The 49ers are winning in more ways than one. That’s the sign of a playoff-caliber team. In the NFL, you’ll have to put up 38 points to win sometimes. But, in the same breath, you’ll need to scratch and claw to get to 13 points in a victory, as we saw in Week 12.
Today, we’ll talk about the 49ers' offense and Jimmy Garoppolo. They faced a Saints team that was finally full strength on defense, and it showed. The Saints held the Niners to a 40 percent success rate, a 29 first down percentage, but San Francisco converted 50 percent of their late downs.
Rewind a week prior, when New Orleans was still banged up defensively, the Rams had a 38 percent success rate, with a 27 percent first down percentage, and only converted 38 percent of their late downs. All that’s to say; the Saints are an above-average unit.
If you look at PFF, the 49ers allowed 14 pressures and four quarterback hits on 38 dropbacks. That’s a number that’s not acceptable. But it starts to make more sense when you watch the game and time when these hits are happening.
We can all agree that anytime a quarterback gets hit over 2.7 seconds, that’s on him. I’d go as far as to say 2.5 seconds, but there are plenty of variables either way. I charted each time Garoppolo was hit on Sunday. Here is the timestamp from the game so you can feel free to time them yourselves.
First play: 2.7 seconds
1Q 10:08: 2.83
1Q 4:37: 3.09
2Q 11:45: 4.45
2Q 11:15: 3.33
2Q 1:47: 2.39
Jauan Jennings TD: 2.55
3Q 10:53: Fade to Brandon Aiyuk: 2.42-47
You are going to get hit as a quarterback in the NFL. That’s a part of your job description. Eight is excessive, no matter how you slice it. But as you can see, on five of those occasions, Jimmy is holding the ball.
That’s not necessarily on Garoppolo. He’s trying to create something and extend the play. Still, painting the picture that the offensive line struggled and absolving the quarterback or circumstance isn’t accurate or fair.
There were a couple of occasions where both Aaron Banks and Spencer Burford were beaten cleanly, which affected Jimmy’s throw. Again, that happens. In a dream world, Jimmy would have a clean jersey every game and would never hit the ground.
That’s not how this works—his average time to throw when under pressure Sunday was 3.11 seconds, per PFF. On the day, it was 2.8 seconds. I’d say the line did their jobs when you look at it from a macro point of view.
Shanahan’s trust is worth mentioning
Kyle Shanahan is slowly but surely trusting Jimmy more and more. And with the way he’s played in recent weeks, it makes sense. Garoppolo has avoided negative plays such as turnovers and sacks, and, more than ever, extended plays and hit the home run when it’s there.
The Saints have a playoff defense when healthy. Sunday was going to tell us where the 49ers were as an offense. I counted 27 “true” dropbacks for Garoppolo — a number that speaks to Shanahan’s trust — and the Saints rushed four defenders on 19 of those and split three and five rushers on the other eight.
That’s not to mention all of the different coverages and post-safety rotations they had on the back end. The 49ers' offense had their work cut out for them, especially when you consider how the Saints took away their running game.
Per Next Gen Stats, Christian McCaffrey ran into an 8-man box on 36 percent of his carries Sunday. When you hear other coaches talk about how they want to stop San Francisco, it’s by loading the box and forcing them to throw.
It helps to have weapons, and pass protection is imperative, but the offense doesn't operate without Shanahan having faith that Garoppolo can execute.
It’s titled the Jimmy Coaster, but I’ll highlight several plays. Some are Shanahan’s brilliance, feature Jimmy executing, while others are plays he left on the field. You can watch the video breakdown in its entirety below:
But, for the sake of this article, I’ll leave it at five plays.
Wheel of Unfortune
It’s 3rd & 8. You have the look you want from the defense. The matchup is there. Everything is. All you need to do is complete the pass. You have McCaffrey lined up 1-on-1 with 30-year-old Tyrann Mathieu. Brandon Aiyuk clears the coverage out. McCaffrey gets separation. But Garoppolo misses the layup.
There’s no pressure. No defender in Jimmy’s face. It’s just a miss. And a frustrating one that comes on third down and takes points off the board.
In a playoff type of atmosphere, where scoring is difficult to come by, these are the type of throws why fans are reluctant to crown Jimmy for regular season success.
Keeping it Kittle
On the next drive, with the offense on the heels of the goal line facing 3rd & 6, Garoppolo needed to make a play. If you punt here, the defense is unrested and has to defend a short field.
The Saints were passing off routes or would “banjo” the receivers. Meaning the inside defender would take whichever receiver comes inside, and the outside receiver would do the same. It’s a way to avoid getting picked off and an additional method to confuse the quarterback.
In this case, Garoppolo waits to ensure Kittle wins and throws a perfectly placed pass where the defender doesn’t have a chance for a first down.
New Orleans had just picked up 46 yards on the previous drive. So, while the Niners would end up punting, they flipped the field, which should be considered successful when you have the top defense in the NFL.
