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That's it. It's done. Gone. Finished. The longest offseason in history is finally over! With the start of Training Camp on August 1st, the new season is officially upon us and we can close the chapter on what was one of the most tumultuous offseasons in NFL history.
With that being said, through the first 2 days of camp, there have been plenty of interesting sound bites. One particular such comment from Eric Reid stands out to me:
"I think we have what it takes on this team to go to the Super Bowl, and I'm not afraid to say that."
Let's think about that for a second. Reid obviously knows the team better than any one of the writers or fans that has written the team off before week 1 even begins. The vibe around the team is very positive right now and it's based on what matters more than retirements, suspensions, free agency losses and coaching losses; it's based on what's on the field and the players that the 49ers DO currently have.
There were certain things about the team last year that were hindering them from getting over the hump. This is the first in a three part series of articles that will discuss some schematic changes to offense, defense, special teams/coaching that the 49ers can implement right now in order to make it to the big game. Part 1 focuses on Geep Chryst's baby, the offense.
Here's a breakdown of some things the 49ers can do on offense to give them a better chance at winning games in 2015:
Getting out of the huddle early
If you look closely, you will notice that most elite offenses and quarterbacks get to the line of scrimmage with 17 to 24 seconds left on the play clock. This allows for the quarterback to look at the defense and what alignment they're in so he can change protection, change the play, or know where to go with the ball if there's trouble.
When Colin Kaepernick was sprinting out of the huddle and to the line of scrimmage last year, I suspect he wasn't able to survey the defense sufficiently with 5 seconds or less left on the play clock. If you don't believe me, try to skim a page of a book and figure out what the plot is as well as the main characters, all within 5 seconds. This chaos surely contributed to his regression. He'll no doubt make better decisions when he has to time to at least look at what he's facing on the other side of the ball, instead of hastily trying to get the snap off before the 49ers use their final timeout in the first quarter.
Leaning on the run game more
There were several times last year (and in previous years) where the run game was successful, only to have Greg Roman get pass-happy and doom the offense. The biggest way to keep the clock going is to grind it out is on the ground. This is exactly how the Seahawks rose to the top of the league and won so many games. They keep the clock moving via the run game (no team ran it more often than the Seahawks, who ran it upwards of 50% of the time last year) and shorten the game, putting more pressure on the opposing offense to make plays in limited opportunities against Seattle's elite defense. Are you worried about the Niners defense? No problem. They won't be on the field as much if our offense has the ball more than the opposition and scores points.
The 49ers have 4 backs who bring 4 different skillsets to the running game. Reggie Bush is a slasher and a great pass catcher out of the backfield, Kendall Hunter is really good between the tackles, Carlos Hyde is a bruiser who runs over people and Mike Davis is a bruiser who has good hands. There's a running back for every situation and I look forward to seeing the running game revisited.
Better play design/more targets to running backs
A team can only call the plays that they have designed, so training camp is a great time to fix what was wrong the previous season by designing better plays. Going back to Week 2 of last year against the Bears, I distinctly remember Kyle Fuller's second interception of Kaepernick. It was 3rd and long and the throw was intended for 3rd string tight end Derek Carrier. Michael Crabtree was about 2 yards away. Fuller was actually covering Crabtree and peeled off to make the pick. Two questions immediately came to me when watching this play:
- Why are there two receivers so close to each other?
- Why is the 3rd string tight end the target on this play instead of Vernon Davis, Crabtree or Boldin?
The play design was awful and it wasn't the first time that it happened that way under the previous Offensive Coordinator.
The 49ers should feature the short passing game more so they can keep the chains moving and most importantly, keep the clock moving. This was the same sort of philosophy that made the team so successful in 2011 and 2012. It will create mismatches on offense by exploiting weaknesses in the defense - such as making linebackers cover the likes of Reggie Bush and Kendall Hunter out of the backfield, or having Vernon Davis 1 on 1 with a linebacker on a crossing pattern. It also shortens the game and limits the opposing offenses opportunities, which helps to keep guys like Aaron Rodgers off the field.
An example of this philosophy working is when the Patriots beat the Seahawks in the Super Bowl this past February. Tom Brady used shorter passes to force the Seahawks linebackers to cover running backs or receivers, thus creating a mismatch. Additionally, it forced Michael Bennett and Bruce Irvin to stop pinning their ears back to rush the passer since they had to watch for screens and swing passes, giving Brady extra time. It also effectively took the Seahawks biggest strength - their secondary - away from them long enough for the Patriots to mount a comeback. It's the same reason Captain Checkdown (Alex Smith) hasn't lost to the Pete Carroll version of the Seahawks. I'm hoping the Niners took note of this.
Reign in Kap when he starts to make misakes
If you haven't noticed, Colin Kaepernick seems to throw interceptions in bunches. Out of his 10 interceptions in 2014, 5 came in two games against the Bears and Seahawks, respectively. He seems to compound one mistake on another at times (remember the 3 turnovers in the 4th quarter of the Championship Game in Seattle?). A big part of it was the playcalling that continually put the ball in his hands, with the coaches having no better strategy than saying "Go be an athlete, or something".
To me, the coaching staff could make it easier on Kap by dialing it back a notch or two and letting him get into a rhythm with short passes, or utilizing the running game to gain yardage before asking him to throw it 20 yards downfield into a really tight window 30 seconds after he throws a pick.
I highly doubt Colin Kaepernick has all of a sudden forgotten how to play quarterback in this league. Ultimately, the offense will live or die with Kaepernick, so the scheme changes must be focused on him and making things easier for him to do his job.
Make gaining positive yards on each play an emphasis
This drove 49ers fans nuts; throwing away downs via incomplete passes, unnecessary sacks, or a failed Kaepernick read-options in which he ran laterally out of bounds. In a game where every yard counts, it seemed like the offense was just throwing easy yards away on each drive.
The 49ers struggled mightily on first down last year and as much was obvious by watching games. Getting positive yards on first down keeps the playbook open. A simple example is this: if the offense gains 3 yards on first down to make it 2nd and 7, they can run or pass the ball to try to gain more yards on 2nd down. Even if it's just a short gain on 2nd down, it'll be 3rd and a manageable 4 or 5 yards to go which is better than facing 3rd and 10 or more. Not a lot of teams win games when they're constantly trying to convert 3rd and long, so it's best to try to avoid that scenario as much as possible.
It's obvious that gaining yards also changes field position as well. Imagine the 49ers going 3 and out from their own 20, as opposed to getting a couple of first downs and moving the ball out to the 40 before punting. Both are failed drives, but the latter can enable them to pin the opposition deep in their own territory with a good punt. The defense can then be more aggressive because the opposing offense has less margin for error in the shadow of the goalposts.
Field position has a trickle-down effect on both sides of the ball. Every yard should count, no matter what.
I realize that some of the items listed above are obvious, but they weren't obvious enough for the previous coaching staff to address. Training camp is the best time to implement these things because it is awfully hard to make significant scheme changes during the season and it usually doesn't work out. The offense is absolutely still stocked with enough talent to compete in 2015, there's no doubt about that. We'll see if Eric Reid was right.