SANTA CLARA, Calif. — NFL quarterbacks talk about the importance of staying on schedule, making at least small gains on first and second down in order to avoid those treacherous third-and-long situations.
That’s what made San Francisco’s struggles on offense last week in Seattle so frustrating. The Niners frequently got themselves into makeable situations on third downs only to come up empty.
San Francisco (1-2) failed to convert on its first 10 third downs, before getting a few late ones in a 37-18 loss to the Seahawks.
“If you had told me going into that game we’d be in third manageable the majority of the game, probably 90 percent of our third downs, I’d probably take the bet that we’d convert a good number of those,” quarterback Blaine Gabbert said Wednesday. “We didn’t. That was the story of that game.”
Gabbert was off target on some third-down throws and there was miscommunication with receivers on others. But on four of them, Gabbert managed to complete a pass only to have the play end up short of the markers.
Gabbert completed a 4-yard pass on third-and-7, a pair of 2-yarders when the team needed 4 yards for a first down and a 13-yard pass on third-and-17.
“Not every third down that’s converted is converted with a ball that’s thrown past the sticks,” offensive coordinator Curtis Modkins said. “So, sometimes what they give you is an underneath throw and you catch and run. So, there are a lot of different ways that you get a first down throwing the ball and it’s not always that the route has to be past the sticks.”
Getting rid of the ball quickly has benefited the Niners in one area. The team is tied for the league lead with only two sacks allowed through three games. But it also has played a big role in San Francisco’s inability to put together long drives. Out of Gabbert’s 17 completions on third down, only eight have gone far enough for first downs.
It also has limited big plays as Gabbert has only one completion this season on a pass thrown more than 20 yards in the air and just 12 on throws more than 10 yards downfield.
“There’s a catch-22,” coach Chip Kelly said. “Everybody can say, ‘Hey, let’s go bombs away and throw the ball down the field.’ Well, then you’re going to be in a lot of third-and-longs and second-and-longs because your quarterback’s going to get sacked a lot. Now you’re playing behind the sticks.”
Gabbert has been one of the least productive quarterbacks in the league so far, ranking last in yards per attempt (5.5), second worst among starters in completion percentage (55.2 percent) and third worst in passer rating (68.6).
Despite that, Kelly is not ready to turn the offense over to backup Colin Kaepernick , who is still trying to regain his strength after three offseason surgeries.
“He’s not 100 percent back from the recovery standpoint,” Kelly said. “He’s 100 percent healed from those injuries. So, that allows him to play in the game, but is he the same player that he was when he was running 4.5 and throwing the ball all over the place? He’s not that guy right now because he’s not where he was physically. You can just look at him physically. He’s not the same guy right now.”
NOTES: DL Arik Armstead said he was limited to 28 snaps last week because of a shoulder injury sustained in training camp. … TE Vance McDonald (hip) did not practice and TE Garrett Celek (back) was limited.