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Senior NFL Columnist

After Further Review: 49ers' passing game just doesn't scare, despite efforts to improve

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The New York Jets will play the San Francisco 49ers this week without star corner Darrelle Revis, who will miss his first game after tearing an ACL last week.

If there is any opponent in the league where not having Revis can be handled best, it might be the 49ers.

They just don't scare down the field.

What's worse, they rarely try to do so.

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After studying their tape from their loss to the Minnesota Vikings last week, it was obvious that all the talk about improving the passing game, getting deep balls down the field, challenging vertically, from this offseason was just a bunch of talk.

49ers quarterback Alex Smith threw 34 passes against the Vikings and his longest completion was 22 yards -- and that came on the final drive when the Niners were scrambling to get back into the game.

Starting receivers Michael Crabtree and Randy Moss combined to catch nine passes for 67 yards, which is 7.4 per catch. That won't challenge any team down the field.

The 49ers offense is designed with a lot of action off the running game. At times, it can be so creative, getting receivers running across the formation to free Smith up for easy throws -- even short ones.

But against Minnesota, there seemed to be little imagination, and little action in terms of trying to make the Vikings respect any sort of deep ball.

There were three pass plays all day where I could count a deep receiver being able to challenge the Minnesota secondary.

Too often, the 49ers ran short routes that seemed to play right into the coverage for the Vikings. Minnesota used a lot of man-under, two-deep concepts, although at times the Vikings showed that and rotated to a three-deep look.

It's not like the Vikings have this top-level secondary or anything. It's just that the 49ers made it so easy to defend.

Here's a look at one of the 49ers pass plays. As you can see, the Vikings are playing two-deep and there is no real challenge down the field. All the receivers are covered and tight end Vernon Davis, who is in the red circle, becomes the target. Too often, that seems to be the case with Smith. But in fairness to him, his receivers don't win or get deep.

  
 

Here's another example of the 49ers not challenging down the field. Yes, the Vikings are in two-deep coverage. But at some point, you have to run deeper routes. As you can see in this picture, the four yellow-circled 49ers are not getting depth on their routes, making for an easy cover.

  
 

For the season, Smith is averaging 6.97 yards per attempt. That is the lowest of any of the top 11 rated passers -- he is seventh. The top player in that category from the top 20 passes is Cincinnati's Andy Dalton at 9.13. Some other top ones are Eli Manning at 8.57 and Joe Flacco at 8.30.

Crabtree is tied for ninth in the league in receptions with 19, but he's the only player in the top-10 under 10 yards per catch at 9.6. Manningham is at 9.7 and Moss is at 11, but he has just eight catches. Those three combined have three catches of 20 yards or more -- and Manningham's came on that last drive against the Vikings.

At some point, the 49ers have to challenge down the field. If not, there is no way they can win a Super Bowl.

Film study

1. Sometimes, it's great players making plays. But sometimes it's scheme that makes the plays, and an inability to adjust to it. Take the big play at the end of the half in the Eagles-Cardinals game. That wasn't a great play. It was a scheme getting the best of Michael Vick. The result was a sack and a fumble return for a touchdown that made it 24-0, Arizona. Rather than at least three points to make it 17-3, the Cardinals walked off the field feeling good about themselves when James Sanders returned the fumble 93 yards for a touchdown. It's clear from the screen shots below that the Eagles were in a wrong play for the defense the Cardinals played.

Take a look at the first screen shot here. What you will see is the Eagles with two receivers to the left and one to the right, with tight end Brent Celek lined up in-line on the right side. The Cardinals are showing a blitz from both sides with Kerry Rhodes highlighted in the blue circle and Sanders on the other side. The Eagles have running back LeSean McCoy go to the right side to block Sanders, but he isn't coming. Rhodes is, and he is unblocked. As you can see the Eagles receivers are covered. But the middle of the field is wide open.

  
 

In the second screen shot below, you can see that McCoy realizes what is going on, but it's too late. Vick has nowhere to go with the football since his receivers to his right, which is where he is looking, are covered as you can see by the yellow circle. That's happening as Rhodes crashes into him to cause the fumble, which Sanders scooped up to score. Look at the blue area in the middle of the field. If Vick recognized the blitz, he could have called for a slant from his slot receiver on the left, which was Jason Avant, and it would have been an easy score.

  
 

2. There may not be a more improved position in the league than the Atlanta Falcons safeties. In William Moore and Thomas DeCoud, the Falcons have two safeties who can run and cover. In Mike Nolan's aggressive defense, Moore and DeCoud sometimes line up near the line of scrimmage and bail before the snap, confusing quarterbacks. They did it to Peyton Manning and they were a big reason why the Falcons shut down San Diego's offense last week. There was a play early in the game where the Chargers faced a third-and-3. San Diego ran Eddie Royal across the formation in man coverage with the corner. It appeared to be an easy throw for a first down, with the corner trailing. But DeCoud read it perfectly, broke on the play, and tackled Royal short of the first down. Little plays like that impact games. DeCoud later forced a Ryan Mathews fumble inside the 5 with a hard hit. Atlanta recovered. Moore and DeCoud are keys to the new-look defense. Both seem to be gaining confidence as the season moves along.

