Niners still searching for big-play offense

U.S. Presswire File Photo49ers' Mario Manningham (82)

U.S. Presswire File Photo49ers' Mario Manningham (82)

While it’s way, way too soon for 49ers fans to panic after Sunday’s loss to the Minnesota Vikings — the Niners are still clearly among the NFL’s elite teams — one red flag worth monitoring has certainly popped up through three games.

The much-ballyhooed overhaul the 49ers made to their offensive skill positions in the offseason has yet to yield the expected results.

No long bombs to Randy Moss. No signs of LaMichael James darting through defenders and going 60 yards for a score. No Mario Manningham turning a short crossing route into a highlight touchdown.

San Francisco added Moss and Manningham to the receiving corps through free agency and spent its first two picks in the NFL draft on speedy wideout A.J. Jenkins and a game-changing running back in James.

But through the first three games of the season, the 49ers only have seven plays of 20 yards or more. Only four NFL teams have fewer than that. Their longest pass play this season? 29 yards. Longest run play? 29 yards.

Of the nine players who have caught balls for the 49ers this season, six are averaging less than 10 yards per catch. One of the three averaging more than 10 yards per catch is fullback Bruce Miller, who has just one catch for 15 yards.

Tight end Vernon Davis, the one established big-play threat, has four of the team’s five receiving touchdowns.

As a whole, the offense is averaging 335.1 yards per game, making them No. 21 in the NFL.

While it’s still a very small sample size, it’s been a dink-and-dunk offense thus far.

And to be honest, why wouldn’t it be? When you are running the ball at 5.4 yards a clip and playing ferocious defense, why do anything to risk turning the ball over?

That strategy worked for the 49ers all last season and was a staple in the first two wins of this season.

But the problem emerged Sunday, when for the first time, that grind-it-out style coach Jim Harbaugh brought to San Francisco was ineffective. The Niners lost the turnover battle. The defense couldn’t contain Vikings QB Christian Ponder. They fell behind by double-digits, and when a quick-strike touchdown could have swayed momentum to the Niners’ sideline, they came up empty.

Now, the good thing is the Niners have shown the ability to come back during the Harbaugh era. San Francisco pulled out big rallies against the Detroit Lions and Philadelphia Eagles during the regular season last year, and of course against the New Orleans Saints in the playoffs.

But this club couldn’t do so Sunday. And while playing in front of a raucous Minnesota crowd is hardly a walk in the park, they weren’t exactly facing the 1985 Chicago Bears defense.

In the end, Sunday was one of 16 games. The 49ers will be fine. They look like sure bets to make the playoffs, though the NFC West appears to be vastly improved.

But if the Niners want to make another serious run at the Super Bowl, the offense — which the team made abundantly clear through its offseason moves needed upgrading — will have to step up and make the explosive plays that have been lacking thus far.

Dylan Kruse is the sports editor of The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at dkruse@sfexaminer.com and followed on Twitter @dkruse16.

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