The 49ers have gotten off to some solid starts this season and scored a lot of touchdowns at the end of games. But they’ve been consistently soft in the middle of contests, particularly in the third quarter.
Of their 127 points, only 10 have come in the third quarter. Meanwhile, 14 of their NFL-leading 34 punts have come in the quarter, as have a fumble, an interception and a failed fourth-down attempt.
Another way to look at the issue: The 49ers have trailed badly only once at halftime, 24-3 to the Seattle Seahawks in Week 3. They led at halftime in one game, were tied in two and trailed by seven points or fewer in two games.
But in most cases, those tight contests became one-sided in the third quarter. Aside from their Week 1 blowout win over the Los Angeles Rams, the 49ers haven’t led in the second half.
What’s the issue? Good offenses, particularly those dedicated to the running game as the 49ers aspire to be, wear down their opponents in the second half. (Which is what’s happened to the San Francisco defense.) The 49ers, however, are no longer a power-rushing team under new coach Chip Kelly.
In previous seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, his offenses exhausted defenses with pace, lining up quickly and snapping the ball before defenders have a chance to catch their breaths. But that has had little effect this year largely because the 49ers deliberately have slowed their rhythm.
During offseason practices, the 49ers ran plays – from one snap to the next – as fast as every 16 seconds. In the first quarter Sunday against the Buffalo Bills, the time between snaps ranged from 29 to 42 seconds.
Kelly acknowledged he isn’t running plays as quickly as he did with the Eagles. But he said “the biggest misconception” about his offense is it always must go fast.
He said the 49ers slow down – you often see all 11 offensive players look to the sideline for a new play call when lined up for the snap – to make sure they have the proper call to attack the defense.
“The disadvantage (of snapping the ball quickly) is that you don’t know what the defense is in and you call a play going to the right and they have six guys over to the right and you end up in a negative-yardage play,” Kelly said. “So there’s give and take. There’s not just a brush you can paint and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to play fast.’ Well, if you play fast and you’re not in the right play, then you’re behind. So you’re trying to stay away from being behind in football.”
The 49ers rank 19th in scoring, averaging 21.2 points a game. Their most productive quarter has been the fourth, when they’ve scored 56 points. More than half those points, however, came in what turned out to be lopsided losses to the Carolina Panthers and Seahawks.
Their second-best quarter has been the second, when they’ve scored 41 points. Coaches and players this week have been preaching consistency, making sure they extend the momentum they take into halftime.
“We just didn’t execute. We didn’t sustain what we were doing in the first half,” offensive coordinator Curtis Modkins said of the team’s third-quarter woes. “We’ve got to work to solve and find out the reasons and continue to prepare. But the bottom line is we didn’t sustain in the second half and we’ve got to do a better job of it. We had some drops, we had some penalties – a lot of that are factors – but we’ve just got to figure it out and get better at it.”