© Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
On the 49ers’ first red-zone trip of the 2018 season, Alfred Morris fumbled the ball away on the one-yard line. On their final red-zone trip of the day, Jimmy Garoppolo overthrew an open George Kittle in the back of the end zone. That 11-point swing (the 49ers settled for a field goal after the Kittle misconnect) would have ultimately been the difference in an eight-point loss in Week 1.
It was a fitting start to a season filled with red-zone struggles.
Look at the major offensive categories in 2018, and the 49ers performed better than you’d expect from a team that finished with the NFL’s second-worst record. They ranked No. 16 in yards, No. 14 in yards per play, and top-12 in both explosive run and pass plays. But they finished dead-last in red-zone success rate, converting 41.2 percent of red-zone trips into touchdowns.
In addition to the cruel influx of injuries, the frustration with the 49ers is that they were probably better than their record showed. They held second-half leads in nine games this past season. They won four of them. The collapses are largely traced to the offense’s failure to finish drives in the red zone and fourth quarter, in which they scored a league-low 3.8 points per game.
The red-zone shortcomings persisted all year long, whether Garoppolo, C.J. Beathard, or Nick Mullens quarterbacked the offense. In Garoppolo’s 11 quarters played prior to tearing his ACL, the 49ers converted five of 12 red-zone trips into touchdowns, right on par with San Francisco’s season rate. Garoppolo’s individual numbers were unspectacular inside the 20 — he completed nine of 16 passes for three touchdowns. In 2017, his completion rate was nearly identical, completing 25 of 45 attempts with seven touchdowns and one pick.
Without Garoppolo for the final 13 games of 2018, the red-zone numbers hardly fluctuated. Mullens slightly outperformed Garoppolo in eight starts, going 24 for 39 with eight touchdowns, though Mullens’ three red-zone interceptions were the second-most in the league.
There isn’t a simple equation for red-zone success. The Pittsburgh Steelers scored touchdowns on a league-leading 73.5 percent of red-zone trips while throwing the ball 66 percent of the time, the most in the NFL. The Seattle Seahawks had a 65.6 percent red-zone success rate, seventh-best in the NFL, while running more than any other team inside the 20. The 49ers’ run-pass distribution didn’t deviate much from their typical ratio: they passed 53 percent of the time in the red-zone, as opposed to 58 percent throughout the remainder of the field.
Kyle Shanahan has had trouble finding the right formula. Despite his reputation as one of the NFL’s most talented play-callers, he has historically struggled in the red zone.
His two 49ers teams have finished No. 27 and No. 32 in red-zone offense. In 11 years calling NFL offenses, Shanahan’s units have twice finished in the top-10 in red-zone efficiency. His best team, the 2012 Washington Redskins, finished fourth with a 61.8 percent success rate. One year later, they sunk to No. 21.
Perhaps it’s a product of preference. Shanahan would rather outsmart you than overpower you. He emphasizes finesse and versatility, which is easily seen with the players he has drafted and signed in free agency throughout the past two years.
The 49ers’ top three backs (Jerick McKinnon, Matt Breida, and Raheem Mostert) are speedsters. They have no receivers taller than 6-foot-1 or heavier than 211 pounds. Their zone-blocking scheme requires lighter, shiftier linemen who can move laterally and into the second level. While San Francisco’s run-blocking improved from 2017 to 2018, the pass protection regressed, which played a role in the team’s red-zone woes.
When it comes to red-zone prototypes, Shanahan has long refuted common thinking: that a big-bodied receiving target is necessary.
“I mean I wouldn’t say that’s all of it, but when things get tighter and a lot of teams just depend on throwing the ball up to some big guys, which gets you a few cheap touchdowns throughout the year,” Shanahan said back in Week 14 of the 2017 season. “If you make a living doing just that, you’re eventually not going to be good either because people can stop big guys who just post up, because they struggle sometimes to get open. Having lots of ways to attack people is the best way to be successful there.”
A big target may not be a requirement, but it’s a luxury, especially when a play goes awry.
The only current 49ers player befitting that description is the 6-foot-4 Kittle, whose 2018 season was in some ways a microcosm of the 49ers offense.
He had one of the all-time great seasons in the open field. His 870 yards after the catch are the most since YAC was first recorded in 2006. While he made plenty of contested grabs, he was at his best out-running people in open space, also a testament to Shanahan’s play-calling.
But Kittle’s red-zone production suffered. He caught 10 of 19 passes inside the 20 and hauled in just three of eight targets for two touchdowns inside the 10. (He caught nearly 67 percent of his targets in the other zones.)
The red-zone woes started in Week 1, when Garoppolo missed Kittle on the crucial third-and-goal mentioned above.
Shanahan found ways to involve Kittle by deploying him creatively. In Week 9, Shanahan drew up a shovel pass for Kittle, who ran for 10 yards and moved the chains. This was one of the star tight end’s biggest red-zone gains all season.
Kittle amassed 890 more yards than the next 49ers receiver (Kendrick Bourne), the largest disparity for a 49ers team in 23 years. By season’s end, San Francisco’s passing offense had effectively become one-dimensional. When the field shrunk, Kittle was easier to contain.
