San Francisco 49ers

Despite loss, Harbaugh pleased with 49ers’ use of five-receiver sets

Frank Gore was so distressed after the 49ers’ 23-14 loss in Arizona on Sunday that he apologized to reporters and said he couldn’t speak anymore. He sat alone in front of his locker for the next 15 minutes.

It wasn’t hard to see what upset him. Not only did the 49ers blow another second-half lead, they did it with Gore, their franchise-leading rusher, playing only a bit role.

He was on the field for only half of the team’s offensive snaps, took only one handoff in the second half and carried the ball six times overall.

During his 10-year career, Gore has had six carries only two other times in a game he started and in which he was healthy. In those, the 49ers quickly fell behind and had to play catch-up in the second half. But against the Cardinals, San Francisco led by eight points in the third quarter.

Gore’s minimal impact against Arizona underscored how much the team’s offense veered from its usual run-first identity.

The 49ers had used three-receiver formations roughly 20 percent of the time since coach Jim Harbaugh arrived in 2011, and those came primarily on third-and-long situations. Against the Cardinals, they went with five wide receivers – never used before under Harbaugh – six times on their opening drive.

Those wide receiver-heavy drives led to two touchdowns.

“There was some real positives there,” Harbaugh said Monday. “I thought the receivers played extremely good. Some strong catches, run after the catch. Did a great job with ball security. All those guys that were touching the ball – Colin (Kaepernick), the whole team – were competing. They played extremely hard. Colin made some big plays, extending plays, running with the football. There was, again, many good things.”

The 49ers had considered such an attack since the offseason. Harbaugh hinted at it in March when he said the 49ers planned to bulk up on wide receivers and that he and his assistants would undergo what he called “a scheme evaluation.”

The absence of tight ends Vernon Davis and Vance McDonald prompted them to unveil it Sunday. The tight ends are most prominent when they catch passes, but they also are essential to the team’s running game.

Knowing that ground game wouldn’t be at full strength for a Cardinals defense that was strong against the run, the 49ers decided to experiment with multi-receiver sets.

It caught Arizona off guard, at least early.

“It was a very tough week defensively not knowing what they were going to do,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said after the game. “They came out, no-huddle, four-wide (receiver), five-wide and moved the ball on us. Then we adapted, saw what was happening and knew once we’d got them out of that we’d stop the run and get after the quarterback.”

The 49ers didn’t use the formations as much after halftime, and, as Arians said, the Cardinals were better prepared as the game went on. The 49ers also did not turn to the power running game, which they normally would have leaned on with a second-half lead, presumably because they didn’t set it up in the first half.

The question now becomes how often Harbaugh and the 49ers (1-2) will use the four- and five-receiver sets. Harbaugh said he was “optimistic” that Davis, who is dealing with a badly bruised ankle, will return for Sunday’s game against the Eagles (3-0).

Would the 49ers use a receiver-heavy offense when their tight ends are healthy?

“Yes, certainly,” Harbaugh said. “Can be, yes. And we showed some real positives out of that set.”