While the Carolina game marked another numbing defeat from the 49ers' perspective, the game itself revealed significant changes to the 49ers' offensive approach. They lined up in three-receiver personnel on early downs and outside two-minute situations to a degree unprecedented since coach Mike Singletary replaced Mike Martz as offensive coordinator. The overall numbers worked out to 60 percent of the time on first down, 70.6 percent on second down, 84.6 percent on third down and 69.1 percent across all downs.
Frank Gore flourished as a runner from this pass-oriented personnel grouping. Overall, the 49ers carried 15 times with a 6.0-yard average from three-receiver personnel. This should have been very good news for the broader offense because quarterback Alex Smith was supposed to be more comfortable from these types of groupings.
Finding an offense that works for Gore and Alex Smith has been a challenge. But Alex Smith completed only 5 of 12 passes for 43 yards and a 51.7 rating from this grouping.
Why? The Panthers might have been playing the pass when San Francisco showed three receivers. This would have created more favorable running situations for Gore without allowing as much leeway for the passing game. The 49ers also repeatedly made costly errors on pass plays (penalties, missed blocks, misunderstandings on routes, poor passes).
Correcting those errors and building upon the running success from three-receiver groupings isn't an option for Alex Smith. He'll be watching from the sideline against Denver while his left shoulder heals. How will the 49ers' offense change with Troy Smith under center? That's a question the team probably never expected to explore.