Kittle was consistently double or triple-teamed in Week 17 as he eyed the single-season tight end yardage record. The Rams forced the 49ers to beat them elsewhere, but Mullens continued to force-feed Kittle.
There’s little doubt Kittle could be a dominant red-zone threat. But the 49ers need more playmakers and better execution for that to happen.
One of the most impressive parts of the 49ers’ 2018 campaign is how well they ran the ball, despite the revolving carousel at running back.
They finished No. 12 in the NFL with 4.5 yards per carry. Breida led the league in yards per carry for the majority of the season’s first half, before he battled a nagging ankle injury he never really shook. Four 49ers running backs — none named McKinnon — had at least one game of 80-plus rushing yards in 2018.
But the rushing attack stalled as the field shrunk.
Alfred Morris, the lone short-yardage bruiser in the 49ers running back room, didn’t find much success near the end zone. He rushed 26 times for 35 yards inside the 20. Even more surprising: he rushed 14 times for one yard with a fumble inside the 10-yard line. For someone who routinely plunges forward for extra yards when there’s little running room, the lack of red-zone production is as much a reflection of the offensive line’s lack of push than Morris’ struggles.
The lack of red-zone rushing was highlighted in Week 8, with the 49ers leading by three over the Arizona Cardinals. In arguably San Francisco’s worst red-zone trip of the season, aside from those that resulted in turnovers, Beathard rushed for no gain on first down. On second down, Cardinals Pro Bowl defensive end went unblocked and hit Breida for a loss. One play later, with six yards to gain, the 49ers dialed up what appeared to be a quarterback draw for Beathard.
This sequence exposed the 49ers’ limited offensive options and lack of push up front.
The 49ers settled for a field goal this drive. They ultimately blew a 12-point lead to lose this game — to the NFL’s worst team (by record). Execute in the red zone, and the game ends differently.
Kittle’s 19 red-zone targets comfortably led the 49ers. After Kendrick Bourne’s 12 targets, no other 49ers player had more than six targets.
Marquise Goodwin hauled in just one catch for five yards in the red zone. His most obvious strength is his downfield speed, but he hasn’t shown a consistent ability to make difficult catches in congested areas.
In Week 16, the 49ers went 0-3 on red-zone trips. They moved the ball well against the Chicago Bears, the NFL’s best defense in 2018, prior to entering the red zone. Trailing by five, with fewer than eight minutes left, Goodwin dropped a catchable pass that was intercepted.
Dante Pettis, slotted as Goodwin’s backup to start the year, caught three of five targets in the red zone. The rookie showed he could be a reliable option there in future years. When Shanahan isolated him, Pettis usually beat his defender, like in the touchdown below.
Bourne was San Francisco’s best red-zone receiver in 2018. He caught 75 percent of his targets for 43 yards and four touchdowns. He consistently made contested catches, including his touchdown in Week 17.
Bourne led all 49ers receivers with 487 yards in 2018. With Pierre Garcon’s release, Bourne will be the immediate option to start at the “Z” spot in 2019. He will have the opportunity to show what he can do in a more prominent role.
What to expect moving forward
If Shanahan’s history shows anything, the 49ers’ red-zone offense will improve in 2019, should their key members stay healthy. It has typically taken Shanahan’s offense at least one year to show marked improvement in red-zone efficiency and production as a whole.
One theme from San Francisco’s struggles over the past two years is the lack of continuity. That was exposed in the red-zone, where, as Shanahan says, “things get tougher.” In 2018, the 49ers operated with a newly constructed offensive line. They cycled through three quarterbacks and five running backs. Bourne was the only 49ers receiver who played in every game.
But it’s clear the 49ers need to add another weapon to aid the red-zone struggles. Other than Kittle, they don’t have a weapon opposing defenses truly fear, though Pettis showed serious signs of potential in an injury-filled rookie season.
The upcoming free agent wide receiver class is thin. Tyrell Williams, Golden Tate, and Robby Anderson headline the crop. The 2019 draft class, however, is more loaded at the receiver position than any draft in recent years.
ESPN’s Todd McShay has three receivers on his top-32 big board. CBS Sports’ Chris Trespasso has four wide receivers on his top-20 big board, with three more named to his ‘honorable mention’ section, including NC State’s Kelvin Harmon, not on McShay’s list. Ole Miss’ D.K. Metcalf, Iowa State’s Hakeem Butler, Arizona State’s N’Keal Harry, and Stanford’s J.J. Arcega-Whiteside stand at 6-foot-3-plus and can make plays downfield. Harmon falls into that camp, too.
The 49ers have four selections in the first 97 picks. They won’t use the No. 2 pick on a receiver, but it should be considered at either the No. 36, No. 67, or No. 97 spot. Last year, when the 49ers drafted Pettis at No. 44 overall, was the first time Shanahan drafted a receiver in the first two rounds. He has built the current 49ers roster with young, versatile players while jettisoning expensive, expendable veterans.
The red-zone offense could improve simply with Garoppolo’s availability. But adding another outside weapon, whose skill set complements the current 49ers receivers, is a necessary addition entering 2019. Improving the red-zone offense should be one of the team’s major points of emphasis.