Eight weeks ago, the Vikings were undefeated and ranked No. 1 in DVOA. Now they're 6-6 and probably done. What went wrong?
04 Dec 2012
by Rivers McCown
While the Jets and Cardinals were busy setting offensive football back 50 years in their more-publicized battle of inept quarterbacks, the 49ers and Rams weren't doing much better under the lights at the Edward Jones Dome.
Colin Kaepernick, as pointed out in Quick Reads, attempted just two deep passes over the course of the entire game. The Rams definitely played a lot of deep shell coverages over the course of the game, and they managed to get pretty decent pressure on Kaepernick as well. Rather than trying to challenge the Rams downfield, the 49ers took what they were given underneath. Mostly that involved throwing slants at Janoris Jenkins, who was consistently giving up big cushions at the line of scrimmage.
The more surprising part was that the Rams totally stuffed the 49ers running game. Taking out Kaepernick's 50-yard scramble (which we'll cover a bit later in the column) and a 23-yard Frank Gore run in the first quarter, the Rams allowed just 73 yards on 34 carries to the top-ranked rushing offense by DVOA coming into the game. Some of that can be blamed on the absence of Kendall Hunter, but the Rams run defense is clearly setting into a formidable unit after some early-season struggles. Since yielding a pair of 20% run defense DVOA's in their first four weeks (to Seattle and Washington), the Rams have had a run defense DVOA of 2.9% or higher just once: to the 49ers the last time these two teams tangled. A lot of the improvement comes from the growth of rookie defensive tackle Michael Brockers, but in this game, their backside pursuit was more impressive than anything else.
Nothing could be deemed impressive about the Rams offense. They didn't score a single point until the final drive of regulation, and the only reason they were able to reach field-goal range on that drive was due to a dubious personal foul penalty where Dashon Goldson managed to avoid a helmet-to-helmet hit on a sliding Sam Bradford by adjusting his back to hit the quarterback in mid-air. At least in reality -- can't speak for the zebras. When the first half ended, the Rams offense had four first downs and five punts. Outside of a couple Bradford scrambles against the 49ers' prevent defense, the Rams garnered 60 rushing yards on 25 carries. When St. Louis did have some success in the passing game, it mostly came off play-action. They spent an inordinate amount of time spreading the field, most memorably trying to target NaVorro Bowman against Isaiah Pead on a deep ball. The passing game was completely off-kilter all day.
The Rams did manage to score 10 points on defense, off a pair of Kaepernick mistakes. The first two came on a called intentional grounding in the end zone where Kaepernick held the ball too long and backpedaled waiting for something to open up. He threw the ball towards the sideline, but it was ruled that it didn't get back to the line of scrimmage. Safety. Of course, the correct rule interpretation was that the line of scrimmage expands beyond the boundaries of the playing field in that situation, so it was a pretty fortunate break for the Rams. That doesn't mean Kaepernick covered himself in glory on the play: He needed to take the sack further upfield if nothing was open.
The second came on a play call that was so bizarrely out-of-place that it appeared Jim Harbaugh was possessed by Tony Sparano. With a 10-2 lead late in the fourth quarter and a non-existent offense on the other sideline, on third-and-3, Harbaugh marched Ted Ginn on to the field, put him in motion in the backfield, and ran a pitch play to him. Only Kaepernick pitched the ball behind Ginn, and Jenkins recovered and rolled into the end zone for a touchdown. Gimmicky plays like that are a fixture of the San Francisco offense, but why did they spend the entire game playing conservative football, get what appeared to be an insurmountable lead, and then try a high-variance call? A first down there robs the Rams of their remaining timeouts at worst. It was just the wrong call at the wrong time, and the Rams managed to make the two-point conversion from the 7 (after a dubious false start) to tie the game.
As you might expect from a game that went to overtime and nearly ended in a tie, this game was a virtual tie in the eyes of VOA.
|Seeing Double (Week 13)|
|Team||OFF VOA||DEF VOA||ST VOA||TOTAL VOA|
And hey, for kicks and giggles, let's look at the tie game too:
|Deja Vu (Week 10)|
|Team||OFF VOA||DEF VOA||ST VOA||TOTAL VOA|
Sticking together's what good waffles do.
