SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Despite dominating in major statistical categories such as total yards, first downs and time of possession, the San Francisco 49ers still needed a last-second field goal to overcome the Chicago Bears last week.
Yes, a Niners’ turnover and a special teams miscue helped contribute to that, but the biggest culprit preventing the Niners from winning in far more comfortable fashion was an inability to finish trips to the red zone with touchdowns.
In fact, the 49ers’ went 0-for-5 on trips inside Chicago’s 20 on Sunday, settling for a field goal on four of those trips and purposefully playing for one on their final possession. That the Niners were still able to win is a positive, but the lack of red zone production has been a consistent theme all season and the biggest reason for those struggles has also been a persistent issue.
“The tighter it gets, the more exact you have to be,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “Everything gets harder, the windows get smaller. Even the run support with safeties, you can play a two-shell defense and still meet the back at the line of scrimmage because they don’t have to drop back as far. They’re not as worried about posts up over the top and things like that. So, everything gets tighter so you’ve got to execute very well. We didn’t as a whole team.”
At the center of that lack of execution was a series of self-inflicted mistakes in the form of penalties. The Niners were called for six infractions on plays run inside Chicago’s 20 with the Bears accepting four of them. Making matters worse, those penalties didn’t just come inside the Bears’ 20 but inside their 10.
On the Niners’ first drive, they had second-and-goal at Chicago’s 9 when right tackle Trent Brown was called for holding. Suddenly, it was second-and-goal from the 19, a difficult proposition for any team. Two plays later, they settled for the first of five field goals.
In another sequence in the second quarter, the Niners had second-and-1 at Chicago’s 7 and didn’t get the first down on a running play. On third-and-1, they promptly got two false start penalties and suddenly it was third-and-11 at the Bears’ 17. Again, the result was a field goal.
Those mistakes are especially concerning given that the Niners have had that problem for most of the year. After 12 games, the Niners’ 13 accepted offensive penalties committed in the red zone are the most in the league as are the 15 they’ve been called for overall.
Of course, while penalties are at the heart of last week’s red zone woes, there are other ways for the 49ers to improve as well.
“I put a lot on those penalties down there,” Shanahan said. “We had way too many penalties. But, it wasn’t just the number of penalties, it was the time we got those penalties. I feel like that cost us two touchdowns down there, so that was disappointing. The other two times we got in the red zone it was two third-and-6s, and we didn’t convert between the 20 and 15. So, we’ve got to do a better job there. Not getting the third down, and being better on our third down. But, the most disappointing thing with the red zone was the penalties when we should have scored, I believe.”
Three quarters of the way through the season, the Niners are tied with the Cleveland Browns for the second-worst red zone touchdown percentage in the league (40.6 percent). And they’re only a little bit better when it comes to scoring in goal-to-go situations, where they have scored touchdowns on 61.1 percent of their opportunities, ranking 25th in the league.
One thing that could help in both areas is the presence of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. He’s only played a game and three snaps but his quick release and accuracy should help him fit the ball into the tight windows to get the job done in tight spaces. There were a few times he was a little late on throws against the Bears, and though he could get away with it in some spots, it clearly didn’t happen near the goal line.
But the chance to get more time with his pass-catchers should only serve him and the Niners well as they get more opportunities deep in opponent territory.
“The red zone, it’s a tough area, it’s just like third down, tight windows, you have got to get on the same page with guys and only having been here a short while, it’s going to take a little time, but I think overall we’re going in the right direction,” Garoppolo said.
The other good news for the Niners on the red zone front is that the penalties, especially of the pre-snap variety, are correctable issues.
“It’s just little things like that when you’re in the red zone and things don’t go perfect, you end up getting field goals,” Shanahan said. “It’s a combination of all those things. The biggest thing was the penalties, though.”