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The 49ers are rolling. Their young defense is stepping up and making plays. The offensive line is starting to find its rhythm and is opening holes for Hearst and Barlow. Hearst seems to have lost any tentativeness he may have had. The rushing offense is now #2 in the NFL at over 150 yards a game.
Yet the big story out of San Francisco is that the 49ers are struggling to find their offense.
“I'm not complaining about the play-calling, but I think that when I'm working at my best is when I'm in a rhythm of throwing 70 percent of the time,” Garcia told the Oakland Tribune.
After Owens, we note that JJ Stokes and Tai Streets have not been thrown many balls. The offense is running a lot and, sometimes, running predictably: they have run the ball 12 out of 14 times on second down following an incompletion. Games that are dominated by the 49ers – like the Jets game – are staying close due to the conservative playcalling. Most alarmingly, the 49ers rank 28th in the NFL in average yards gained per first down.
So are the 49ers best off sticking with the run or trying some more pass plays? I think it’s a little bit of both.
I mean, let’s not overreact. The 49ers are 3-1 because of the running game and the defense. Championship teams need to have both, and consistently. The equation Steve Mariucci is using works and the 49ers are winning with it. That’s the most important thing. Jeff Garcia, for all his concern, is still on pace to pass for 3,236 yards and 20 touchdowns this season. That’s not bad. And no team should throw 70% of the time, as Garcia has suggested. That’s not good for any offense, even the 49ers.
And as much as the 49ers defense deserves praise, let’s remember that they are still very young and learning. This defense has not arrived. Regardless of their tenure, Jeff Ulbrich, Andre Carter, Jamie Winborn, and Reggie McGrew are seeing their first significant action on the field. The running game has been a big boost for them by chewing up the time of possession.
On the flip side, I do think that the 49ers should open things up a bit. They have gotten off to slow starts in all of their games, and one of the main reasons for this is the tentative passing game. What happened to the habit of scripting the first 15 plays? The 49ers used to come out and hit you early. Yet the 49ers have opened most of their games with three and outs.
The best solution is to address the first down woes. When asked which down was the best to throw on, Bill Walsh always said without blinking: 'First down'. You are likely facing a standard defensive set that is looking for a running play. Rarely does a team play with passing schemes on first down. Play action passing on first down is as close to a sure thing as passing plays can get.
The 49ers need to script a few first down passing plays for the Falcons on Sunday. They don’t need to pass much more than they are now – just enough to show a defense that, if we want to, we can win by throwing. The way to do that is to throw vertically on a few downs when we are expected to run. On first down. On second and short. Other than that, I am fine with sticking to the run.
They should also make sure that some of these plays call for Stokes and Streets to get the ball. Teams with good cover corners are going to start double teaming Owens effectively anyway, so we better start giving them more to think about. Owens is tough to cover, but good corners that have help can negate him if they really put their mind to it.
So I say: stick with what’s working for the most part, but add a few surprise passing plays early in the game.
Forcing Leadership / Other Ramblings
Why are we forcing leadership on Terrell Owens? Why is Minnesota doing it with Randy Moss? We see this with a lot of franchises - they take their young stars and urge them to become leaders, even if those young stars don't have leadership qualities off the field. In Minnesota, Moss is the main man on offense, so the Vikings have tried to urge him to become a leader. That's a mistake. When he broke down on the podium while trying to discuss Korey Stringer’s death, it was a touching reminder that Moss is not ready for such responsibility. When he tried to squirt a ref with a water bottle after a close call two years ago, it was a childish reminder. When he gives up on half his routes like he did against Carolina, it was a frustrating reminder. Randy Moss is just a kid, and a kid who can’t figure himself out is hardly the person teammates should turn to for answers. As much as Moss can help you on the field, he will hurt you in the locker room with his immaturity. Do your leaders in the locker room always have to be stars on the field? I don’t think so. Just look at Terry Jackson…The Bears look legit and I’m worried about our matchup. Not only are the Bears playing great football, but they are also geared up to play us. Many Bears veterans viewed the 17-0 loss to the 49ers last year as the low point of their season and a testament to what was wrong with the Cade McKnown era. They will be doubly motivated to show the 49ers – and the league – that they are a different, rejuvenated Bears team in 2001. If I had to put money on the game right now, I am sad to say that it would be with the Bears...