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What Raye and the 49ers were thinking

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

What in the world was 49ers offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye thinking Sunday and what does it mean for the team's immediate future on offense?

I have a much better idea after watching the 49ers-Colts game a couple times and charting offensive personnel. Ten observations:

  • The 49ers were cruising along early in the game, spreading the field with two wide receivers and two tight ends with good receiving skills (Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker). They used this group 11 times in their first 13 plays before suddenly getting conservative.

  • That 13th play wasn't so lucky. Alex Smith's pass bounced off Michael Crabtree's hand. Bob Sanders intercepted for the Colts. Two plays earlier, Crabtree dropped a pass. The 49ers were affirming Raye's fears about the passing game not being ready for prime time. Raye suddenly changed his thinking, replacing Walker with fullback Moran Norris for five of the next eight plays.

  • Raye and coach Mike Singletary knew what they were up against. Colts quarterback Peyton Manning maximizes possessions like no quarterback in the league. Giving extra possessions to Manning is a great way to lose a game. Going conservative minimizes turnovers.

  • The 49ers did open up the offense when they went into 2-minute mode before halftime. They used three wide receivers six times in a row on the drive, all on first or second down, after using that personnel only three times previously in the game, all on third down. Smith threw passes all six times on the drive. He looked terrific in leading the 49ers to a touchdown. Smith has shown better awareness and instincts in the pocket, avoiding pressure with movement and throwing away the ball effectively. I can see why Singletary is excited about Smith's prospects.

  • Raye went back into his conservative shell to open the second half. His team was leading 14-9 and he wasn't willing to go into 2-minute mode when it wasn't a 2-minute situation. The 49ers used base personnel (two backs, two receivers, one tight end) on seven of their first 10 plays to open the second half. They used heavier personnel three times, including on two third-and-1 conversions.

  • During this conservative stretch to open the second half, Smith threw behind Isaac Bruce for one incompletion. Crabtree lost a fumble on another play. More reasons for a conservative coach to pull back. His team was still leading the game, anyway. Don't screw it up.

  • The Colts scored on that gadget play to open the fourth quarter. The 49ers were suddenly behind. Raye put Walker back on the field as part of that personnel group with two wide receivers and two tight ends. The 49ers had success initially, completing passes for Crabtree and Bruce for a combined 31 yards. The 49ers might have moved into scoring position, too, if not for a critical delay penalty on third-and-7.

  • The 49ers have every reason -- well, almost every reason -- to open up their offense some against the Titans. Possessions will be less valuable without Manning playing quarterback for the other team. The 49ers will be at home, making it easier to function offensively. Crabtree, an excellent young player, will surely be motivated to atone for a couple mistakes committed against the Colts.

  • On the other hand, the Titans have a defensive-minded head coach who has had a week to prepare for an offensive line that struggled in pass protection even before losing left tackle Joe Staley. Backup Barry Sims played very well against the Colts. Can he do it against an opponent that had a week to prepare for him?

  • Overall, I thought the 49ers could have been more aggressive offensively against the Colts, particularly early in the second half. But I also understand why Raye wanted to play things safe. As it was, the 49ers were probably fortunate Manning failed to fully exploit the turnovers San Francisco did suffer. Much credit goes to the 49ers' defense.

Two more things: The 49ers have not established a three-receiver offense beyond third down. As a result, they have no running game from three-receiver personnel. This is one aspect the 49ers need to develop. They can accomplish some of the same things with Walker on the field instead of a third wide receiver, but Walker is only good as a receiver compared to most tight ends. Putting three wide receivers on the field could open up running lanes for Frank Gore while making the 49ers less predictable. The offensive line would benefit. ... The 49ers should be able to strike downfield from run-oriented personnel groups. The have run the ball five times in a row from their two-back group with two tight ends. Their five previous passes from this group produced gains of 29, 18 and 24 yards, with two touchdowns.