How did New England find the right combination of offensive linemen this season, and where are Seattle's biggest weaknesses in pass protection?
26 Sep 2013
by Cian Fahey
When Alex Smith was the starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers last season, defending the offense was like fighting a bear. The 49ers relied on their running game to wear down and eventually overpower defenses. More often than not, it worked. When Colin Kaepernick replaced Smith as a starter, it was still like wrestling a bear, but now the bear was buffed up with more speed and had a sharper set of claws.
Kaepernick's athleticism and passing ability opened up the 49ers offense. They went from being too reliant on the kicking ability of David Akers to being able to score from any position in any situation. The offense had its limitations, but those were difficult to take away because of the level of talent strung through the roster.
Only the Seattle Seahawks and St. Louis Rams were able to contain the offense under Kaepernick in 2012. In many ways, the 49ers beat themselves when they only scored 13 points against the Rams. The Seahawks have so much talent that it's never a surprise when they shut anyone down on defense. The Seahawks shut down the 49ers again this season in their brutal home atmosphere. Again, that wasn't a surprise. But when the Indianapolis Colts held the 49ers to just seven points this past weekend, nobody could initially understand how. The 49ers were missing three of their top receiving options: Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham and Vernon Davis. But Crabtree and Manningham have been out for a while, and the 49ers still appeared to have a talent advantage on paper. What happened? Let's take it from the start.
The 49ers' first drive of the game lasted just three plays after the Colts scored a touchdown on their opening drive. On first down, Ricky Jean-Francois beat Mike Iupati to get into the backfield on a Frank Gore run. However, Gore was able to cut inside him for a seven yard gain. That set up second-and-3, where Kaepernick threw a lame pass to the outside that gave his receiver no chance. Notably, Jean-Francois got close to him as he released the ball. Jean-Francois got the better of right guard Alex Boone.
On second down, the Colts rushed four, dropped two defenders into zones over the middle of the field, and played man coverage with the rest of the defenders except for one single-high safety in zone. On third-and-2, they came out showing the same defense.
Anquan Boldin motioned across the formation from the right side to the left, meaning the 49ers had Boldin and Vance McDonald at receiver to the left of the formation and Marlon Moore with Kyle Williams to the right. The Colts lined up in press coverage at the bottom of the screen against Moore and Williams, with just six defenders in the box against the 49ers.
At the snap, Boldin hits the Colts right defensive end from behind, knocking him to the ground, allowing left tackle Joe Staley to pull into the flat leading the way for Kendall Hunter on the pitch. Number 53 for the Colts, Kavell Conner, and number 50, Jerrell Freeman, will ultimately stop Hunter from getting to the first down marker. However, both are in positions to be blocked with ease at this stage of the play.
Beating blocks against the 49ers is tough to do. Their offensive line and tight ends last season were the best in the league as a group. However, this season the line appears to be struggling and McDonald hasn't proven to be a viable replacement for the departed Delanie Walker. McDonald makes the first mistake on this play.
Conner easily gets around McDonald as the 49ers tight end throws his weight forward and loses his balance. Freeman is being double-teamed by the 49ers center and right guard, who immediately attacked the second level at the snap. Importantly, center Jonathan Goodwin doesn't get outside of Freeman -- instead he just pushes him backwards and allows the linebacker to keep running towards the sideline.
Hunter makes one defender miss in space, but that defender's presence held up the back long enough for Conner to get in a position to tackle him before the first-down marker. Conner hits Hunter, but only slows him down instead of stopping him completely. Before Hunter can make it to the first-down marker, Freeman arrives from a better angle and stops the play short of a first down.
San Francisco's second drive of the game -- their only scoring drive -- was successful because of the running game. Gore had three big runs that came as a result of perfectly-executed blocking upfront, then Hunter took a perfectly-executed draw play to the end zone with good field vision.
On that drive, Kaepernick threw for 14 yards and ran for 14 yards. His 14-yard throw came off of play-action when he found Boldin while rolling out on a bootleg. He escaped the pocket when the Colts tried to spy him with a defensive tackle. Neither of those plays offered much insight on San Francisco's problems though. It was a sack that Kaepernick took during the drive that spelled out some of those issues clearly.
Last season, most of Kaepernick's passes came on his first read. The 49ers offense was so talented that defenses were often giving up those throws more often than they would against other offenses. Part of that was Kaepernick and the running game, but part of it was also his receivers' ability to win their routes. Without Davis, Crabtree or Manningham, the 49ers were limited in what they could do.
On this play, Kaepernick wants to find his tight end running into the flat, but the wide receiver to that side of the field, Williams, can't get off the line of scrimmage and is in the way. From there, Kaepernick turns in the pocket and runs into the left flat. Kaepernick should have stayed in his clean pocket longer, but he did keep his eyes downfield as he escaped the pocket. Regardless, he was forced to run out of bounds for a two-yard loss because the 49ers receivers couldn't beat the Colts' press coverage. The 49ers obviously overcame that loss on that drive, but it was an issue moving forward.
A read-option play sent Gore up the middle to start the third drive. Gore gained five yards, but when the 49ers handed it off to him on second down, the Colts defensive line was able to get the better of the offensive line and stop him at the line of scrimmage. That set up a third-and-4 that would expose the lack of receiving options again.
The Colts aren't masking their intentions. They have a single-high safety with two linebackers over the middle of the field and press coverage outside. Williams is again to blame here and he is lined up at the top of the screen.
