What can one possibly find wrong in a team that just finished a 34-0 pasting of what was previously considered a playoff contender? Not much, honestly. There were, however, a few red flags that went up after perusing the stats and postgame banter. The problem is not that these issues occurred during a game that the 49ers won resoundingly, it's that there's a pattern that has formed and is becoming close to being set in stone. Alex Smith is not completing the long pass and the team is still coming up short on third down. These problems are carryovers from last season and were supposed to be getting fixed, with all the new weapons on offense and a full offseason for the staff and team to mesh. It's just not happening.
The evidence was on full display last weekend against the New York Jets, who demonstrated a level of futility we haven't seen in a long time. The last time the 49ers held an opponent to so few yards was in the final game of the 2009 season, against the St Louis Rams. As you all remember, the Rams, led by quarterbacks Kyle Boller and Keith Null (who?), shredded the 49ers defense to the tune of 109 yards. This was the last game of the year for a team that finished 1-15 and would go on to draft Sam Bradford with the number one draft pick the following April. Long story short, the Jets lack of offense has only been beaten by a QB named Keith Null in a meaningless game. Not a good sign for the boys in green. Putting up 34 points was great, but you get the feeling that it could have been much more had Alex Smith been more effective.
First the deep ball. According to Pro Football Reference the 49ers are 6 of 15 on deep passes for the season. The Niners led for the vast majority of their three victories and the need to throw deep simply wasn't there in those games. The game against Minnesota, a game in which they trailed from start to finish, was crying out for some downfield passing, but the coaches stuck to their conservative gameplan. A 24-13 loss in one of the early season's biggest upsets ensued. In the Jets' game, the 49ers unleashed more deep passes than in any other game. The results were not good, as the team finished 2 of 7 while throwing long with Alex Smith overthrowing a few receivers who had their man beat. It should be noted that Mario Manningham got his hands on, yet didn't catch, a ball that would have easily gone for a touchdown.
A closer look at the deep passes on the season reveals that the longest of the completions was for 26 yards, with all but two of them completed for 22 yards or less. The 49ers 'deep' completions barely meet the minimum requirement to be considered deep and aren't exactly stretching the defenses. Any throw past 26 yards has yet to be completed. All of this for a team that has been nothing short of dominating on the ground. If any team in the league has defenses leaning forward in anticipation of the run it's the 49ers, especially during a game in which they compiled 245 yards rushing. In the first three games of the year, the offensive line gave up far too many sacks and quarterback pressures. Against the Jets, however, there were only five plays in which Alex Smith was pressured according to Pro Football Focus. He had more than enough time, against a team playing without it's best defensive back, to make some longer throws and didn't deliver.
The other key problem, third down play, was one of the 49ers biggest weaknesses from last season. They finished 31st out of 32 teams. This season they sit at 23rd through the first four weeks of the season. The results throughout the year have been mixed, with the Lions game standing out as a positive. It appeared to be a breakthrough performance in regards to third down conversions, with Michael Crabtree converting multiple third-and-longs on the game-clinching drive. But last Sunday they would appear to have regressed. They converted 4 of 12 third downs on the game for a 33% conversion rate, which happens to be their season average. The four first downs, however, were all picked up on runs, with Colin Kaepernick doing the running on two of those plays. That leaves Alex Smith's conversion rate at much lower than the 33% and means that he failed to complete a pass on third down. The Jets took away the short routes from the 49ers and did a good job nullifying the passing game in general. And, again, this was a Jets secondary missing their best player.
All that matters in this league is wins, and the 49ers are winning games, but the day that they need to engineer a drive the likes of the Matt Ryan-to-Roddy White variety with a game on the line is a day I dread. Two great examples from last year's playoffs finish off the article, and I know you all remember them well. The 49ers drove the length of the field, not once, but twice in the final minutes of the Saints game in the divisional round to pull a victory out of the hat. The first was 6 plays for 80 yards and the second was 7 plays for 85 yards, with neither drive lasting more than two minutes. Then we have the NFC Championship game against the New York Giants. The 49ers convert 1 of 13 third downs on their way to a 20-17 defeat at home. Our two examples show that, one, they can break the norm when necessary and two, the norm can end a season. With the playoffs lasting a minimum of three games, it's a near certainty that one of these problems will rear up and bite them if they go uncorrected.