Through two games, the 49ers have demonstrated a formula for success that strongly resembles the now famous words uttered at Mike Singletary’s first post-game press conference as head coach: “we go out…we hit people in the mouth.” Despite being dominated in the running game in Arizona, the overall physicality has helped to win a battle of attrition in Week 1 and overwhelm an undermanned opponent in Week 2. The key to success has been, is, and will be the running game and defense.
But all is not well. The passing game ranks 30th in the NFL, and has failed to generate any sustained momentum. And while Singletary and offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye may still harbor aspirations of having a 60/40 run/pass ratio, the passing game must hold up its 40 of the bargain.
The questions are obvious: does Shaun Hill have the arm strength to threaten down the field? Does the offensive line offer the necessary protection to let plays develop? Does the wide receiver corps hinder the passing game? Did Michael Crabtree sign yet? Remember that guy they drafted #1 overall to be a QB?
All of these play a key factor in the struggles of the passing game, but I think they can be traced back to an all-too-annoyingly familiar place.
The numbers on Shaun Hill have been regurgitated enough lately: 9-3 as a starter, 6-0 at home. He has yet to throw an interception, and he has stepped up and made plays on crucial drives in the team’s first two games. But his physical limitations are apparent and equally regurgitable (is that a word?): a borderline hilarious lack of zip on his passes, below average pocket awareness, and possible hillbilly eyes syndrome (seriously, my girlfriend said he looks like one of the bad guys from Deliverance).
The misconception about Hill is that he cannot throw the deep ball. Take another look at the long pass to Isaac Bruce in Week 1, and you will see a pretty well thrown ball that hit Bruce squarely. Go back to last season and you will see some of the same things…Hill has pretty solid accuracy on the deep ball. His accuracy on short throws is well-documented and with good reason. The problem lies in the middle.
The lack of zip on Hill’s passes can be masked on short throws and deep throws. You can throw a deep ball with more loft and less zip if you throw it accurately and in perfect rhythm and timing. What throws cannot be made this way? NFL throws. The deep out from the opposite hash (most would settle for the near hash at this point). The dig into the middle of a zone. The corner post. The WR screen. Hill has not demonstrated the ability to make any of these throws consistently because he simply does not possess the skills to do so.
This inability has led to questions about the WR corps and their ability to make plays. Veteran Isaac Bruce seems to be the only target in the passing game. Wherefore art thou, Josh Morgan? What happened to Arnaz Battle’s stellar preseason? Did Michael Crabtree sign yet?
Morgan, in particular, has suffered through these first two weeks. His blocking has been sensational, but he has been a complete non-factor in the passing game. Some have questioned his effort to get open, but that seems an odd notion given his supreme effort in the running game.
I have seen Morgan wide open three times thus far without being targeted. It should come as no surprise that all three of the plays required “NFL” throws from the quarterback: two deep outs and one deep in by my extremely unscientific count (without the benefit of having viewed the games a second time, either). Does this mean that Morgan is constantly open and being ignored? No. But it does mean that he was open three times for potentially big plays and the play was not made each time.
The seemingly imminent return of Brandon Jones will give the 49ers another potential weapon outside. The question becomes: will defenses have to be accountable for him, or Morgan, or anybody else? Right now, defenses don’t have to respect the passing game at all, so the continued 8 and 9 man fronts could become a major concern. Not everyone tackles as poorly as a Jim Mora Jr. coached team.
The offensive line has also received its share of blame, and with good reason. They have allowed eight sacks in two games, putting them on a pace for 64 sacks given up on the season. The gaping hole at right tackle continues to be a huge problem (would anyone else like a do-over with that #10 pick and grab Michael Oher right about now?) with Adam Snyder failing to live up to his “stick me in one spot and watch me go” promise and Tony Pashos playing like a guy who was cut from a bad team. The interior of the line played significantly better in Week 2, but still has a ways to go to be an effective unit. Only Joe Staley seems to have produced positive results to this point.
It would be difficult to determine if Shaun Hill is holding on to the ball too long BECAUSE of his inability to throw NFL passes; not risking turnovers is far from a bad thing. But there is no question that at least half of those sacks could have been avoided with better pocket presence, including one in which Hill literally ran straight into the warm embrace of Patrick Kerney. He can’t feel the rush, but at least he can feel the love.
What, then, do the 49ers do about this glaring deficiency to make big plays through the air? Continue to rely on yards after the catch. Vernon Davis and Frank Gore will almost assuredly remain the prime targets (Davis needs to become target numero uno, though…he is STILL being underused), with Isaac Bruce catching the short passes on 3rd and 6 as per usual.
But, in the greatest Bill Walsh tradition that we have virtually no ties to any longer, the slant and hitch could and should be the routes du jour for this offense. I cannot recall seeing the 49ers complete a single slant or hitch through the first two games, which is staggering. If the routes are run with enough depth and precision, they should be able to get through the heavy run-stuffing fronts, leaving the wide receivers in single coverage without deep safety help. And while Isaac Bruce, Josh Morgan, and Brandon Jones will not be bringing back memories of Jerry Rice, John Taylor, and Mike Sherrard anytime soon, they still have big play ability in the clear.
I like Jimmy Raye because he looks like a turtle character from a children’s movie, but the lack of creativity in the passing game is also to blame here. Perhaps his creativity is stifled by the personnel, but without expanding things, the offense will never get off the ground, pun intended, I guess, since I already said it.
In sum: the passing game will be just fine as soon as we get more creative playcalling, a legitimate big-play threat outside, better protection from the offensive line, and a quarterback with a quality arm who can make all the actual throws necessary, but still make good decisions (don’t you start with me, Alex Smith fans!).
How’s that tampering investigation going?