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Why the early pass-heavy play-calling wasn’t an issue for the 49ers against the Ravens

The 49ers threw 44 times and ran 16 times against the Ravens.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco 49ers suffered their fourth loss of the season against the Baltimore Ravens on Monday in a 33-19 defeat, as they struggled on both sides of the ball.

Offensively, the 49ers threw the ball 44 times and ran just 16 times, which was an issue for many fans, who pinned a portion of blame on head coach Kyle Shanahan for his decision not to utilize Christian McCaffrey more out of the backfield. McCaffrey had 103 yards on just 14 carries in the loss.

However, when diving deeper into the film and numbers, this issue... wasn’t exactly an issue for the 49ers. Let’s break it down.

First 3 offensive drives

It was no secret that the 49ers implemented a pass-heavy approach early on to combat the Ravens stacking the box, and it actually led to some offensive success quickly.

On each of their first three drives, San Francisco got into Baltimore territory and were threatening to score. However, they ended up with only three points.

On their first drive, the 49ers passed all five times and got quickly into the red zone. But, a poor decision from quarterback Brock Purdy led to a Kyle Hamilton interception in the end zone, leading to no points.

On the second drive, the 49ers ran the ball five times and threw four times in a balanced approach, but were ultimately stopped just outside of the red zone, settling for a field goal.

Here, my main gripe with Kyle Shanahan was his choice on fourth down, as the 49ers were swarmed by the Ravens on a play-action dropback, but were bailed out by a holding penalty on cornerback Ronald Darby.

Then, on the third drive, the 49ers threw the ball three times and ran once, leading them to the Baltimore 37-yard line on three plays before Brock Purdy threw his second interception in a really unlucky, but great defensive play.

Once again, the 49ers moved the ball well through the air, but were thwarted by a turnover, and it was truly a great defensive play, as the Ravens got an interception off a deflected pass.

Over these three drives, the 49ers threw 12 times and ran just five times. Each time, they got into Ravens territory and showcased the threat of scoring. However, they were just unable to finish the drives and put up points on the board.

Was the early pass-heavy approach the plan for head coach Kyle Shanahan?

“No,” Shanahan said after the game. “[The plan] was to be balanced. It was just how it came out. We finished with a pick and stuff, so we didn’t make a conscious decision we’re going to come out throwing. It was some of the looks we had and felt we were moving the ball pretty good doing it.”

Drives 4 and 5

The 49ers had two more offensive drives in the first half, with the first ending in an interception on the third play.

Here, the 49ers ran on first down with McCaffrey and got two yards. Then came a short pass to Deebo Samuel setting up third and medium where Brock Purdy threw another tipped interception where George Kittle couldn’t corral in the cross-body pass.

On the final 49ers offensive drive, San Francisco ran four times (one QB sneak) and threw twice in a six-play, 67-yard touchdown drive, ultimately ending the half down 16-12.

Overall, the 49ers threw 16 times and ran 10 times in the first half, which resulted in 12 points (2 from a safety), but the pass-heavy approach was gaining offensive success.

Unfortunately, the turnovers turned out to be a killer, keeping the 49ers away from several scoring drives, despite being in Baltimore territory on four of their five first-half drives.

What changed the game

In my opinion, the 49ers’ three first-half turnovers were certainly an issue, but not the reason why San Francisco lost the game.

Despite throwing three interceptions, the 49ers entered halftime down just 16-12, thanks to mainly stellar defense, and were getting the ball to start the second half.

However, this is what happened over the first three minutes of the second half:

15:00: 49ers three-and-out. Two penalties on the punt (false start, late hit out of bounds) provides the Ravens with starting field position at the SF 44.

13:17: Ravens score a touchdown on a three-play, 44-yard drive that lasts 1:10. Baltimore 23, San Francisco 12.

12:07: Brock Purdy throws an interception on the first play.

11:49: One-play touchdown for Baltimore from Lamar Jackson to Zay Flowers. 30-12 Baltimore.

Within the first 3.5 minutes of the second half, the 49ers went from getting the ball down four to losing by three scores.

Their mistakes and lack of a response to start the half was the primary reason for their loss, and has been my top reason since the beginning of the season as to why I don’t believe the 49ers will win a Super Bowl in 2023.

We’ve seen how the 49ers can dominate teams and gain double-digit leads en route to blowout victories.

But, in close, hard-fought games, the 49ers have struggled to find a response this season, and that continued on Monday against the Ravens to begin the second half.

While the 49ers can continue to dominate certain teams, their level of play, and more importantly their response to mistakes, against top contenders such as the Ravens is what’ll ultimately matter when the playoffs arrive.

Second Half

As I shared, the 49ers went from down 16-12 to down 30-12 within a span of 3.5 minutes in the second half, completely changing the script of the game.

From then on, the 49ers were forced to operate with more of a pass-heavy approach, leading to 28 passes and six rushes in the second half, as San Francisco ultimately ended up losing 33-19.

Looking at the film and the numbers, Shanahan’s approach to begin the game seemed more so based on how the Ravens were responding defensively, and it was working prior to the turnovers.

On several occasions this season, Shanahan has looked to start aggressive, placing the ball in his quarterback’s hands, and it has resulted in quick success for the 49ers, which is part of the reason why Brock Purdy was entrenched in the MVP conversation before this week.

He operated with a similar approach on Monday, and unfortunately, the 49ers couldn’t close out drives successfully before truly losing the game to begin the second half.

The pass-heavy play-calling wasn’t the issue for the 49ers; it was their lack of a response when their backs were against the wall, and it cost them a chance to potentially wrap up the NFC’s No. 1 seed a week earlier.

Now, is the season over? Not at all. The 49ers are still favored to win the No. 1 seed and could even see the Ravens back in a Super Bowl matchup.

But, there’s definitely areas to clean up for the 49ers, who need to find a way to generate a better response to mistakes going forward.