Scouting report: 49ers tailor offense for Kaepernick

Jan. 7, 2013
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick passes against the Arizona Cardinals during the second quarter in San Francisco on Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012. Tony Avelar/AP
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick passes against the Arizona Cardinals during the second quarter in San Francisco on Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012. Tony Avelar/AP

The Green Bay Packers (12-5) and San Francisco 49ers (11-4-1) play Saturday night in a divisional-round playoff game that’s a rematch of the regular-season opener, which the 49ers won 30-22. The 49ers have a different starting quarterback now and will be playing at home this time. Following is a scouting report on the 49ers based on interviews with NFL coaches and scouts:

Run offense

Coach Jim Harbaugh runs a version of the West Coast offense that he’s modified for new quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s exceptional running ability and comfort operating in the modified shotgun offense called the “pistol” that he used in college at Nevada. The 49ers rank No. 13 in scoring, No. 12 in yards, No. 2 in rushing yards per game and No. 2 in average yards per rush.

Halfback Frank Gore (5-9, 217) had one of his better seasons at an advanced age (29) for his position and was voted to his fourth Pro Bowl while running behind one of the NFL’s best offensive lines. He finished No. 10 in the NFL with 1,214 rushing yards and averaged 4.7 yards a carry. Those were the third-highest and fourth-highest totals, respectively, of his eight-year career. He’s better running between the tackles but still has some ability to bounce outside when he gets the chance.

Gore's backup, Kendall Hunter, is out for the season after sustaining an ankle injury in late November. The player replacing him, second-round draft pick LaMichael James (5-9, 195), is a more dynamic and dangerous runner. James ran the 40 in 4.39 seconds at the NFL scouting combine last spring and was one of the most explosive open-field players in the draft but didn’t get his first carry until a month ago. He’s averaging 4.6 yards on 27 carries.

Kaepernick rushed for more than 4,000 yards in college running the read option, and Harbaugh calls the read option occasionally, though not as much as Washington did with Robert Griffin III. Kaepernick, a long strider with great size (6-4 5/8, 233) and a 4.53-second 40 at the combine, ranked No. 4 among NFL quarterbacks in rushing (415 yards, 6.6-yard average), though some of that came on scrambles.

The 49ers have one of the NFL’s best run blockers in left guard Mike Iupati, who is athletic even though he has a road grader’s size (6-5, 331).

Pass offense

The 49ers rank No. 27 in passing yards per game but No. 7 in average yards per attempt.

When quarterback Alex Smith sustained a concussion in Week 11 against St. Louis, Kaepernick replaced him and never left the lineup. He has exceptional size and athleticism and a strong throwing arm, though he’s not as sophisticated as Smith at reading zone coverages. This will be the second-year pro’s eighth start — he’s 5-2. He doesn’t have enough attempts to qualify for the NFL’s rankings in passer rating, but if he did his 98.3 rating would place him No. 7. Scouts say he has excellent overall arm talent and regard him as a good decision maker (10 touchdowns, three interceptions), though Harbaugh keeps things relatively simple with an offense built around the running game, play-action passes and the quarterback playing it safely regardless of whether it’s Kaepernick or Smith. Kaepernick is most comfortable in the pistol, where he’s not lined up as deep as in the traditional shotgun.

Where Smith’s favorite receiver was tight end Vernon Davis, Kaepernick’s chemistry appears best with Michael Crabtree (6-1, 214), who has a career-high 85 receptions (13.0-yard average), including 41 in the seven games Kaepernick started. Crabtree runs only OK but is a big target with strong, excellent hands.

Davis remains their most gifted receiver because of his great combination of size (6-3, 250) and breakaway speed, but after his strong start this season defenses have done more to take him out of games. His 41 receptions (13.4-yard average) is his lowest of the last four years.

The 49ers lost their No. 2 receiver, Mario Manningham, to a blown out knee earlier this month, which though not backbreaking is a blow. Randy Moss (28 catches, 15.5-yard average) isn’t nearly the player he was several years ago but still has the ability to get jump balls and sneaky deep speed if a defense falls asleep on him.

The 49ers’ wild card is backup tight end Delanie Walker (6-0, 242), who’s short for his position but an excellent athlete with the ability to make plays down field (21 catches, 16.4-yard average).

