San Francisco 49er head coach Jim Harbaugh continues to throw safeguards ahead of a stagnant offense that continues to struggle in finding any kind of identity and or rhythm. The 49ers fell to the Dallas Cowboys 27-24 in overtime at Candlestick Park last Sunday in front of a packed stadium that was seemingly more than 50% Cowboy faithful that Cowboy tight end Jason Witten suggested, “helped the players with their mindset.” It was without question an obvious sign heard and seen in the stands as the Cowboys made their resurgent comeback in the second half behind injured starting quarterback Tony Romo.
Everything within this game suggested more of the same that we saw in the Seattle Seahawks game. Jim Harbaugh seems to be trying to micro-manage the game from an offensive standpoint, believing that the way to win is to lean on the defense and protect Alex Smith from making any seemingly costly mistakes by sticking with and sometimes increasing the number of carries on the running game. So far, in two games, the 49ers offensive line is responsible for an average of 2.8 yards per carry, placing us in a tie for 29th in the league.
From Jim's Stanford days as a collegiate coach, he was and obviously still is a firm believer in sticking with a run first type of philosophy in that games are won in the trenches and on the ground via a great running game, which historically for him, averages around 50% of the called plays on his known offenses. Frank Gore is still the very face of this franchise from an offensive standpoint, but he is finding very little assistance from a line that should be far more consistent and developed than what we are witnessing on the field today.
Three out of five of the starting offensive linemen are first-round draft picks the 49ers targeted exclusively to try and bolster their running game and become more dominant from the line of scrimmage. Of the other ones, two are second-round draft picks and another a high-priced free agent that was brought in to light the collective fires. I, like so many others, know that games are really won with the motivation and temperament of the offensive line. Should we execute as we should, creating a balance of run and pass in any game, the chances of success greatly increase.
To go along with that offensive line, we add in two of the best blocking tight ends along with their receiving talent as well in Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. Gore carried 20 times for a mere 47 total yards, averaging 2.4-yards per carry. The push up front and winning the battles at the line of scrimmage is not happening on a consistent basis and needs to be addressed. Second that with what we saw on pass protection for Alex Smith against a premier defensive line responsible for sacking Smith six times for a loss of 47 total yards and helping create a turnover. This is a recipe for disaster.
The only defense I will give the offensive line in this game is the fact that Alex Smith clearly showed signs of indecision again and held on to the ball for far too long on many situations that could've gone a different course. The old ghosts that plagued Mike Singletary and former offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye are that this offensive line is incapable of turning the corner to become the productive unit we hoping for. We will not be able to win games or even stay competitive in games so as long as the line is seen to be in constant training mode.
Back to the conservatism we all are seeing with the offense, let's take a look at our final possession in the first half, leading 14-7 with 1:48 on the clock. Having no timeouts left, the 49ers managed to get off four plays out of the shotgun and while in the middle of two plays, we saw 34 seconds roll off the play clock, even as we did a no-huddle type pace. Then a conservative hand off to Frank Gore for a six-yard gain with a long huddle afterwards driving the clock from 1:10 down to 26 seconds, which begs the question where is the rationality here in all this?
Jim's defense was not to allow the ball in the Cowboys' hands right before the half, yet whenever they had the ball following the first half, they went on a scoring frenzy that utterly shredded our lowly secondary that now owns the 25th pass defense ranking. Surrendering 432 total yards just in passing highlights an immediate need to look at not only our blatant inability to get to their quarterback, but at how well we executed in our coverage capabilities against an elite team such as the Cowboys.
Coming off a sore knee, the need to get veteran free safety Dashon Goldson into the lineup before Madieu Williams needs to be looked at along with veteran cornerback Shawntae Spencer, who is actually fourth on the depth chart behind Carlos Rodgers, Tarell Brown and Tramaine Brock. Adjustments and major playing time in practices need to be under review as we try and curb the bleeding that is happening to us in the sponge-like substance we now call our secondary. Veteran Cowboys wide receiver Miles Austin alone had nine receptions for 143 total yards and three touchdowns against our secondary that could not convert coverage on to him.
Jim reasserted his conservatism in the game when he had the opportunity to take points back from a field goal that made it 24-14 at the beginning of the fourth quarter because of a penalty that would have given the 49ers a first down. Instead, he chose to stay with the field goal points as a means of collecting safe points instead of taking on an opportunity to triumph on a new set of downs that might have produced more than a field goal.
Premier 49er tight end Vernon Davis is frustrated that he isn't getting the ball as a true playmaker out on the field. He expressed those feelings to Jim recently, prompting a meeting and a new look at what the possibilities would be in targeting Davis more often. Vernon cannot understand how or why the coaching staff is not trying hard enough to insert Vernon in the receiving mode he is known best for and producing big plays on a moments notice.
Alex Smith, in my opinion, needs to show a lot more leadership both on and off the field, as well as negotiate more with the coaching staff in trying to get more plays that take advantage of the pure talent skills Vernon Davis is well known for. Maybe even having conversations with his own offensive line in conjunction with offensive line coach Mike Solari is a place to start. I will admit Smith does show more guts out on the field, but his field of vision in identifying open targets and his ability to get rid of the ball quicker are all known recipes for disaster. It showed clearly on the interception he threw in the third quarter which led to a Miles Austin touchdown.
We are, in Jim's words, suffering from “an identity crisis.” Best thing he's said so far.
Sources of Information: Mercury News.com, SF Gate.com, Inside Bay Area.com, NFL.com and my own personal analysis and opinion.