Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Thoughts and observations after taking a closer look at the 49ers' offense during a 34-27 defeat to the Titans in Week 9 (full personnel report available for download here):
The 49ers struck deep to tight end Vernon Davis on one of two plays Sunday when they showed I-formation from base personnel. The formation and personnel suggested a likely running play. The 49ers threw deep instead. It worked.
What if their formation and personnel suggested a passing play, only to have the 49ers run the ball instead? The 49ers accomplish this with second tight end Delanie Walker, who has good receiving skills. But ...
The 49ers have not developed a three-receiver offense outside 2-minute situations or third down. They have dropped back to pass 123 times in 134 plays with more than two wide receivers on the field, usually in obvious passing situations.
Why not sprinkle in a few more three-receiver groupings on early downs and outside the 2-minute offense? Rookie first-round choice Michael Crabtree has generally played well. Josh Morgan projects as a potential No. 2 receiver. Jason Hill's sudden emergence against the Titans suggests he might be ready for the No. 3 role. The issue is whether the third wide receiver offers enough value to justify removing Walker from the field.
Quarterback Alex Smith attempted 23 passes with eight first downs, two touchdowns, one interception and no sacks from three-receiver personnel Sunday. The team called only two runs -- one on second-and-1, another on third-and-23 -- from this grouping despite using it 14 times on first or second down. Why? Again, these were often 2-minute situations.
Quite a few of the breakdowns in protection came on early downs. Smith took three sacks on early downs while operating with one back, two receivers and two tight ends. Compare that to zero sacks with three receivers on the field. Protection issues would not appear to be a primary variable in personnel selection.
Most breakdowns in pass protection involve the right side of the line.
The 49ers' preferred personnel Sunday -- one back, two receivers, two tight ends -- was more effective on the ground than through the air, generating 6.8 yards per carry on 12 rushes, with five rushing first downs.
The 49ers used their base offense -- two backs, two receivers, one tight end -- for only seven snaps. Oddly, the 49ers used this early-down grouping twice on third-and-8 plays, producing an interception and an incomplete pass, both intended for Crabtree. The 49ers had never used that personnel on six previous third-and-8 plays this season (not counting a kneel-down against the Rams).
I'm inclined to agree with coach Mike Singletary's generally positive reviews for Smith in this game, but CBS analyst Rich Gannon seemed credible when he repeatedly said Smith needed to make decisions more quickly. Gannon played in this offense for 49ers offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye. According to Gannon, Smith needs more experience in the offense.
How does Raye's vision for the offense mesh with personnel changes since his hiring? The team added Crabtree unexpectedly. Smith is now the quarterback. Davis is becoming a Pro Bowl-caliber target. The offensive line isn't very good in protection. All things to weigh. It's Week 10, but adding Crabtree and Smith to the mix so late means the offense is in a formative state. What will the identity become?