Time after time during the 2011 season, the 49ers drove the ball deep into an opponent’s territory but had to settle for a field goal instead of a touchdown.
It was great for kicker David Akers’ stats – he made 44 of 52 field-goal tries and scored 166 points – but it was frustrating for the 49ers’ offense.
At one point late in the season, San Francisco was able to score just three touchdowns on 20 red-zone possessions.
As the team clinched the NFC West and looked ahead to the playoffs, however, the Niners knew they’d need to make the most of their opportunities in order to advance.
So, as the team tried to find a solution, head coach Jim Harbaugh turned to his own defense.
As Eric Branch of The San Francisco Chronicle wrote Wednesday, Harbaugh decided to devote more time to red-zone plays for his offense, and to have Alex Smith & Co. go against the first-team defense, one of the NFL’s best in the red zone. The defensive unit was fourth-best in the NFL this season, allowing teams to score TDs just 41.2 percent of the time, Branch notes.
The extra work and the competition apparently worked.
Over the final three games of the season, the 49ers scored touchdowns on six of their eight red-zone opportunities.
The TDs came on four running plays and two passes.
“It’s been good for us,” Harbaugh told Branch. “We’ll continue to build on that, especially this week, probably more than we have.”
Still, San Francisco finished the season ranked 30th overall in red-zone efficiency, scoring TDs on just 40.7 percent of its possessions inside the 20. At Candlestick, their number is even worse, converting just 38.2 percent.
The 49ers first showed improvement in their “Monday Night Football” victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in mid-December, when they scored TDs in two of three red-zone opportunities.
Said running back Frank Gore after that game: “It was big, putting up sevens instead of threes, especially against a defense as physical as Pittsburgh.”
With a first-round bye, San Francisco will also get extra time to work on all phases of the game, including red-zone offense, until its division-round playoff game Saturday, Jan. 14 at Candlestick Park against either the Saints (if they beat the Lions this weekend) or the winner of the Giants-Falcons game.
Likely helping the 49ers in their playoff game and red-zone chances will be a healthier receiving corps. Both Kyle Williams and Ted Ginn Jr. missed the regular-season finale vs. the Rams, but are expected to be ready to play. Backup tight end Delanie Walker remains questionable.