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Only one thing is certain for the schizophrenic Forty-Niner team: If all of this season’s games were played at home they would be one of the most dominant teams in the NFL.
In recent memory, home field advantage has never been such a huge factor in determining a 49ers’ victory. All of the team’s wins have been at home, and they have failed to win a single game on the road. One of the differences between the 49ers at the Stick and the 49ers everywhere else is penalties.
In St. Louis and Minnesota the team combined for 9 false start penalties. Well, ok, those games were in a dome, right? This last week against Green Bay, the team committed three false start penalties, none more crucial than the false start penalty called on the 49ers when they were on the Green Bay 8-yard line. Instead of a possible score, Doug Peterson boinked the 28-yard kick off of the upright.
If playing in domes is so hard, and is such a problem for the line, then why hasn’t this phenomenon been a concern for the team in recent years? The 49ers used to have a total of 6 games in St. Louis, Atlanta, and New Orleans; all of which are domed stadiums. But historically the team has ranked near the top (or the bottom depending on how you look at it) in penalties assessed. How can the offense score points when it moves backwards at crucial times? False start penalties not only rip the momentum out of a drive, but they make the job easier for the defense.
Where do offensive powerhouses like Kansas City, Indianapolis and St. Louis rank in offensive penalties assessed? Third, Fourth, and Sixth respectively. The Seahawks flight to the upper echelons of the NFC can also be attributed to their error free play on offense. They rank fifth in offensive penalties assessed. Last year, they finished 12th in the league.
Last year, the Forty-Niners finished fourth in assessed offensive penalties.
False starts are an easy fix though, compared to the 49ers’ other glaring problem. The Rams showed, in the second half of their overtime win, how to keep the 49ers defense at bay. Run right at them. Don’t run the ball around them; they’re too quick for that. Just run at them. In that game, the Rams came back from a first half thrashing to win the game, in large part because the 49er defense was kept honest by the run. Minnesota then jumped on the “run at them” bandwagon and rushed over, and over, and over. On their second drive, they failed to pass the ball once. If it weren’t for the fact that the Vikings rushing attack ran out of field, they would have kept driving the 49er defense back into the locker room.
After the Minnesota game, the blueprint was established. Seattle, Arizona and Green Bay totaled 611 yards on 122 carries. That’s 203 yards on over 40 carries a game.
It really doesn’t take a physicist to understand why this approach works. The 49ers defense is predicated on speed. It’s rare to find 320 pound speedsters. So the 49er defense is smaller than average. Although being fast has some advantages, its disadvantage is the fact that you could get pushed around in the trenches. And eventually, the small line gets tired. In the NFL, size does matter.
The good news is that half of the reason for the 49er demise can be corrected this season. False start penalties can be limited. Coach Erickson must place an emphasis on discipline, something he was not known for during his tenure in Seattle.
However, the inability to stop the run against big, physical offensive lines is something that will have to be corrected in next year’s draft. Until then, the blueprint remains, and the slim chances for any playoff berth depend on the team’s ability to destroy the blueprint as opposed to having the blueprint destroy them.