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March 26, 2014
Harbaugh hints at changes to 49ers' offense

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ORLANDO, Fla. - The 49ers are seeking wide receivers this offseason and, Jim Harbaugh hinted, perhaps some tweaks to their power-based offense.

"A real good scheme evaluation, I think, is what's next for us as coaches," the 49ers coach said today at a media breakfast. "Now that we've had Colin (Kaepernick) here for a year and half and understand what we all do well, what we could do better. I think that's something that's a priority right now that we'll attack."

Will they be big changes? "No, not big changes," he said. "But always be an evolution, always strive to make it better."

As is his custom, Harbaugh lavished praise on his starting quarterback and defended him against criticism, including accusations that he's a one-read passer.

"Some of the time there was just one guy to go to," Harbaugh said. "There were times we had Anquan (Boldin) and Vernon (Davis). And they were literally doubling Anquan and Vernon. And he had one other option to go to. ... There was tough sledding. It's up to all of us to get better."

One of the ways to improve, Harbaugh said more than once during the hour-long sessions, is to supply Kaepernick with more weapons. When receiver Michael Crabtree was injured last season, the 49ers' passing game revolved around two players - Boldin and Davis, who caught all but one of Kaepernick's 24 touchdown passes during the regular season and playoffs.

The situation improved when Crabtree returned to the field in December, but Harbaugh indicated that more firepower is needed. He and general manager Trent Baalke like Quinton Patton, a fourth-round pick in 2013 who was injured for half of his rookie season. This year's draft, however, is especially rich in wideouts, and the 49ers are likely to give Patton competition for the No. 3 spot.

The 49ers also have considered wide receivers in free agency, including Julian Edelman, Hakeem Nicks and Emmanuel Sanders. All of them signed elsewhere.

"There was a stretch last year where he didn't have (many receiving options), and he played through it," Harbaugh said of Kaepernick. "And never an excuse, never a bony finger of blame toward anybody. There was definitely times where we were just not getting guys open for him."

One the of the tweaks the 49ers have in store likely will be to the way they call plays. The process to this point has been long and cumbersome, and it's resulted in a slew of delay-of-game penalties and timeouts. The potential game-winning play in the Super Bowl a year ago, for example, was wiped out because the play clock was about to expire.

The Seahawks, who throttled San Francisco's passing game last season, including in the NFC title game, also may force Harbaugh and the 49ers to make changes. One of the few teams that gave Seattle's aggressive defense problems last year was the Colts, who beat them 34-28. In that game, quarterback Andrew Luck threw two touchdowns, both of them to receiver T.Y. Hilton, who finished with five catches for 140 yards.

Boldin and Crabtree are physical, aggressive receivers who mostly are used in the short- to medium-passing game. Asked if the 49ers could use a swift, down-field threat like Hilton in their offense, Harbaugh said "it's something that we'll look at addressing."

Acquiring that type of receiver also could prompt the 49ers to use more three wide-receiver formations. Dating back to his time at the University of San Diego, Harbaugh's offenses have been decidedly brawny and run-oriented, and he has preferred using two tight ends or a running back and a full back instead of three receivers.

In fact, San Francisco has used the formation roughly 20 percent of the time over the last three seasons, the lowest rate in the league. "We've mainly done that on third down," Harbaugh said before pausing and continuing coyly, "but it doesn't mean we can't do it on first and second down."

-- Matt Barrows



MATTHEW BARROWS

Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.

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