• Akash Anavarathan

Anavarathan: 49ers struggle in three key areas, as team falls flat in season opener vs. Cardinals

Sunday's season opener for the 49ers had all the signs leading up to the game that a potentially disappointing game could be in store. Kyle Shanahan's bunch was going to be without two of their best wide receivers and their second-string center, while playing in smoke-filled conditions that required hourly monitoring of the Air Quality Index (AQI).


Kliff Kingsbury's Cardinals was everyone's preseason Cinderella pick for a playoff spot, given their offseason addition of DeAndre Hopkins and emergence of second-year quarterback Kyler Murray.



Despite all of that, 49ers' quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo had a 4th-and-5 play in the red zone for a potential game-winning touchdown and couldn't connect with wideout Trent Taylor. The pass was wide and high, a play that was representative of Garoppolo's performance on Sunday.


The polarizing quarterback finished the game 19-of-33, for 259 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions and a passer rating of 103.0 (one that was 24.9 points higher than Kyler Murray's passer rating).


While the box score looked pristine for Garoppolo, the opening performance from the 49ers' signal caller was anything but pretty. Errant passes to his receivers, nervous jitters within the pocket and poor decision making defined his play. Garoppolo's best play of the day was either a wheel route down the sideline to his fullback or an interception on a deep pass that was overturned for a pass interference.


In a game that the Cardinals were begging for the 49ers to win, Garoppolo and the 49ers' offense simply could not execute for large stretches of the game and it cost them a divisional game early in the season.


In my opinion, the 49ers' loss came down to three simple statistics on the box score:

  • Third Down: 2-of-11 (18 percent)

  • Fourth Down: 0-of-2 (0 percent)

  • Red Zone 1-of-4 (25 percent)

These are the situational areas where well-functioning offenses are successful, but Kyle Shanahan's bunch could not stay on the field to sustain drives against Vance Joseph's defense.


Since 2017, in the Kyle Shanahan and Jimmy Garoppolo era, here are the games with their worst third-down conversion percentages:

  • 1. Week 1, 2018 vs. TB: 1 of 8, 12.5%, W

  • 2. Week 1, 2020 vs. ARI: 2 of 11, 18%, L

  • 2. Week 14, 2018 vs. HOU: 2 of 11, 18%, W

The 49ers were fifth in third-down conversion percentage last season (44.4 percent), but struggled to move the chains on Sunday, due to what Kyle Shanahan described as a lack of execution from everyone on offense, starting with him as the offensive play caller.


Kyle Shanahan was not aggressive on fourth down last season, averaging only 0.7 attempts per game (31st in the NFL), while the 49ers converted 50 percent of them. Shanahan decided to go for it twice on fourth down twice on Sunday, but neither attempt was successful. The first was a goal-line stand against running back Raheem Mostert in the first half and the second was the stop on the final drive to Trent Taylor.


San Francisco was not particularly great in the red zone in 2019, converting only 55.6 percent of their attempts, which ranked 20th in the NFL. On Sunday, they only converted one of their four opportunities, including two fourth-down stops by the Cardinals' defense.


Kyle Shanahan seemed visibly frustrated with the poor execution by the 49ers during the post-game press conference. Super Bowl contending teams are excellent in situational football and the 49ers were determined to play poor situationally on Sunday.


Here's what the 49ers' head coach had to say post-game about the offense's lack of conversion in these areas:


I mean, all issues. We didn't do good in any situation on third down. So, it starts with, obviously we didn't have a good enough plan and then it goes to everyone else. When you're 0-for, it's never just one thing. It's a number of things. They did a good job in their defense. They had a good third down plan, but I know we can do better than that.

Luckily, the ugly New York duo of the Jets and Giants await in Week 2 and 3, which could mean the 49ers' offense quickly turns around from this horrendous performance. But as far as Sunday's concern, the blame can squarely placed on the lack of execution in these three situational areas.


(Cover Image Credit: Nhat V. Meyer, Bay Area News Group, BANG)

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