(Once we get into DVOA, the Rams are clear winners in both games because the 49ers are a much better team.)
Last week we had nothing, this week we are spoiled for choice. However, I'm going to single out the conservative Harbaugh approach on San Francisco's drive to a field-goal attempt in overtime.
A terrible Johnny Hekker punt set the 49ers up at the 50. After gaining a first down, the 49ers called a couple of runs that set the ball at the right hashmark, then had Kaepernick roll out to his left on third down and throw the ball into the stands. There are enough reasons to hate long field-goal attempts in regulation, but in overtime, it becomes even harder for the calculus to work correctly. Normally if you miss a long field goal, the punishment is that the opposing team gets the ball in good field position. In overtime, you give your opponent good field position ... in sudden death. I'm not arguing that Harbaugh should have gone for it on fourth-and-6, though the numbers could possibly back that up. Just don't seal up the playbook the second your team hits long-field-goal range. Even if the 49ers throw an interception on an intermediate pass after the first down, that would likely be a better field-position result than attempting a 52-yard field goal. And that's before we even get into the fact that David Akers has had a miserable year (and has been hampered by injury).
After the 49ers handed the quarterback job from Alex Smith over to Kaepernick, he experienced some instant success in his first couple of starts. So much so that the sports internet collective spent the better part of Thursday and Friday pinata-hunting a terrible opinion piece about his tattoos and what it means that he doesn't "look like a CEO." This game was his first real brush with the fabled "learning experience."
We've already been over the safety and the pitch play that led to 10 of the Rams' 16 points. Kaepernick was a little too willing to check down early on his reads as well, and his scrambling mindset does lead to some inaccurate throws with poor footwork. Where his inexperience really stood out, though, was in the pre-snap phase. The 49ers had to burn two or three timeouts in this game alone because he had problems getting everyone settled after an audible in an orderly fashion. And I counted three or four other plays where they just barely got the snap off in time.
However, we also saw a couple of plays that demonstrated exactly why he is starting over Smith in spite of some of these deficiencies: he brings an improvisational dimension that the 49ers did not have before. Here are two plays that likely would have been sacks or throwaways with Smith under center:
11:41 in the first quarter, third-and-6 from the 49ers 29
|San Francisco comes out in a three-wide set with tight end Vernon Davis on the left, The Rams are using their base nickel package..|
|The Rams send a zone blitz, dropping a defensive lineman and James Laurinaitis, who had crowded the line of scrimmage, and sending cornerback Jenkins and linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar|
|Jenkins essentially gets a free run at Kaepernick, getting past Joe Staley, however, Kaepernick is reversing field and sees it coming the whole way.|
|Once the field is shrunk as he rolls out, the only open options would involve throwing across his body or planting and throwing an absolute laser, so Kaepernick elects to run.|
|No first down, but the fact that the 49ers got something out of nothing on this play shows Kaepernick's innate ability to create on the run.|
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
2:16 in the fourth quarter, first-and-10 from the 49ers 36
|The 49ers start out in the I-Formation, with Michael Crabtree in motion to make twins left. Cortland Finnegan follows him from the Rams base 4-3, safety Quintin Mikell is in the box on the left side.|
|Kaepernick runs a (pretty weak) play-action fake, and the 49ers are in max protect. They're keeping seven men in to try and hit a shot play. (For once.) The Rams rush five, and are easily picked up at the point of attack.|
|Kaepernick ignored his checkdown route, and by the time his deep shot against Jenkins had developed, the 49ers blockers had to let Mikell go. Chris Long finally works around Anthony Davis, bringing inside pressure.|
|However, with two men on the right side, Kaepernick has a built-in convoy to an already-empty area, and that means big yards.|
|Frank Gore cut blocks the first defender that was close, Rocky McIntosh, springing the run further.|
|Kaepernick continues to follow Bruce Miller upfield. Randy Moss gets a block on deep safety Craig Dahl.|
|Miller gets a piece of Laurinaitis, and the rest of the Rams secondary finally circles over.|
|Jenkins, who was covering Moss on the other side of the field, is the man who finally brings him down, 50 yards later.|
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
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