinds of undisciplined plays on their end cannot be ignored as they have clearly had a major impact on the trajectory of the 49ers season to this point.