This week, the 49ers’ coaching staff flew to Mobile, Alabama to scout college players, coach the Senior Bowl and prepare for the future.
But part of preparation involves looking backward, specifically to 2018, and identifying where the 49ers need to improve. Figuring out where they excelled, where they struggled most and which issues could re-emerge next season if the organization overlooks them.
Sometimes, a team’s biggest strength or weakness isn’t obvious. Football has an endless number of variables to examine and consider. Teams spend weeks going through all of them and dissecting the previous season.
Here are the 10 stats that defined the 49ers in 2018, and what these stats could mean for them in 2019.
Stat No. 1: The 49ers’ offense ranked ninth in yards per play from their own 21-yard line to midfield.
Kyle Shanahan is a genius at creating offense from his territory.
Despite losing starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo for 13 games and starting running back Jerick McKinnon for the entire season, the 49ers averaged 6.62 yards per play from their 21-yard line to midfield. They averaged more than the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have a future Hall of Fame quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, and two great wide receivers — Antonio Brown and Juju Smith-Schuster.
When offenses have the ball in their own territory, opposing defenses typically play soft, conservative, vanilla coverage schemes, which Shanahan exploits as well as any coach in the league. This is his biggest strength.
Stat No. 2: The 49ers’ offense ranked 18th in yards per play from midfield to the red zone.
When offenses cross midfield and have the ball in the opponent’s territory, defenses begin to blitz more often and call tighter, more aggressive coverages. Shanahan doesn’t attack these defenses as well you’d expect.
From midfield to the red zone, the 49ers’ offense averaged just 5.35 yards per play — slightly below the league average of 5.5. The same plays Shanahan called from his side of the field didn’t work nearly as well on the other team’s side of the field. He would be wise to create different offensive plans based on field position, if he doesn’t already.
Stat No. 3: The 49ers offense ranked dead last in red-zone efficiency.
The closer Shanahan’s offense gets to the goal line, the less effective it becomes. The 49ers scored touchdowns during just 41.2 percent of their trips to the red zone – the worst rate in the NFL.
The issue was the running game. The 49ers scored just five rushing touchdowns in 73 attempts from the red zone, or one rushing touchdown every 14.7 tries. The league average was one rushing touchdown every 3.8 tries. The problem could lie with the running backs (they’re small), or the offensive linemen (they’re small, too), or the offensive scheme, or a combination of the three.
Stat No. 4: The 49ers’ offense ranked 17th in third-down-conversion percentage.
All four teams that reached the conference championship round of the playoffs ranked top 10 in third-down conversion percentage. The 49ers have to find a way to improve.
Garoppolo’s return should help, but in 2018 his quarterback rating on third down was just 48.1. He needs help, too, specifically from players who can beat tight coverage and catch contested passes. None of the 49ers’ top-five targets on third down caught more than 57 percent of the passes that came their way in 2018.