San Francisco 49ers

Red-zone resource? 49ers need someone to stand up

Video: Matt Barrows on 5 things to watch when the 49ers play Arizona

Matt Barrows' five things to keep an eye on when the San Francisco 49ers play against the Arizona Cardinals. Video by Manny Crisostomo The Sacramento Bee
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Matt Barrows' five things to keep an eye on when the San Francisco 49ers play against the Arizona Cardinals. Video by Manny Crisostomo The Sacramento Bee

The 49ers wanted to play a game of keep-away with the Pittsburgh Steelers last week. If they had the ball for long stretches, they figured, Pittsburgh’s offense wouldn’t have as many chances to strike.

They succeeded – partly. The 49ers had clock-chewing drives of 18, 17 and 15 plays, pushing deep into the red zone on all three. The problem: The three drives resulted in just one Phil Dawson field goal.

You start not being able to do that and teams won’t respect you.

49ers guard Alex Boone on the importance of scoring touchdowns from the red zone

“To have a 15-play drive, a 17-play drive and an 18-play drive accomplishes the first task,” 49ers offensive coordinator Geep Chryst said. “But three points to show for that is not good. It’s unacceptable.”

The 49ers enter Sunday’s game against the Arizona Cardinals dragging an albatross from last season: They’re not good at scoring touchdowns from short distance.

Last year, the 49ers reached the end zone on 43.18 percent of their trips from the opponent’s 20-yard line and closer. Only four teams had a lower percentage.

This year, the 49ers’ nine opportunities in the red zone have resulted in just three touchdowns, 33.3 percent. The offense settled for field goals three times, turned the ball over on downs twice and had a field goal blocked.

By contrast, the Cardinals (2-0) have scored touchdowns on all seven of their red-zone trips.

“I don’t care who you are,” left guard Alex Boone said. “You start not being able to do that and teams won’t respect you. They won’t fear you, and then you’re in for a long day.”

In 2014, seven teams had a red-zone touchdown rate of 60 percent or better. Most had a go-to player on pass plays near the goal line, typically a big-bodied tight end or a tall wide receiver.

For example, tight ends Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski and Julius Thomas each caught nine touchdowns inside the red zone for the New Orleans Saints, New England Patriots and Denver Broncos, leading their teams in that category.

Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant, 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, caught eight touchdowns inside the red zone last season, and Brandon Marshall (6-4) and Alshon Jeffery (6-3) had six red-zone scores each last year for the Chicago Bears.

The 49ers’ best receiving threat inside the 20-yard line last season was Stevie Johnson, who had three such touchdowns. Johnson is now with the San Diego Chargers and scored a red-zone touchdown in each of the first two games.

Vernon Davis caught a short touchdown pass in Week 1 a year ago but none after that, and he was the only 49ers tight end who found the end zone all season. In 2013, Davis had a team-high 13 touchdowns, including nine of 20 yards or less.

Chryst said all teams want to be able to run in the red zone, and he pointed out Arizona has done that well through two games, with two of its seven red-zone touchdowns on the ground.

7 Number of teams that had a red-zone touchdown rate of 60 percent or better last season.

“Every team wants to do that because you get nice balance,” he said. “You get the threat of play action in addition to just throwing it on every down in the red zone.”

The 49ers’ top red-zone scorer last season was Carlos Hyde, who ran for four short touchdowns as the backup running back. In this season’s opener, a 20-3 victory over the Minnesota Vikings, he scored from 10 and 17 yards, but he was banged up and on the sideline for two of the 49ers’ three long drives against the Steelers.

On the drive in which Hyde was in the game, the 49ers gained a first down at Pittsburgh’s 10-yard line. But they lost yards on each of their next three plays and committed two penalties. That forced them out of the red zone and led to Dawson’s field-goal attempt.

Said Chryst: “You know, there’s not a lot of great calls on third and 27.”

Matt Barrows: @mattbarrows, read more about the team at sacbee.com/sf49ers.

49ers red-zone TD scorers in 2014

Rushing

  • 4: Carlos Hyde
  • 3: Frank Gore
  • 1: Bruce Ellington

Receiving

  • 3: Stevie Johnson
  • 2: Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree, Bruce Ellington, Bruce Miller
  • 1: Vernon Davis
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