All signs are pointing to another shift in the San Francisco 49ers' offense in 2014.
After all, Colin Kaepernick is entering his second full season as a starter with a slew of new weapons battling for jobs in training camp. The team that ran the ball more than any other in 2013 finished just 24th in the league in yards and came up dreadfully short of potential championships in each of last two seasons because of offensive mishaps.
The 49ers' coaching staff has preached balance, but the offense has been one of the least balanced in football.
No team ran the ball more last season. Meanwhile, the passing game predictably finished third-worst in the NFL averaging 185.7 yards per game. Yes, it's all apart of the team's physical identity which has been a factor during the three-year run of championship contention. And the consistency of Frank Gore (seven of nine seasons with at least 1,000 yards) can't be ignored. But it's also led to a notable trend - a trend Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman would like to disbar in 2014.
According to our friends at Pro Football Focus, no team faced more loaded fronts than San Francisco in 2013 - which makes all the sense in the world. The 49ers faced eight or more players within eight yards of the line of scrimmage three quarters of the time, or exactly 74.71 percent to lead the league. The Vikings, with the threat of Adrian Peterson and poor quarterback play, were second at 74.47.
"That's a reality and (we) got to have ways to make defenses pay for that," said Harbaugh. "Excited to where our offense is evolving to and continue to prove we can do that. (We) have shown the ability to do that and continue to strive to get better at that."
Opponents understand San Francisco only has one true deep threat in Vernon Davis - who happens to be holding out of minicamp hoping to land a new contract - allowing them to focus on stopping the running game and forcing Kaepernick to beat them with his arm. As productive as Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree have proven to be in intermediate routes, they are not known for beating cornerbacks down the field with their speed.
It's no wonder, then, the 49ers have spent their offseason adding weapons on the outside that could thwart teams' attempts at focusing on the run by loading the box with an extra safety. The team brought in three new receivers that could make the 53-man roster in Stevie Johnson, rookie Bruce Ellington and veteran Brandon Lloyd.
"After three years here…it's time to clean out the garage type of thing, where we kind of went through everything we've done and really kind of stripped it back down to its most element basic parts and start over at square one," offensive coordinator Greg Roman said Tuesday. "Because it just felt like it was the right thing for us to do. So, we've been spending a lot of time on some very basic elements of what we do. And I think it will reap the reward."
Roman was then asked if the offense would have a drastically different look or if it would just be altered slightly. "I don't really want to answer that because then people might a clue of what we're doing," he said.
Perhaps no team offers the 49ers more stacked looks than the rival Seattle Seahawks, who routinely use strong safety Kam Chancellor close to the line as an extra linebacker against the run. He's also been one of the rare defensive backs that's had success covering Davis, perhaps the fastest tight end in football.
But as San Francisco continues to find ways to beat the league's most accomplished defense in Seattle, as well as the other tough units in the NFC West, they will continue to evolve schematically as they have done in each of the first three seasons since Harbaugh and Roman took over in 2011.
"We are always, always reinventing ourselves as an offense," fullback Bruce Miller said.
When Colin Kaepernick first became starter midway through 2012, the 49ers used the read-option as a quirky wrench to throw at opposing defenses to offset the game planning they had done to prepare for Alex Smith. And with other quarterbacks like Robert Griffin III having so much success with the read-option, San Francisco's coaching staff knew teams would over compensate for the new wrinkle the following offseason.
Knowing that, the 49ers used the read-option sparingly 2013 while also using designed runs for Kaepernick at a minimum. That is, until the NFC Championship Game when he led the team with 130 yards on 11 carries, most of which came on designed runs the team had been holding in their back pocket for the majority of the season.
What's the next step in the evolution?
It could be more three-receiver sets, or "11" personnel (three wideouts, one running back, one tight end). Pro Football Focus' data says the 49ers used 11 personnel 21.6 percent of the time while the league average was 49.6. With the additions of Johnson, Lloyd, Ellington and a healthy Quinton Patton, the 49ers look like they're primed to spread defenses out by putting more speed on the field.
Or, more simply, the team could figure out ways to execute better against loaded fronts.
"I think the biggest thing is we have to be effective on early downs, put us in good situations so we can have different options of run, pass, play action," said Miller. "We have to be effective throwing the ball into man coverage. Those are the most important things. Be effective in man coverage, press. Guys got to get open so we can throw the ball and get guys out of the box."
*Statistics from Pro Football Focus were used in this report*
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