SANTA CLARA – The 49ers’ failings on third down Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals might have had as much to do with their problems on first and second down.
The 49ers came up short on their first 12 third-down attempts and finished with a 2-for-14 conversion rate in their 24-14 loss to the Bengals at Levi's Stadium. On third downs, the 49ers faced situations that required 10 or more yards 11 times -- mostly due to offensive penalties.
“It’s just more of us shooting ourselves in the foot than anything,” 49ers quarterback Blaine Gabbert said on Tuesday. “When we’re in and third and 7 or 8, instead of third and 15, we’re going to convert at a higher percentage.”
Gabbert completed six of his first eight third-down attempts. The only problem was that none of those completions gained the necessary yardage to extend drives. The 49ers would have picked up a first down on one third-and-10 completion to Anquan Boldin, but Boldin fumbled the ball away. Gabbert stood by his decisions to throw underneath, short of the yardage marker, rather than take a chance and throw into coverage.
“They’re going to drop everybody right there at the marker and make you throw underneath so they can rally to make a tackle,” Gabbert said. “My job on third and long, is to find some type of completion, whether it be past the sticks or underneath the sticks, to get the ball in our guys’ hands and let them make the make a play.”
Gabbert said his favorite example of taking the underneath throw is a memorable play from late-November in 2012 when Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco threw to running back Ray Rice just one yard beyond the line of scrimmage on a critical fourth-and-29 play against the San Diego Chargers. Rice turned the play into a 29-yard gain that helped win the game, and contribute to the Ravens getting into the playoffs. Baltimore won the Super Bowl that season.
“It’s all predicated on what the defense does,” Gabbert said. “We’re not hitting checkdowns because we want to. It’s what they’re dictating us to do. If they have eight guys at the sticks, taking away our throws, it’s not good football to force it, especially in the first and second quarter. In the third and fourth quarter, you might have to get a little more sporty with your throw and give your guys a shot.”