Jim Harbaugh, a protégé of tough-guy coaches Bo Schembechler and Mike Ditka, always has fielded teams notable for their tight ends.
While the rest of the NFL has moved toward systems that lean on wide receivers and passing attacks, Harbaugh’s 49ers have gone the opposite way, often using two tight ends – and sometimes even an extra offensive lineman who lines up as a tight end – in run-heavy packages. No team in the NFL attempted fewer passes than the 49ers in Harbaugh’s first three seasons as coach.
But this year the team’s run-pass ratio has flipped.
After using formations that call for three or more wide receivers roughly 20 percent of the time since 2011, the 49ers have used those formations on 51 percent of their plays this year, according to the scouting service Pro Football Focus. And the team’s multiple-tight end sets are less prominent, from 42.8 percent of plays last year to 22.9 percent.
For the first time since Harbaugh became coach, the 49ers’ ratio favors the pass. In 2011, San Francisco attempted 451 passes in the regular season. That number dropped to 436 attempts the following year and 417 last season.
The 49ers this year are on pace for 530 pass attempts and 462 rushing attempts; the latter would be the lowest in the Harbaugh era.
In Sunday’s 13-10 loss to the Rams, the 49ers (4-4) attempted 33 passes and rushed just 21 times. Harbaugh said Wednesday he and his coaches keep an eye on the run-pass ratio but that it changes from week to week based on the opposing defense.
Early in the offseason, he hinted the 49ers would use more three-receiver sets this season, then they bulked up at the position. The team traded for Stevie Johnson, signed Brandon Lloyd and drafted Bruce Ellington in the fourth round.
Counting Kassim Osgood, who mainly plays on special teams, the 49ers have seven wide receivers on the active roster; most teams carry five or six.
Injuries at tight also have influenced the 49ers’ play calling.
Vernon Davis and Vance McDonald missed the Week 3 game against the Arizona Cardinals. The 49ers responded with their most pass-heavy game of the season, one that utilized five wide receivers on six straight plays in the first quarter, and they ran just nine times.
The team’s best run-blocking tight end, Garrett Celek, suffered a back injury in the offseason and is on the physically unable to perform list. McDonald is off to a shaky start and hasn’t been nearly as reliable in either the run or pass game as the 49ers’ previous No. 2 tight end, Delanie Walker.
Still, Harbaugh said the Cardinals game was the only one this year in which personnel shortage affected the game plan. The coaches simply may have concluded that their wide receiving corps is stronger than their tight ends.
The 49ers had all their tight ends Sunday against the Rams, yet they were lightly used in the passing game. Davis caught two passes for 19 yards, leaving some observers puzzled.
“I thought Vernon Davis would be much more productive,” former 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said this week on “NFL Total Access.” “He’s had some injuries, but they’re not utilizing him like they should like some of these other tight ends in the league. They’re a little bit out of whack on offense, and that’s the major surprise for me.”
Tight end Derek Carrier, a converted wide receiver, caught one pass for 6 yards against the Rams. McDonald wasn’t targeted, and just six passes have come his way this season. He caught two of them, but one of those was lost on a fumble.
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.
49ERS AT NEW ORLEANS
▪ Time: 10 a.m.
▪ TV: FOX40
RAIDERS VS. DENVER
▪ Time: 1:05 p.m.
▪ TV: Ch. 13