If there is one positive to be pulled from last week’s loss to the Seahawks, it’s that most of the Bay Area took a break from sports talk radio following the game. I listened to a tiny bit of it going from here to there during the holidays, but for the most part I haven’t had the time (or the energy) to listen to fill-in hosts while trying to enjoying my winter vacation.
I can only imagine what the extremist LOLKNBRCallers sounded like this week. Panic flourished on Twitter, and even in my head a little bit for that matter. With the news of Justin Smith’s partially torn bicep, and considering the way the 49ers played without him, it’s easy to see why a storm cloud hangs over 49ers fans this week. Unfortunately, the defense wasn’t the only cause for concern, as the offense seemed to take a step backwards as well.
I took a look at the 49ers’ play clock problems following the Dolphins game, and while it seemed to find temporarily resolution, a new issue with fumbled snaps arose in New England. Against the Seahawks, play clock issues returned and caused even more problems for the offense.
1:28 1st quarter
The 49ers embarked on a drive following the Seahawks’ second touchdown, hoping to strike pay dirt and crawl back into the game. Kaepernick hit Vernon Davis for a 27-yard gain, but the following play, a hand off to Frank Gore, only netted four yards. On the next play, Kaepernick got to the line with about 10 seconds left on the play clock, attempted to audible but couldn’t. With less than five seconds left on the play clock, he had to burn a timeout — his second in the first quarter.
The next play was a Gore rush for no gain, followed by a Michele Tafoya demonstration on microphone usage and an appropriately-timed delay of game penalty on the 49ers. The momentum they gained from the big play to Davis was completely evaporating.
The next play helped San Francisco keep the drive alive, although it stands as a good demonstration of the issues surrounding their pre-snap offense nonetheless.
First, Kaepernick can’t hear the play being called. He actually stands there with his arms out for much longer than Imgur would allow me to .gif — it takes EIGHT SECONDS for him to get the play from the sideline.
It take another seven seconds for Kaepernick to call the play in the huddle. The 49ers are in such a hurry to get to the line that he’s still calling it as they walk away.
The 49ers get to the line with 11 seconds left on the play clock, and by the time the linemen are set and he motions Davis from out wide into the slot, there are only five seconds left to snap the ball. He gets the play off in time and they get the first down on a nice catch and run from Michael Crabtree, but without Crabtree’s effort, they would have had to punt.
Time is(n’t) on my side
Although Alex Smith performed much better with these play clock issues, blame shouldn’t fall directly on Kaepernick’s shoulders. Seattle is the toughest road environment to visit in the NFL, especially if you’re the 49ers. These clock shortage issues happened before Kaepernick ever sniffed the starting quarterback role.
Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman’s offensive setup has remained the same: call two plays in the huddle and let the quarterback choose at the line of scrimmage. Unfortunately, with the length of the play calls in huddles and the multiple motions at the line of scrimmage, it leaves little time for Kaepernick to audible if he doesn’t like the defense.
Here is a shot of the 49ers in a jumbo formation, staring into the teeth of nine Seattle defenders stacked against the run. The play clock was running down to zero, so even if Kaepernick wanted to audible, there wouldn’t have been time. Gore got about four yards with this hand off and fumbled it.
Believe it or not, this is a different play. Same jumbo set, same nine defenders in the box, same expiring play clock and same hand off to Gore, this time for no gain.
This hand off to Gore went for four yards, but could have been for more if Kaepernick had time to choose a plan B. The safety was obviously sneaking up to defend the run, and he was actually the one who made the tackle on Gore.
I’m not advocating that the 49ers should have run the ball less in this game, especially with Gore only getting eight carries. But what made this offense so spectacular and deceiving early in the season is now becoming a detriment. With no time to audible into pass plays from jumbo sets and switch up to runs from the spread, the 49ers attack is suddenly vanilla and predictable. This is one of the reasons they were so ineffective against the Seahawks, and it’s a problem in need of a solution before the playoffs start.