It's amazing how quickly things can turn around in the NFL. A talented unit can struggle for weeks, before finding a rhythm that sparks a deep postseason run. It happened last season for the Baltimore Ravens under the direction of quarterback Joe Flacco and offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell; I believe it might happen again with 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and coordinator Greg Roman directing a San Francisco offense that's beginning to flex its muscles heading down the stretch.
1) The 49ers are committed to running the ball down their opponent's throat.
The NFL's transformation into a passing league has led some teams to abandon the run, but leaning on a strong running game is critical to success down the stretch. Of course, it takes the combination of a talented runner and a massive offensive line for an offensive coordinator to adopt a "three yards and a cloud of dust" approach, but the old-school philosophy remains the most consistent way to win in the NFL.
Silver: The 'Stick's greatest hits
Michael Silver gets an inside perspective on Candlestick's most enduring moments from the men who made them happen. READ
In San Francisco, Jim Harbaugh has followed that blueprint to make the 49ers heavyweight contenders in the NFC. The team finished ranked eighth and fourth in rushing yards in 2011 and 2012, respectively. The 49ers currently rank fifth in rushing yards per game (137.1), with Frank Gore setting the pace as the NFL's eighth-leading rusher.
While those numbers are certainly impressive, I believe the 49ers' commitment to the run is best illustrated by their staggering average of 32.1 rushing attempts per game -- third-highest in the NFL. They're also one of just two teams (Seattle the other) to run the ball on more than 50 percent of their offensive plays. At a time when most offensive coordinators are operating under a 60:40 pass-run ratio, the fact that the 49ers prefer to punch opponents in the mouth with a powerful running game speaks to the physicality and toughness that Harbaugh has instilled in his unit since his arrival in 2011.
From a philosophical standpoint, the presence of a strong running game enables an offense to thrive despite uneven quarterback play. This was evident watching the Minnesota Vikings make a postseason run one season ago without steady performances from Christian Ponder; it has allowed the 49ers to overcome Colin Kaepernick's early-season struggles and remain a postseason favorite.
Looking at the All-22 coaches' footage, I still believe Gore is the catalyst to the team's offensive success. The ninth-year pro has topped the 100-yard mark just three times this season, but his steady production has kept the Niners on schedule. Although Gore's 4.2 yards per carry doesn't jump off the stat sheet, his hard-nosed, powerful running style wears opponents down and leads to bigger plays in the fourth quarter. This was evident in the 49ers' win over the Seattle Seahawks, when Gore popped a 51-yard run with a little under five minutes left in the game.
Looking at the clip, notice how it only takes one defender missing his gap responsibility to create a crease for Gore in the middle. With few defensive backs willing or capable of bringing him down in the alley, a play designed for a five-yard gain results in an explosive play for the 49ers.
With San Francisco enjoying an unbeaten record (5-0) when Gore receives at least 20 carries, I expect to see Harbaugh ride his workhorse heading into the postseason.
2) Using run-heavy formations in the passing game has helped Kaepernick find his rhythm.
Great NFL coaches find a way to adapt to the strengths of their best players. From implementing a few familiar concepts from a college playbook, to tweaking the game plan to make it simple for the signal-caller, a wily offensive coordinator will find a way to put his best player in a position to succeed. After watching their young passer struggle with a few intricate passing concepts, the 49ers have utilized a series of play-action and movement-based routes from run-heavy formations to help Kaepernick regain his rhythm in the pocket.
Now, I'm not suggesting Kaepernick was incapable of executing full field reads earlier in the season, but I do believe he struggled getting the ball to his secondary receiver on some routes. Of course, part of this could be attributed to the lack of separation obtained by his receivers on the outside, but the tape and numbers suggest that something was off in the passing game during the first half of the season.
Breaking down the film from the 49ers' most recent games, I believe Kaepernick is more confident and decisive in the pocket. He's delivering the ball more quickly and accurately to all areas of the field. I believe the 49ers have called more play-action passes on first down to help Kap get back into a groove after his early-season struggles. Given the 49ers' propensity to run the football (see previous graph), particularly out of regular and heavy personnel packages, opponents have played more single-high safety looks on early downs. This concept leaves corners isolated in coverage on the perimeter and gives the quarterback plenty of chances to throw the ball outside the numbers without multiple defenders in the area. As a result, Kaepernick has been able to play pitch and catch with his receivers without duress.
Here are some examples:
Kaepernick sees the soft coverage on the outside and delivers a pinpoint pass to Boldin on time.
On the snap, Davis runs a deep post route down the middle of the field past the strong safety. The free safety is unable to help on the play due to the deep curl route by Boldin. Without a help defender in the middle, Davis blows past the defense for a 52-yard gain.
Kaepernick executes a play-fake in the backfield before looking for Davis on a post route. Without a safety in the middle of the field to take away the deep ball, the 49ers connect on a 40-yard bomb.
Kaepernick executes a play-fake in the backfield to Gore before rolling to his right. Davis steps down for one count to fake a block before slipping into the flat. The wing back is executing a post-corner to the front pylon.
Kaepernick rolls out wide and conducts a high-low read on the hook defender. With Davis coming open late, Kap delivers a strike to his tight end for a score.
Using an array of play-action passes from run-heavy looks is not an earth-shattering concept, but the 49ers' clever deployment of personnel at various spots has made their run-fake passing game difficult to stop.
3. Michael Crabtree's return has added some juice to the 49ers' passing game.
The fifth-year pro, who tore his Achilles during organized team activities in May, enjoyed a breakout campaign with Kap under center, snagging 85 balls for 1,105 yards and eight touchdowns. Those numbers not only put Crabtree in the conversation as one of the game's elite receivers, but it forced opponents to account for his whereabouts on the perimeter. Last season, that meant fewer defenders in the box for Gore and Co. Additionally, it created some room for Davis to operate between the hashes.
Without Crabtree on the field early in the season, opponents were able to throw a blanket around Boldin and Davis, containing the duo down the field. The tandem accounted for all 14 of Kap's touchdown passes leading up to Week 13, when Crabtree made his season debut. The lack of dimensions and perimeter threats in the Niners' passing game made it easy to defend by elite defenses (Carolina and Seattle).
That has certainly changed since Crabtree's return. He's opened up the field with his presence out wide, emerging as a bit of a deep threat in spread formations. This has helped Kaepernick improve his third-down efficiency and made the 49ers tougher to defend in critical situations.
Crabtree runs an excellent stutter move at eight yards, causing the defender to bite on the short route.
Crabtree quickly blows past the helpless defender, hauling in a 60-yard pass for a first down.
With Crabtree capable of delivering these kinds of plays on the outside, opponents are unable to extensively double team Davis or Boldin. This gives Kaepernick a variety of options to target, and still affords him the freedom to run against "Two-Man" or blitz coverage on third down or long-yardage situations. Given the prospect of having to defend so many weapons on the perimeter in the passing game, plus a hard-nosed ground attack, the Niners' offense is poised for a strong finish to the season.