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49ers' red zone woes carry over into season's first loss

MINNEAPOLIS -- Of the many things the San Francisco 49ers hoped would carry over from the end of 2017 to 2018, their problem scoring touchdowns in the red zone was probably not on the list.

In a game that was there for the taking -- or at least could have offered a more dramatic finish -- the Niners' inability to finish drives in the end zone against Minnesota's daunting defense (and, of course, four turnovers) in a 24-16 loss left them again searching for the map to pay dirt.

"It gets tougher when you’re down there in the red zone," fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. "You just have to be locked into whatever you need to do and there’s really not a lot of room for error."

Indeed, the 49ers again found out the hard way how difficult it can be to score touchdowns when the field shrinks, finishing with one touchdown on four red zone trips. It was the continuation of a problem that plagued them last season.

In 2017, the Niners were 27th in the NFL in red zone efficiency, scoring touchdowns on 47.1 percent of their trips inside the opponent's 20. Unlike just about every other offensive statistic, this didn't improve much once Jimmy Garoppolo took over. In five weeks with Garoppolo as the starter, the 49ers' red zone efficiency moved to 45.8 percent, which was 20th in the league in that span.

Hope that an offseason in coach Kyle Shanahan's scheme would make a difference was also hard to find in the preseason. In the part of three preseason games in which Garoppolo and the starting offense were on the field, the Niners managed just one touchdown in five red zone trips.

On Sunday, the Niners' other three trips resulted in two field goals and, the most costly of all, running back Alfred Morris' second-quarter fumble at the goal line. A touchdown there would have likely tied it at 10 and, with the ball to open the third quarter and plenty of momentum, would have positioned the Niners with a chance to take a lead.

Instead, the Vikings were able to get to halftime with a lead they would not relinquish. Morris, who just signed with the 49ers in mid-August, said the ball slipped out of his grasp, though Vikings defensive tackle Linval Joseph appeared to have something to do with it.

"It was a little more humid than I thought," Morris said. "Not to make excuses, I fumbled. But surprisingly, my arms weren’t dry. Normally I don’t have ball-security issues, but after that I was more attentive to make sure my arms were dry because I guess I didn’t really expect it to be humid. Down on the goal line, you are just trying to fight for the extra yard and my arms were just slick and it kind of popped out, unfortunately.”

Morris wasn't alone in his mistake near Minnesota's end zone, either. The Niners had multiple opportunities to finish with a touchdown celebration and came up empty because of a self-inflicted mistake. While penalties weren't much of a problem as they were last season, the Niners allowed two red zone sacks and missed out on some plays that were there to be made.

On the first field goal drive, Garoppolo floated a pass to the left corner, where receiver Pierre Garcon had an opportunity to come down with it for a 15-yard touchdown but couldn’t make the play.

On the second field goal drive, Garoppolo overshot tight end George Kittle, who came free in the back of the end zone.

"I can’t jump 40 inches at 250 [pounds]," Kittle said. "That’s hard for me. But it was a high ball. If I was 10 pounds lighter, maybe."

That incompletion led to kicker Robbie Gould's 22-yard field goal to make it 24-16 Minnesota with 8 minutes, 13 seconds to go. The Niners would not reach the red zone again.

Perhaps fittingly, the 49ers' lone red zone touchdown came on the first play after a sack knocked them outside of Minnesota's 20, when Garoppolo escaped pressure and found rookie receiver Dante Pettis in the back corner of the end zone for a 22-yard score.

In the offseason, the Niners made it clear that they believe in their skill-position guys to fix the red zone issues. They opted not to pursue a bigger free-agent receiver such as Allen Robinson and made Pettis the only major addition at receiver. Again, fittingly, he was the only one to reach the end zone.

In the final five games of last season, the Niners were able to overcome their red zone problems, though few of those teams offered the challenge Minnesota's defense presented.

"I think it’s just more the small details, us making sure we know we have got to finish when we get down there and not just expecting three points," running back Matt Breida said. "We’ve got to expect six every time, and I feel like we’ll get better at it this week and we’ll make a big jump from Week 1 to Week 2."

With tough matchups against Detroit, Kansas City and the Chargers coming up, the Niners know the sooner they can fix this ongoing issue, the better off they'll be.