3. There are certain times during a game when it appears a corner is beat bad for a touchdown. But the All-22 tape shows a different story. Such was the case with Andre Johnson's 60-yard touchdown catch last week against the Broncos. It appeared that Tracy Porter, the corner on that side, was beaten badly by Johnson. But the reality is the safety should have been over to help. You can clearly see that as Porter (yellow circle) trails Johnson (red circle) in the screen shot below. Mike Adams (blue circle) takes a false step to the side and Johnson runs right by him to gather in the score. Adams took a peek inside at tight end Owen Daniels as Johnson ran by for the touchdown. It appears that Porter was expecting Moore to give him help and he clearly looks back at him after the play in frustration.

  
 

4. I've been saying for a while that the best way to attack the 49ers defense is in the short zones to the left or the right. The Vikings did a great job with that last week, using Percy Harvin as the main guy. The 49ers are vulnerable there with their style of defense, and the Vikings used that against them with both Harvin and Adrian Peterson and tight end Kyle Rudolph. On one play early, the Vikings lined up Harvin wide right, but he went in motion to the left at the snap. Christian Ponder faked inside to Adrian Peterson and Harvin circled out of the backfield to the left. By then, receiver Michael Jenkins had cleared out the zone and 49ers were rushing outside linebacker Aldon Smith. The area was wide open and Harvin turned it into a 12-yard gain. If teams want to beat the 49ers defense, they have to be patient and take those short passes to help open up things down the field.

6. How does a quarterback who has done nothing for nearly the entire game throw an 80-yard touchdown pass to win it? He makes a dart of a throw to a streaking receiver who runs through the defense. Of course, he needs some help from a mistake by the defense. When Jacksonville quarterback Blaine Gabbert hit Cecil Shorts for an 80-yard score to beat the Colts last week, he got big help from a bad play by safety Sergio Brown. The Colts were in a zone underneath with two deep safeties. Brown was lined up inside on the right slot receiver (Mike Thomas), with corner Vontae Davis lined up wide on Shorts. At the snap, the slot receiver ran an out and Shorts ran a skinny post. Brown released Thomas to the corner and turned to cover Shorts. But he didn't get enough depth, as he turned to run. That allowed Shorts a small window of separation and Gabbert fired a rifle shot over Brown's earhole. Shorts caught it and ran through the split safeties for the score. With one pass play, Gabbert more than doubled his passing total for the day, but also helped get his team a victory. During the play, you can see Brown banging his helmet in frustration as he chased after Shorts.

7. What has happened to Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga? He played well in 2011, but so far this season he has really struggled. Bruce Irvin abused him Monday night several different ways. He went over him, around him, and under him. Bulaga just didn't seem as if he was getting good sets in pass protection. He's a better player than that. He has to start showing it this week.

8. What's wrong with the Cowboys' offense? The inside of the line isn't very good. The Bucs abused the three inside players last week. Gerald McCoy dominated the game for Tampa Bay. The Cowboys spent on Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings as their guards in free agency. That caused some personnel people around the league to snicker. Now we know why. They are really struggling. If the Cowboys are to get that offense cranked up, they'll need to get better play inside.

9. When the Houston Texans didn't sign Nnamdi Asomugha in free agency, and supposedly settled for Johnathan Joseph last year, some speculated they overpaid for Joseph. Not anymore. Joseph has been the better corner. Last week against the Broncos, he spent most of the day on Demaryius Thomas and essentially took him out of the game. He went to both sides to face Thomas and did a good job on both sides. Thomas is a physical receiver, but Joseph showed he is more than willing to accept that kind of challenge. Watching him on tape showed a confident corner who seemed to frustrate Thomas at times.

10. The Bears have to love what they are getting from corner Tim Jennings. He is playing some outstanding football so far in the first three games. He was impressive last week against the Rams. Jennings, who was let go by the Colts two years ago, has quietly become a nice corner opposite Charles Tillman. He did get beat inside on a 15-yard catch to Steve Smith last week, but he really seems like a good fit for the Bears Cover-2 scheme. He had a big pass breakup on Brandon Gibson on a fourth-and-10 play in the third quarter with blanket coverage in man. Then later, he blanketed Danny Amendola in man, tipping the ball into the air, and Major Wright picked it up and returned it for the game-clinching touchdown. It helps that the Bears have a fierce pass rush, but Jennings has made big improvements.

Hot Tub

1. Texans DE J.J. Watt: I might just keep him here every week. He's such a force.

2. Chiefs OLB Justin Houston: He was all over the field against the Saints.

3. Giants WR Ramses Barden: He is big and faster than most think. Was that the start of something special last week in Carolina?

4. Redskins outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan: With Brian Orakpo gone for the year, he is stepping up in a big way.

5. Cowboys corner Brandon Carr: Was he worth the money or what?

Cold Tub

1. The Redskins tackles: Tyler Polumbus and Jordan Black, subbing for the injured Trent Williams, were horrible last week against the Bengals.

2. 49ers tackle Joe Staley: He had a rough go of it last week against Jared Allen.

3. Broncos RG Manny Ramirez: Denver can't wait to get Chris Kuper back. This kid is struggling.

4. Ravens CB Cary Williams: He was picked on a bunch by the Patriots last Sunday night.

5. Saints T Zach Streif: He has had a rough go of it early in the season, which is why Drew Brees is getting hit a lot.

Three and outs

Three things I will miss about replacement officials:

1. The constant digging into their backgrounds as if they were criminals.

2. Media members who forgot games were being played to focus on non-stop bashing of these men.

3. Protect the shield. Is that cool lingo or what from ex-players?

Things to remember when regular refs return:

1. You still will complain.

2. You still will think games will be decided on their calls.

3. Some will be.


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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