Rather than dwell on last week's poor performance, I thought I would look ahead to the 49ers game. Since our offense is likely to struggle, I decided to look at what our defense will be up against. The 49ers are making a name for themselves as a power running team. Coach Jim Harbaugh is very commited to the running game and without a true franchise QB that you can rely on to win you games, he needs to be. I'm not saying Alex Smith isn't having a good season, he is. But he's being put in good situations and a lot of pressure has been taken off his shoulders. I've spent the best part of last night and today watching the 49ers offense over two quite contrasting situations, a 48-3 blow out of the Buccaneers at home, and a hard fought 25-19 win over the (then unbeaten) Lions in Detroit. They stuck to their philosophy throughout, but found different ways to run on two different teams.
Their basic gameplan is obvious. Run heavy, get to 3rd and manageable. Let Smith make quick decisions and get the ball out of his hands quickly. Control the clock and allow their defense to dominate and create turnovers...sounds familiar.
A staple in their offense is slight variations of the following play.
It's a run heavy formation. They have two TE's in on the play, as well as a FB and just the one WR. This example doesn't just apply to this formation however. They run a similar variation of the play in three TE sets, with all three lined up on one side, or two on one side and one split to the other. Any way they do it, the principle of the play is the same.
You'll see the side they are running the ball to all down block on the defensive line.
While the rest of the offensive line are down blocking, the guard on the opposite side of the run (in this case, RG Adam Synder) is going to pull (which is to move out of position, and become a lead blocker for the RB). The FB is going to follow behind the pulling guard, giving Frank Gore effectively two leading blockers.
This is the area where another variation can come in. The pulling Guard can go up the middle onto the LB on some plays, and the FB and Gore will follow right behind. But on this play, the Buccs had been over-committing inside. So the guard seals the edge on the outside, the FB will also carry on outside and get to the second level.
The FB cuts off the pursuing LB, and Gore gets free and rips off a big gain.
Just a side note to show how committed they are to the run. Even the WR (circled in blue) is holding his block downfield. It's a big effort for the whole team to just pound away at a defense.
You'll see variations of this play all day. A lot of the time, they run it to the right guard, pulling Mike Iupati to be the lead blocker. But any variation they run it, the principle is the same. One side of the line down blocks, the pulling guard and the FB punch their blocks outside and create a running lane for Gore. Here's a little whiteboard draw up just to further demonstrate the concept.
The left side of the line in this example down blocks, the TE gets to the second level and the RG pulls to become the lead blocker. The FB follows quickly in behind him, creating a running lane for Gore.
The RG pushes the LB out, the FB will do the same to the on coming LB to allow Gore to cut back inside, or he could cut off the LB and allow Gore to continue outside. The first test for the defense is to stop the run inside. This play works when they are dominating the line of scrimmage, but if the Dline or other defenders (LBs, safeties) are blowing up blocks, they have a way to contain that as well. Check out this run against the Lions. They have a very aggressive Dline (namely Ndamukong Suh) who can destroy a block and get to a runner in the backfield. The 49ers have a counter to this.
There's a lot going on in that picture, let me try to explain. The 49ers recognise that the Lions Dline is very aggressive to try and disrupt the running game. So what they do to combat this, is they do what's called 'trap blocking' This is where the man in front of the defender lets him have a free run into the backfield. The defender penetrates through the line, only to have another blocker impact him from the side and cut him off from the play. the 49ers run 3 trap blocks on this play. the TE/FB motions over and traps Suh, the RG pulls and traps the other DT, while the LG pulls and traps the DE on the far side. Because the Dline is taken care off, the two OTs and the Center are able to run straight to the second level and ingage with LBs early.
As you can see, the OT's and the C are getting to the second level before Gore has even touched the ball. The Dline of the Lions is being pushed past the runner.
Once Gore gets the ball, he has a clear running lane, with practically the whole Lions Dline taken out of the play. Gore gains 40+ yards and the Lions Dline is negated.
Here's the exact same play later on in the game.
Same play, same trap blocks.
The Lions do a better job of taking on the trap blocks.
Gore is slowed to a stop and he has to cut back outside.
Gore gets two blocks ahead of him and a hole to run into.
But then it's all about Frank Gore. He gives the Lions DB, number 23, enough doubt that he could cut back inside to slow him down.
He then turns on the burners and is off to the races, picking up a huge 55 yard gain.
These are just two different run plays that the 49ers have in their playbook. They have similar trap block schemes on RB toss/sweep plays. The key is that they are committed to the run. In this game, they were 10-0 down, and kept running the ball. They have run plays to get the RB running inside or outside depending on how the game is going. They have ways to negate the effectiveness of players that can blow up blocks. Our defense has got to be ready to got to battle all day long.
This commitment to the run takes a lot of pressure off Alex Smith. When he has to throw the ball, the thing I noticed was that they have good route combinations that get DB's caught in traffic and get separation for their receivers, the best example is this slant pattern by Josh Morgan.
Morgan is running the slant, with the slot receiver running an out.
The out route gets the DB covering Morgan caught up in traffic. This helps get Morgan separation from the DB and is an easy wide open throw for Alex Smith.
Morgan pulls in the catch and ends up getting a first down. This is just one example, but Jim Harbaugh's offense is set up brilliantly with route combinations that help get receivers separation.
The last lot of pictures I'll show is something I noticed early in the Buccs game. Not sure if it's just from the Buccs game plan or if it's something they like to do a lot, but Smith was attacking the seams. This can be dangerous for us, who do have a bit of trouble getting beat deep. Here's an example.
Walker is in the slot here, against a zone coverage from the Buccs. He runs a go route right up the seam.
The defender runs back into his zone, and over runs the coverage of Walker. Walker adjusts back inside the defender.
Walker brings in the beautifully placed pass from Smith for an easy TD. This is something we need to be weary of. If they split Vernon Davis out wide, against Orakpo or Kerrigan, they have the potential to beat us deep.
Other things I noted down, but don't need to find pictures for:
- Alex Smith is making good quick reads and getting the ball out of his hands early. He doesn't wait for someone to get open, and is willing to check down quickly to Gore if he has to.
- With the constant 2/3 TE formations, play-action passes are always a possibility.
- Kick coverage will have to be at its best. Ted Ginn Jr. has been very good at getting the 49ers in good field position to start drives.
-Draw plays can be very dangerous with the interior Oline they have.
Apologies that this isn't the best breakdown, but hopefully it's given you a few ideas of what we'll be seeing from the 49ers offense this week.