The 49ers’ first drive against the Green Bay Packers in this past Sunday’s playoff matchup was a preview of things to come.
The Niners ran off 13 plays and nearly 4½ minutes of the clock in moving the ball 69 yards. But the drive ended not with a touchdown, but with a Phil Dawson 22-yard field goal.
On their next possession, it was the same thing: an 11-play, 42-yard drive of 4:49 that ended with Dawson’s 25-yard field goal.
Though the 49ers won the game, 23-20, to earn a date this Sunday against the Carolina Panthers in the NFC divisional round, San Francisco could have made the victory a much easier proposition by converting at least one of those two early drives into a touchdown instead of a field goal.
It was the same situation a week earlier in a win over Arizona when San Francisco scored just two TDs in five red-zone opportunities.
In fact, in the 49ers’ first game against the Panthers this season, a 10-9 loss to Carolina at Candlestick Park, San Francisco settled for three Dawson field goals and twice had possessions stall at the Carolina 25- and 7-yard lines.
In the second quarter of that game, in fact, an interception by Tramaine Brock gave the 49ers the ball at the Panthers’ 24, but San Francisco couldn’t convert the turnover into seven points. The 49ers had a fourth-and-1 on the Carolina 2, and had decided to go for it, but a delay-of-game penalty pushed them five yards back and Dawson then came on to kick the field goal.
When the 49ers face the Panthers in a rematch this Sunday, converting those opportunities into touchdowns instead of field goals will be a key against an excellent defense that doesn’t give up points easily. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Co. will need to convert third-down opportunities deep in Panthers territory to ensure drives pay off in a bigger way.
The 49ers, in fact, ranked just 14th in the NFL this season in red-zone touchdown scoring percentage, scoring TDs on just 54.2 percent of their trips inside an opponent’s 20-yard line. It’s a stat below the success rate of many teams still in the postseason, such as Denver (76.1 percent), Indianapolis (58.9), Seattle (56.1), Carolina (55.6) and New England (55.4).
Dawson had a career-high 13 field goals from inside 30 yards this season, which is great for his accuracy rate but a disappointing statistic for offensive efficiency.
What’s interesting to note, however, is that San Francisco actually has been more efficient in road games (59.4 percent) than in home games (48.2) in scoring TDs rather than field goals in the red zone.
Of course, the return of wide receiver Michael Crabtree from injury has helped the 49ers passing game become more dangerous and efficient at any spot on the field. And, in the 49ers’ first game against Carolina, tight end Vernon Davis left the game with a concussion in the second quarter and didn’t return. Without both Davis and Crabtree, Kaepernick had few passing options against the Panthers in that November loss.
When the 49ers get close to the Panthers’ end zone this Sunday, expect that Crabtree could play a big role. He’s always been Kaepernick’s favorite target in clutch situations, such as in the Super Bowl last season, when the quarterback tried to go to Crabtree three straight times at the end of the game from close range.
And, too, that’s when Crabtree wants the ball. Microphones at the Super Bowl picked up Crabtree’s declaration to Kaepernick late in that game.
“They’re scared of me, bro,” Crabtree told his QB. “That’s my territory. When we get in the red zone? They can’t control me, bro. It’s too fast. I’m too big.”
In the Super Bowl, however, the 49ers couldn’t cash in for that final red-zone TD. On Sunday, they’ll no doubt need to cash in on a few opportunities to earn a spot in the NFC Championship Game.