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49ers vs. Bills postgame: Third down success sparks record-breaking day

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A look at the 49ers success on third down and some of the ridiculous stats from their record-breaking offensive performance against the Buffalo Bills.

Brian Bahr - Getty Images

Raise your hand if you read either of my articles from last week. OK, raise both hands, if you read both articles. In my weekly Wednesday recap, I complained following a 34-0 destruction of the New York Jets. Even I, the eternal pessimist, felt a bit sheepish about laying out such concerns during what should have been a time of rejoice. But the two things I outlined, third down conversions and lack of a deep passing attack were season-long concerns. They were the two areas that I felt had prevented the 49ers from having an elite offense. In my weekly preview article, I predicted a rout of the Buffalo Bills with Chan Gailey landing on the coaching hot seat. The 49ers, to my surprise and delight, decided to marry the two articles and destroy the Bills, while excelling at the two aspects I felt were holding them back.

We all witnessed the 49ers run and pass over the Buffalo Bills in a record-setting display of offensive firepower. I'll throw some stats at you at the bottom of the article, but for now I want to focus on the third down play of Alex Smith and the 49ers. It's only fair after my previous heckling. Since Jim Harbaugh came to town to save the Niners' fan base from a decade of futility the team has struggled on third down. Last year, the prevailing wisdom was that Alex Smith played well enough as a game manager, but lacked they playmakers to excel, and this was especially apparent on third downs and in the red zone. They finished 31st in third down conversions last season and came into the game ranked 23rd in 2012, a disappointing stat for an elite team. They completed 7 of 11 attempts against the Bills, a 63% rate, and went 1 for 1 on 4th down. The team now sits right in the middle of the pack at 16th on third down conversion percentage and are 2 of 2 on 4th down.

A further look at the third down play reveals that Alex Smith did not convert once with a pass. He completed two throws, but both came up short on third-and-long. He did, however, covert one with a scramble. The teams success was due, not to passing, the hallmark of third down success, but to great play-calling and achievable distances. OC Greg Roman deserves a lot of credit for a lot of things in this game, but setting the team up for third-and-short did Smith and the offense a great service. The team averaged 9.9 yards per play. By my calculations, that means they had two plays to get 0.1 yards. Kendall Hunter was the other star on third down (Roman being the first), converting each of the three times his number was called, most notably on third-and-10 from the San Francisco 3-yard line. He took a handoff up the middle for 12 yards, sparing Andy Lee and the punting unit from kicking out of their own endzone. One minor concern was Frank Gore and short yardage. He was stuffed twice at the 1-yard line on second and third downs, forcing the team to settle for an early field goal. This has hardly been a problem this season and shouldn't be cause for concern, although the Giants visiting this weekend reminds us of the failures we had in the NFC Championship Game in converting short yardage situations.

Some stats from the game

  • The 49ers gained 311 yards on the ground and 310 in the air becoming the first team in NFL history to top 300 yards in both categories.
  • 12 teams failed to top 311 yards in total offense in week 5.
  • The 621 yards in total offense is the most in team history. The last two NFL teams to top that number were New Orleans and New Orleans. Are we in for an offensive showdown in the post Bounty-Gate, hostile atmosphere of the Superdome?
  • The last number comes from Pro Football Focus:
"If Alex Smith had let Mario Williams to sack him on his final pass attempt (11:32 to go in the fourth) rather than throwing the ball away, he would have ended up with a perfect 158.3 passer rating."