On whether 49ers were too pass-happy

September, 24, 2012
9/24/12
12:30
PM ET
@kdottorres made a point worth investigating upon reading our "Why 49ers lost" item Monday morning.

"Nothing mentioned about the 42 pass plays the 49ers ran and the mere 20 run plays," he wrote. "So much for the power run game."

First off, good job on the accounting. The 49ers attempted 35 passes, took three sacks and had four quarterback scrambles. That adds up to 42 pass plays. Some of those plays could have been called as runs in the huddle, with quarterback Alex Smith changing plays at the line based on what he saw from the defense. Of course, some of the 20 runs could have been called as passes in the huddle. We can only assume the pre-snap decisions evened out.


Sometimes a pass-happy offensive staff abandons efforts to mix in the ground game. The 49ers do not have a pass-happy staff, however. Jim Harbaugh would run the ball every play, including on fourth down, if he could guarantee a 3-yard gain every time. He loves physical, hard-nosed football as much as any coach loves it.

The 49ers did come out passing during their 24-13 defeat at Minnesota. They had five pass plays against only one rushing attempt on their opening drive. Excluding third down, when teams tend to pass, the 49ers had three runs in 10 first-quarter plays. They were also going to pass late in the game, once Minnesota had built a double-digit lead. Plans to run the ball and strike a balance sometimes give way to situations.

The Vikings' defense showed "loaded" fronts -- those with more defenders near the line of scrimmage than an offense has available to block them -- on 14 plays Sunday. San Francisco ran against these fronts twice. Perhaps Smith saw the disadvantage and reacted accordingly. The 49ers gained 10 yards on those two rushes. They completed 10 of 12 passes for 79 yards and a touchdown on the remaining 12 plays (thank you, ESPN Stats & Information).

The 49ers are giving Smith latitude at the line of scrimmage. They need to make sure defenses aren't baiting Smith into abandoning preferred plays. It's tough for any of us on the outside to know how a team is faring along those lines.

Frank Gore ran the ball only once all game from three-receiver personnel: He gained four yards on a second-and-7 play from the shotgun against the Vikings' nickel defense. He ran the ball once against a loaded front, gaining two yards on a first-and-10 play from a personnel grouping with two backs and one tight end.

I'd be interested in seeing the 49ers try to develop more of a running attack from their three-receiver offense on early downs. They have only seven rushing attempts within those parameters, about one-third of the league average. The 49ers prefer using two backs or two tight ends a majority of the time on early downs. That suits their personnel, but they would seem to have additional options after upgrading at receiver.

Something to consider, at least.

But we should also realize the 49ers have gone 15-4 during the regular season since Harbaugh arrived as head coach. A bad game shouldn't lead to wholesale philosophical reevaluations.

No one complained when the 49ers had only 17 rushes with 25 pass plays during a Week 10 victory over the New York Giants last season. We should remember, too, that winning produces rushing attempts more than rushing attempts produce winning. Had the 49ers been better in other areas Sunday -- penalties, passing accuracy, field-goal execution, containing Christian Ponder, etc. -- they would have been in position to pad their rushing stats.

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