Four games in, 49ers seem to be making the smart adjustments

Here is my Friday column taking stock of the 49ers after the first quarter of the season.

The 49ers just finished the first quarter of their season. Where do they stand?

They’re 2-2 and have an injury-depleted roster. Without knowing how much time the injured are going to miss it’s tough to prognosticate how well the 49ers will do this season. But right now it seems they’re contending for a wild card spot, not the division title.

Here’s one thing we know for sure: The Pistol doesn’t work anymore. From now on it should be just a limited feature in the 49ers’ offensive game plan.

Unlike last season, defenses have a plan to stop the Pistol because they studied it all offseason and worked on it every day in training camp. NFL coaches work all day every day. They committed the time to figure out the Pistol and that’s why gimmick offenses don’t have staying power in the NFL.

But there is another issue with the Pistol and it doesn’t have to do with defense.

It has to do with timing. The timing of a run from the Pistol is different than the timing of a run from a conventional offense. An offense cannot be equally adept at both types of run concepts because teams don’t have enough practice time to perfect both.

Timing is a critical issue in the running game. An example: John McKay instituted the “I” formation at USC when he became the head coach in 1960. He realized the time it took for the running back to hit the hole from the “I” was different was different than the time it took a back to hit the hole from split backs or far or near backs.

So, McKay moved his offensive line a yard behind the line of scrimmage so they would not get to and come off their blocks before the running back hit the line of scrimmage. Also, McKay moved the running back from 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage to 7 1/2 yards behind it.

McKay mastered the issue of timing in the run game. He won four national titles in 15 years and coached two Heisman Trophy running backs – Mike Garrett and O.J. Simpson.

Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman either didn’t study or didn’t comprehend the timing aspect of the run game, otherwise they would have discovered the difference between conventional runs and zone-read runs.

But they’re fixing the issue now. They mostly abandoned the Pistol Thursday night against the Rams. Give Harbaugh and Roman credit for that.

Frank Gore has been horrible running from the Pistol this season. He does not seem comfortable with the timing of those runs, but he still has perfect timing on “I” formation runs. As long as Roman keeps calling power off tackle and whams up the middle and weakside leads, the 49ers should have a good running game.

Those runs will force defenses to play a safety in the box, which will open up the play-action passing game for Colin Kaepernick and simplify his pre-snap reads. Defenses have fewer disguises when they commit a safety to stopping the run.

Against the Rams, Kaepernick was excellent on play-action passes, especially when he rolled out of the pocket to his right. He had clean reads and soft coverage to throw the ball to Boldin or the fullback, Bruce Miller.

It’s smart for Harbaugh and Roman to roll Kaepernick out of the pocket. When Kaepernick rolls out, he becomes a running threat and his protection improves. Defenses can’t just tee off knowing where Kaepernick will set up to throw.

If the 49ers commit to the play-action passing game as they should, Vernon Davis will have a good season. It’s tough for defenses to cover a fast tight end like Davis when they’re putting eight defenders in the box.

But the 49ers still have a major concern – their wide receivers. Other than Anquan Boldin, there really is no wideout who is a threat. It will not take upcoming opponents long before they realize they must eliminate Boldin. The question is how many opponents have a cornerback who can handle him?

The 49ers’ offensive brain trust needs to come up with ways to get the ball to one of their other wide receivers or else the 49ers’ offense won’t be hard to defend.

Here’s a suggestion: For starters, throw a “Smoke” route versus a corner playing 9 or 10 yards off the line of scrimmage. A “smoke” route is a one-step hitch, an easy way to get someone besides Boldin involved. But the 49ers haven’t attempted this play once this season.

They probably will attempt it soon. The 49ers’ offensive brain trust is clever and seems to be making the proper adjustments this season. At least they’ve made one key adjustment: Ditch the Pistol.

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at grantcohn@gmail.com.