49ers Clubhouse 

Muscling a Win Reveals Some Weaknesses

October 02, 2001

by Jeff Shaffer
49ers Clubhouse writer

49er Game Assessment

The Niners muscled a win last night against a mediocre team.  Giving the coaches the benefit of the doubt, this game plan could have been a strategic decision to: 1. Establish the running game as a legitimate threat to future teams, and 2. Build the team’s confidence that it could pound out a tough win.  Without the benefit of the doubt, the team proved it could play unspectacular football to beat an unspectacular opponent.  And this seems the problem of the Mariucci coached team – they play to the level of their opponents.  After all, they left a Jets team clearly still learning their offensive and defensive systems in the game to the very end.  Better teams would surely have taken better advantage.  

Last night’s game revealed several weaknesses and an unexpected controversy.

#1. The Defense still looks flat and vulnerable
A. Every game the defense comes out tentative and flat.  This has to change.  The defense needs to come out aggressive and set the tone for the game.  Mora seems to believe it is better to keep it simple at first; and better to guard the defense’s morale by not giving up a big play early.  But the long drives, letting the offense dictate the pace, seem to be making the defenders tentative.  Yes they are young, but they are no longer green.  It is time to up their tempo and aggressiveness and let them build their confidence by taking it to opponents.  These young players have shown their mental toughness and resilience.  Even if they succumb to a big play early, they are ready to bounce back.  It is time to let their athletic ability lose and let them play.

B. Big plays still allowed.  Per above, the conservative defensive scheme is not working anyway, still allowing the opponent it’s big plays (particularly on broken plays) and 3rd down conversions.  Streaking receivers are still getting behind the coverage.  More disconcerting, the defensive backs seem particularly vulnerable to crossing patterns run between the linebackers and safeties.  The Rams revealed this weakness effectively, and the Jets could have done the same except for some dropped balls.

C. Run stopping ability questionable.  The runner regularly makes it through the D line and is brought down in the linebackers’ zone with the help of the defensive backs.  The run defense must stiffen to make more stops in the trenches and attack backs bouncing outside to drop them before they can turn the corner or for a loss.

D. Personnel notes:  The big play-making of Julian Peterson was noticeably absent, lets hope it was a symptom of his recovery and 1st game back.  Andre Carter got his first sack and some good pressures, but it only came against the TE.  He was still handled and kicked-out by the tackle.  Plummer looked awesome on his big hit on the TE, and stayed with some plays to break up receptions, but receivers still get behind him.  

#2 Offense lacks precision and explosiveness.
A. Passing Offense:  stale and predictable.  The receivers seem to be running routes to spots and then settling down to wait for passes, not getting separation and running away from coverage.  Look at the Rams’ receivers; they are often hit in stride, giving them good separation, running into open zones.  It is hard to tell from TV how well covered all the receivers are on a play, but Garcia rarely throws to the deep middle of the field where other teams are finding success.  This seems to indicate these routes are being well covered and anticipated by the defense.  The passing attack is hardly an attack, it is more of a dink and dump style to the outside.  When was the last time you saw a strike to the receiver running away from the coverage a la Rice or Taylor’s quick hits?  Owens is rarely hit in stride, which makes his RAC numbers even more impressive.  Mariucci, Greg Knapp, and Garcia need to get together and solve this for the passing game to regain its old luster.  It seems the Niner’s need to do a thorough job scouting themselves and come up with some inspiration and explosiveness for their offense to break out.

B. Garcia:  Last season Garcia was mastering the offense, and did a great job.  This was supposed to be the season Garcia got better reading defenses as well.  But he looked confused (before and after the snap) on several critical plays – sacked on second play of the game, the collision with Beasely that nearly caused a lost fumble, flubbed audible requiring a timeout, and his sack at the goal line are just some examples.  He looked lost at times.  The second series of the second half was full of miscues.  Admittedly, Steve Young had some series and games like that too.  But Garcia also seems to give up on his downfield reads too quickly (see offensive line play notes below).    

C. Offensive line play:  This O Line is often touted for its pass protection – giving up so few sacks.  But it is apparent the low sack numbers have more to do with Garcia’s nimbleness than their protection.  The line rarely establishes a pocket for Garcia to throw from, more often creating a collapsing mass in front of Garcia that he needs to step away from to see downfield and throw.  Good pass protection first creates a pocket, which gives the quarterback good passing lanes.  As the pocket inevitably breaks down, it should do so predictably so the quarterback can escape smoothly while keeping his eyes down field.  Garcia’s limited effectiveness in the passing game is clearly affected by the lack of a pocket.  He is constantly on the look out for that surprise rusher emerging from or coming around the pile.  He looks nervous and tentative and this affects his ability to stick with his down field reads.

#3 Running back: Not a weakness, or even the controversy you’d expect.
A. The rotation of Hearst and Barlow is working well.  Hearst is able to rest and still get his rhythm for a whole series.  Barlow is able to learn the system and have success.  This is not the kind of “running back by committee” that is usually a failure, where each back has a strength (and weakness) and backs are rotated in during a series depending on the situation and play called.  That type of RBC rarely works well because the backs aren’t able to establish a rhythm and defenses can better anticipate plays depending on the personnel.  The Niner’s system is keeping one back in for the whole series and using them in the standard variety of plays.  Both backs are doing the same things.  And defenses can’t make assumptions about the play calling because one guy is in verses another.  In reviewing the plays I thought it would reveal Barlow’s success was due to different kinds and timing of run plays, but it really didn’t.  As the coaches gain more confidence in his understanding of the finer points of the system (blitz pick-ups and adjustments) he may well supplant Hearst.  But the system is working well as is, both backs are getting better each week, so there is no rush to make a decision to exclude one back in favor of the other.    

B. The REAL controversy:  Jackson verses Beasely.  Terry Jackson is showing some real explosiveness running and catching the ball.  Beasely is the starter due to experience and his blocking ability.  At the beginning of last season he looked like he was developing into a real multiple threat guy running and catching the ball out of the backfield – remember his three touchdown game  last season.  But his running and catches started to produce only short gains.  Terry Jackson is being worked into the game plan more for his playmaking ability.  He made a great adjustment to Garcia’s scramble last week against the Rams that netted a touchdown.  Last night, he came in on one series and made three consecutive excellent plays – 15 yard run; 8 yard catch and run in traffic; and a six yard run on a draw for a first down.  On the other hand, Beasely didn’t do much running the ball – he had one first down catch on the last series, several short runs, and one run at the goal line that didn’t make it in.  More importantly, it appeared he made several errors (although without knowing the details of the plays it is hard to say if they were in fact his errors) – it looked like one missed blitz pick-up, one running into the quarterback, and one false start penalty.  I am assuming his blocking was still good, or excellent, since the running game was doing so well, but I didn’t make any special notes on that.  But we may witness a change at fullback if Terry Jackson can prove he can block before we see a change a tailback.  Plus, as a restricted free agent this year Beasely was only signed to a 1 year $1.3 contract before the season.  He becomes a free agent after the season that may be too expensive to sign when there is a Terry Jackson in the wings, and possibly a converted Paul Smith behind that.      

The Niners showed some really good things last night with improved defense and establishing the running game.  But there is still plenty of room for improvement on both sides of the ball before this team can be a real threat to the better teams in the league.  But if this team can take these three games and make the kind of progress they showed last year, by the mid-point of the season we may witness a real challenger emerging.

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