Joe Staley (6-5, 315) was voted to this year’s Pro Bowl and is about the same level as former Packers left tackle Chad Clifton. Some scouts think right tackle Anthony Davis (6-5, 323) gets distracted by trying to prove how nasty he is. Right guard Alex Boone (6-8, 300) is the closest thing to a weak link on the line, but he isn’t bad.

Run defense

Coordinator Vic Fangio worked for Dom Capers in Carolina and Houston, and runs a 3-4 zone-blitz scheme similar to Capers’ scheme with the Packers. The 49ers finished No. 2 in scoring defense, No. 3 in total yards, No. 4 in rushing yards allowed per game and No. 3 in average yards allowed per carry.

They have maybe the best front seven in the NFL, and it starts with end Justin Smith (6-4, 285), though it’s unclear how effective he’ll be playing with a partially torn triceps sustained less than a month ago. His backup, Ricky Jean Francois (6-3, 295), doesn’t rush the passer as well but is an excellent run defender. Isaac Sopoago (6-2, 330) is hard to move and plays with a mean streak.

Patrick Willis (6-1, 240) and NaVorro Bowman (6-0, 242) are the best inside linebackers in the league and with their similar sizes and numbers (52 and 53, respectively) sometimes are tough to tell apart when they’re making plays.

Pass defense

The 49ers rank No. 6 in defensive passer rating (78.0), No. 4 in passing yards allowed, No. 3 in average yards allowed per attempt and No. 14 in sacks percentage. Their secondary coach is former Packers defensive coordinator Ed Donatell.

Justin Smith (three sacks) is their best inside rusher, not only because he can get to the quarterback but because he does a great job tying up blockers on stunts. Outside linebacker Aldon Smith (6-4, 258) is one of the league’s impact players. He finished second in the league in sacks this year (19½) and has 33½ sacks in his first two NFL seasons combined. His bookend, seventh-year pro Ahmad Brooks (6-3, 259), isn’t as explosive but still is an athletic rusher (6½ sacks) who plays with an edge.

Cornerbacks Carlos Rogers (6-0, 192) and Tarrell Brown (5-10, 193) are better in zone coverage than man-to-man; Brown, 28, keeps improving every year. Second-year pro Chris Culliver (6-0, 199) is on the come as the nickel back, and second-year pro Perrish Cox (6-0, 198) is the dime back.

Safeties Dashon Goodson and Donte Whitner are going to the Pro Bowl. Both are big-time strikers but only OK cover men. Goodson is the better centerfielder of the two; Whitner is at his best filling fast and hitting hard on short throws.

Special teams

Faced with similar kicking problems as the Packers, the 49ers signed Billy Cundiff to compete with struggling David Akers for their kicking job. The two have been in several kicking contests going back to last week, and the winner will kick against the Packers. Harbaugh said Monday there’s a front-runner but gave no indication who it was.

Akers, 38, recently revealed he had hernia surgery in the offseason. He had some residual soreness earlier in the year that required treatment, went through some struggles and hasn’t regained his confidence. This season he’s 29-for-42 (69 percent) and hit only 11 of his last 18 attempts, including going 2-for-4 in the regular-season finale. He’s also only 7-for-13 for the season from 40 to 49 yards. In the opener against the Packers, however, he tied the NFL record with a 63-yarder that hit the crossbar and bounced over on the last play of the first half.

Cundiff, 32, has made 75.5 percent of his career kicks. He was 7-for-12 in the first give games for Washington this season before coach Mike Shanahan cut him. Last season he was the kicker for Harbaugh’s brother, John, with the Baltimore Ravens but was cut at the end of training camp after missing a potential game-tying 32-yard field goal in the final seconds of a playoff loss against New England.

Andy Lee is one of the NFL’s premier punters and ranks No. 1 in the league in net average (43.2 yards) and No. 3 in gross average (48.1 yards). With Kyle Williams out for the season because of a knee injury, James is the primary kickoff returner and has the explosiveness to be dangerous in the open field (29.8-yard average). Ted Ginn is No. 11 in punt-return average (10.2 yards). and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty

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