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The improvements the 49er offense must make to become NFL’s gold standard

The red zone was a persistent problem area.

The 49ers’ offense was among the best in football in 2022, one which ranked as a top-10 unit by several different measures.

San Francisco was sixth in DVOA, second by weighted DVOA and fourth in Expected Points Added per play. In the latter metric, the Niners were second from Week 8 (Christian McCaffrey’s first start) on.

It was McCaffrey’s arrival that catapulted San Francisco into the discussion for the best offense in the NFL. Despite his obvious influence, the 49er attack still trailed the team San Francisco will be looking to overhaul atop the NFC, the Eagles, in metrics that highlight room for improvement on that side of the ball.

The 49ers ended the year sixth in Football Outsiders’ Drive Success Rate, which measures the percentage of down series that result in a first down or touchdown. San Francisco had a drive result in a first down or touchdown 72.9 percent of the time.

That is an impressively high number, yet it was still three percentage points behind the Eagles (75.9), who finished fourth in the same metric.

It may not be a huge gap, but it is one of the 49ers will need to narrow if they are going to maximize their hopes of being the one seed in the NFC.

The key to decreasing the disparity will be improving performance in the red zone.

While the Eagles finished third in percentage of red zone series that ended in a touchdown (67.8%), the 49ers (54%) were way down in 17th.

Simply put, a team with the talent the 49ers have on offense must be better inside the 20.

There are several routes towards making strides in the red zone, and the Niners’ ability to thrive in that area in 2023 will at least be partially tied to their success improving running the ball.

That may be a surprising statement to make about a rushing game that was third in EPA per play in the period after McCaffrey’s first start. Yet, the Niners were eighth in Success Rate on the ground in that time, a span during which the Eagles ranked first.

In other words, the Eagles were superior in getting the required yardage when running the ball. That should not come as much of a surprise given the diversity quarterback Jalen Hurts brings to their ground game, with his additional threat making Philadelphia a nightmare to defend in the red zone.

San Francisco does not have such an edge at quarterback. What the 49ers do have, however, is arguably the best one-two running back punch in the NFL in Christian McCaffrey and Elijah Mitchell.

Keeping that duo healthy and leaning on them and the offensive line to deliver even more consistent ground-game production in 2023 will be crucial to the prospects of the 49er attack punching the ball in more regularly. Doing so will firmly establish itself as the best in the NFC, if not the NFL.