While the majority of the chatter after the 49ers 10-9 loss on Sunday was targeted toward Colin Kaepernick and Greg Roman, Jim Harbaugh stopped short of pointing the finger at his either of the two, instead pointing out that "we had too many negative plays in the game, too many negative plays, loss of yardage plays, penalties, sack, turnover, that we’ve got to get better at."
Having been both a quarterback and a coach I know first hand how both get too much credit for a win and too much blame for a loss. With that in mind I did a deep dive into the coaches film to get a better understanding of what happened. After watching the game through the film, while I think Roman and Kaepernick deserve a share of the blame I have to agree with Harbaugh's assessment, there were a lot of mistakes to lay blame all over the place.
Let's start with the play of Kaepernick and the offensive line. On the day, Kaepernick dropped back to pass 31 times during the game, and found himself under pressure on 10 of those, primarily in the second half as the Panthers had the 49ers offense pinned deep in their own territory and the threat of the run was gone. Until that point the play of the line had kept Kaepernick's uniform pretty clean, as he was hit in the pocket a total of 8 times throughout the game.
Kaepernick's day in the passing game was all over the place, often holding onto the ball too long and throwing his receivers into coverage, or not trusting his eys. Case in point:
- After a quick completion to Bruce Miller for a first down on his first pass of the game, things started getting tough. On his second attempt of the day the 49ers came out in 22 personnel, lining up Vernon Davis wide left, Vance McDonald wide right, and Anquan Boldin in the right slot. The Panthers were lined up with a single high safety who aligned 25 yards deep and played a simple 3 deep coverage. At the snap of the ball the safety moves toward Davis, in part because Kaepernick looks that way. Meanwhile, Boldin is running free for 20 yards down the seam. By the time Kaepernick turns his head and delivers the ball, the cornerback has been able to read the route and break on the ball almost coming up with an interception. With the pre-snap look Kaepernick should have known the coverage and been able to hit Boldin right behind the strong safety who had buzzed into the flat to cover McDonald.
- On the first play of the 49ers 3rd possession they line up in 21 personnel with Manningham wide left, Davis also on the left, Boldin wide right, and an offset I with Miller to the right. After play action, Kaepernick looks to his right for Boldin on a quick slant, but the strong safety is in throwing lane, leaving Miller open in the flat. Instead of making the quick, easy throw to Miller Kaepernick spins and looks to his left. His feet are not in a good throwing position and he is forced to take a sack.
This game highlighted a flaw in Kaepernick's game, unlike the top level quarterbacks in the NFL, Kaepernick struggles when he is forced to move his feet in the pocket. There were a number of times when the Panthers pass rush was able to get upfield on the edges, and the offensive line was able to create room for Kaepernick to step up. The problem with that is that Kaepernick often doesn't step up and throw, instead opting to take off instead. This has worked for him in the past when defenses drop into man coverage, but on Sunday the Panthers primarily played zone concepts allowing them to simply step up and stop Kaepernick short of the first down.
I don't want to make this all about Kaepernick's poor plays, because as I said in my second paragraph, the quarterback and coach often take too much of the blame for a loss. The 49ers' first 3 possessions of the second half are perfect examples of this. Let's take a look at how those played out.
- First possession - After a 9 yard completion to Boldin on a quick out, Kaepernick is dropped for a loss of 6 on a read option, setting up a manageable 3rd and 7. Before they can get the play off, Anthony Davis is flagged for a false start, and they ultimately come up short on a 10 yard completion to Gore.
- Second possession - Frank Gore opens the possession with a 14 yard gain, followed by an offsides against Carolina, and a 4 yard run by Gore to set up 2nd and 1 just outside of field goal range at the Panthers 39 yard line. On the 2nd down play Kendall Hunter turns the ball over on a fumble.
- Third possession - The possession opens with Kaepernick gaining 16 yards on a scramble up the middle, that becomes a 31 yard gain due to an unneccessary roughness penalty for hitting him after he began his slide. The 49ers open the 4th quarter with a 1st and 10 at their 44 yard line, but it turns into a 1st and 15 when Boldin jumps offside. On the next play, Kaepernick throws a quick screen to Manningham and he drops it. On 2nd and 15, Kaepernick play fakes and throws a perfect pass down the middle to Vance McDonald who drops it. Now facing 3rd and 15 the 49ers go to a play they have run a lot in similar situation with Michael Crabtree, it is essentially a middle screen to Mario Manningham running across the field. Manningham is run out of bounds close to the first down marker, but the play is wiped out by an offensive pass interference on Boldin who engaged his man down field just a step too quickly. Now facing a 3rd and 25, Kaepernick is sacked. A possession which opened with promise is squandered by self-inflicted mistakes. As a result of the penalties and the sack the 49ers punt from their own 25, and after a 25 yard return from Ted Ginn the Panthers have to go all of 10 yards to set up the go ahead field goal.
From that point on the 49ers were buried deep in their own territory, again the result of a poor decision of their own doing when Anthony Dixon decided to run the ball out from deep in his own end zone and could only get to the 12 yard line. From there the Panthers did what we have seen the 49ers do to so many of their opponents in the past, playing strong defense and bleeding the clock.
Why did the 49ers lose? Jim Harbaugh said it best, and while those things may not kill you against the Tennessee's and Jacksonville's of the league, they are lethal when playing against a good team. The 49ers now find themselves at 6-3, in 6th place in the NFC, with 2 tough road games staring them in the face. How they rebound from this loss could very well determine their season.