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Breaking down the 49ers' play calling

10/1/2009



Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Charlie asks via Facebook about Jimmy Raye's offensive play calling for the 49ers. He wants to know about the team's play calling on first and second downs, and whether this is contributing to the team's struggles on third down (0 for 11 conversions against the Vikings in Week 3).

Mike Sando: The chart suggests you might be onto something. The 49ers have run the ball 57.1 percent of the time on second down when they needed between 6 and 10 yards for a first down. Only the Giants and Chiefs have run a higher percentage of the time during these situations. The 49ers are averaging a league-low 1.06 yards per carry on these rushes.

I singled out second down because I see it as a bit of a wild-card down. Teams can run or pass on that down pretty freely. A team might be more apt to pass when needing 6 to 10 yards for a first down, I thought. That explains why I singled out that distance range. My sense was that former coordinator Mike Martz threw too frequently on second down last season, leading to mistakes by quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan. That can no longer be a criticism.

In 2008, the 49ers ran the ball on 38.7 percent of these plays, averaging 5.7 yards per carry and 5.3 yards per pass attempt. That was down from 41.1 percent in 2007, 41.8 percent in 2006 and 53.1 percent in 2005, Mike Nolan's first season as head coach.

While the 49ers would like to improve their production on these plays, without question, they remain unapologetic about their play calling. Raye and coach Singletary probably would not consider these numbers to be any great revelation. They probably would not see these numbers as having exposed them in any way.

This team is going to be stubborn about running the ball, particularly early in the season. Singletary has said that more than once. The approach has minimized turnovers at the expense of setting up more favorable third-down situations. I do think going oh-fer on third down against the Vikings had to get the 49ers' attention. And I do think Shaun Hill has earned the right to mix in a few more passes on early downs.

The 49ers are one of three teams running the ball at least 60 percent of the time on first down. The Jets are running 72.8 percent of the time on first down. The Broncos are next at 68.3 percent, followed by the 49ers (60.3 percent) and the Cowboys at (59.8 percent).

I also combined first-down tendencies with second-down tendencies when teams needed between 6 and 10 yards for a first down. The 49ers ran the ball 59.4 percent of the time across these situations, trailing only the Jets (64.4 percent) and Giants (61.3 percent). The Cardinals were last at 36.6 percent.