Not every throw completed is going to be a highlight. The ones above are the type of passes Garoppolo must complete for this offense to sustain its success.
The way that Shanahan manipulates coverages and gets his best players on the opponent's worst never ceases to amaze. That was the case on Deebo Samuel’s first catch, which I broke down in the video above.
During the play below, he clears out the entire field for Brandon Aiyuk. It’s play-action, so the offensive line has to hold up for over four seconds to allow Aiyuk’s route to develop. Here’s the play:
The layers in this play excite me. First, you have Jennings running a “slide” route behind the line of scrimmage to hold the Saints' flat defenders. He stops his route and looks to block any free rusher.
Then, you have Deebo Samuel running a shallow crossing route to hold the underneath defenders on New Orleans. Why? That way, there is nobody from the other side of the field to interfere with Aiyuk’s route.
Then, we have Aiyuk. Notice how during his route, he’s widening his release and leaning into the cornerback. BA knows he’s going across the middle of the field. By doing this, he’s giving himself and Jimmy more room.
The Saints have a safety over the top of Aiyuk, who has two options on this play. If he feels like he can win vertically, Aiyuk would run a post route. However, since the safety has “capped” Aiyuk’s ability to run by him, BA cuts his route off to a deep dig/crossing route.
This is the type of awareness that shouldn’t go unnoticed. In the full video breakdown, there was a play where Aiyuk recognized the blitz, sat down, and picked up an easy first down. You can’t help but be impressed with
Finally, this play isn’t successful without ol No. 85. Kittle is tasked with blocking a defensive end for more than four seconds. He does, Jimmy hits Aiyuk in stride, and the 49ers have an explosive play.
Miscues near the goal line
The 49ers were in the red zone three times but only came away with a touchdown once. The good news is Shanahan went for it on fourth down once. The bad news is the execution was still lacking.
There’s one play, in particular, a third and goal call, where McCaffrey is running wide open, and you’re wondering why on earth the ball doesn’t go his way. Here’s the play:
The Saints have two defenders to guard the 49ers' three eligible receivers. In no way do you fault Jimmy for going to the front side of the play. Based on the look, it should be encouraged. If you’re looking at the backside, more often than not, the linebacker on the edge that’s responsible for covering McCaffrey would peel off if he runs a route. That’s not where our focus should be.
Kittle is the “point” man to the top of the screen. His outside release ensures neither defender would get over the top and cut off Jennings. So, the design is there. The primary reason this play doesn’t work isn’t that Garoppolo didn’t throw the ball to CMC. It’s because he didn’t throw the ball to the pylon. It’s an accuracy issue, not a decision-making one.
If the pass is a yard out in front of Jennings, he can stretch the ball over the pylon for a score. Instead, it’s behind him, and you see how the rest of the play turns out.
The undone interception
The 49ers were fortunate to escape this game without a turnover. Chris Harris holding Kittle undid what was a bad play all around by Jimmy G and Ray-Ray McCloud. The reason McCloud was in the game was because Deebo had to ask for a sub since he broke a couple of tackles on the screen the play before.
Let’s watch the play. And remember, it’s 3rd & 3. First, from the end zone angle so we can focus on McCloud:
Rule No. 1 when you are crossing the field as a receiver: You can’t look back until you cross the center. Why? Because linebackers are taught to hit you and move you off your line. That’s exactly what happens here to Ray-Ray, who actually gets bumped off the line of scrimmage and then in the middle of his route.
That can’t happen. That creates timing issues. Jimmy’s throw is high, and it’s an interception. The throw sails on Garoppolo because his feet and shoulders aren’t married. His upper body says he’s throwing to the right, while his lower body says he’s throwing to the left. That’s a no-no.
Now, for the view from the eye in the sky. No. 55, the linebacker lined head up over right tackle Mike McGlinchey, and the free safety, are both rotating to the left of the offense. A rule of thumb for quarterbacks is to throw away from the rotation of the defense.
So, on this play, there’s an “alert” route to the bottom of the screen. That just so happens to be your best player who is 1-on-1 with no safety help. You throw that go-ball whenever you have a good matchup, no matter the down or distance.
This, my friends, is a good matchup. Aiyuk’s release is fantastic, and he instantly has the cornerback beat by a yard or two. He walks into the end zone if Garoppolo gives him a chance.
I’m not upset about Jimmy’s throw sailing to McCloud. It was a poor route from the jump. However, I’m disappointed that, after doing this for almost a month in a row, Jimmy reverted to leaving these types of plays on the field against an upper-echelon defense.
Nobody is asking Garoppolo to be perfect. He attempted five throws over 20 yards and had another four in the 10-20 yard range. His drives in two-minute situations continue to be close to flawless. Still, there’s meat left on the bone, and they’re usually explosive plays.
If the 49ers are going to be the team we all know they’re capable of, Garoppolo has to connect on the layups and 1-on-1 matchups outside of the numbers. That’s something to keep an eye on during these next three games.
Here’s the full breakdown again, where I went over 16 plays from Sunday.