Something very rare happens as both Iupati and Staley are beaten almost immediately after the snap. Robert Mathis spins inside Staley from his right defensive end position, while Fili Moala wrestles his way past Iupati's outside shoulder. Kaepernick is looking directly towards those rushers so he is able to escape the pocket. Importantly, while that was happening, the Colts were blowing a coverage in the secondary as the two defensive backs to the top of the screen leave Williams wide open running an out route underneath.
Kaepernick is able to escape the rush in the pocket and he keeps his eyes downfield as he runs into the flat. He sees Williams free underneath and rockets a pass in his direction. Williams was running towards the sideline, so he took his eyes off of Kaepernick's pass before he caught it to make sure he was inbounds. He stayed inbounds, but the ball whipped past his extended arms and went straight out of bounds.
On the 49ers' first drive of the second quarter, the Colts stacked the box against Gore because the offense was backed up close to their own goal line. Gore gained three yards up the middle as the Colts front seven swarmed to the football. A false start on right tackle Anthony Davis backed them up to a second-and-12. On that down, the Colts played their usual press man with a single-high safety and took away Kaepernick's first read. Kaepernick panicked and ultimately scrambled for a a five-yard gain after initially hesitating in the pocket.
Before the 49ers snapped the ball on third down, the Colts defense appeared to be confused and never lined up the way they wanted to. 49ers receiver Quinton Patton was left uncovered in the slot and Kaepernick immediately threw him the ball after the snap. Patton caught the ball at the first-down marker, but was hit immediately by an incoming safety. knocking the ball free.
To start the next drive, the 49ers faked the ball to Gore going up the middle before Kaepernick dropped back into the pocket. Boldin was about to come free over the middle of the field for what would have been a huge gain, but Iupati was beaten by Moala again and Kaepernick looked to scramble instead of trying to reset in the pocket. The play was stopped for a three-yard gain. On the next play, the 49ers ran the same pitch run they had done earlier in the game, but this time the Colts were very aggressive and multiple defenders beat their blockers into the backfield.
Boldin finally caught his first pass on third-and-8. The Colts made a mistake here. Because it was third-and-8, they looked to disguise their coverage and run an exotic blitz when there was no real need to. The Colts show off a Cover-2 look initially with both safeties deep, while Boldin is lined up tight to the offensive line as the back receiver in a stacked group. This type of situation terrorized the Green Bay Packers in Week 1.
Ironically, by attempting to double Boldin the Colts actually free him for his first reception. Instead of the cornerback being aggressive and getting tight to Boldin early in his route, he drops off and drifts towards the sideline. The Colts are trying to bait Kaepernick into throwing an interception into the arriving Antoine Bethea, who is coming from the other side of the field. Boldin's route helps this because he is angling out before turning sharply towards the hashmarks.
Kaepernick is able to fit the ball into Boldin before Bethea has a chance to get there. Kaepernick's arm strength is one of his strongest traits and the placement of his pass is perfect as it allows Boldin to break a tackle before running downfield. On the next play, Colts nose tackle Josh Chapman made an excellent play at the line of scrimmage to stop Gore for no gain. On second-and-10, the Colts reverted to their single-high safety, press coverage underneath and Boldin couldn't create separation on a crossing route for Kaepernick. On third-and-10, Kaepernick never saw Boldin come free over the middle of the field before he scrambled and under-threw Gore.
Gore showed good awareness on two carries to start off the 49ers first drive of the third quarter with a first down. Kaepernick then missed Gore wide open in the flat with the potential for a big gain, instead connecting with McDonald for a six-yard gain against zone coverage on a quick out route. The 49ers went straight back to Gore on a run up the middle, but Mathis knocked McDonald backwards to close off the running lane, while Aubrayo Franklin held off Goodwin to force Gore backwards. On third-and-4, the Colts covered the 49ers receivers with man coverage underneath and a single high safety. Mathis forced Kaepernick from the pocket and he scrambled for just one yard.
With what was some questionable play-calling, the 49ers came out throwing on the next drive. Kaepernick couldn't find a receiver against the same coverage the Colts had played all game on the first play, but an eight-yard connection to Boldin came as plenty of pre-snap movement caused the Colts' coverage to hesitate. The next two plays brought the 49ers 18 yards, but 16 of those yards came after the catch as the Colts dropped off and Kaepernick dumped off underneath. A few plays later the 49ers would punt, but the decisive play on the drive came on first-and-10 when Kaepernick ran the read option.
Kaepernick is lined up in front of Gore in a pistol setup. Bruce Miller is to his left, with McDonald in a tight end position to the right and Boldin (top of the screen) and Moore (bottom) lined up as receivers. The Colts played multiple fronts throughout this game, but were in a 3-4 on this play with the right defensive end upright looking in the backfield.
Kaepernick makes his read off of number 92, Bjoern Werner, who immediately crashes down inside the offensive tackle. Kaepernick keeps the ball once he recognizes this, but the Colts have two defenders who are anticipating this and moving into positions to take away any potential running lanes for the quarterback.
Because Werner crashed inside so hard, Gore ultimately doesn't look to sell his fake, instead drifting outside to be a blocker for Kaepernick. Even with that extra blocker available, there are still too many Colts defenders for Kaepernick to gain any yards. The Colts are aggressive and disciplined as they each man their gaps and work towards the line of scrimmage to force Kaepernick towards the sideline.
Ultimately, the young quarterback was brought down for a five-yard loss that put them in a second-and-15. The 49ers tried to recover with a draw play, but Franklin knocked Goodwin away before stopping Hunter for a two-yard gain. On third-and-13, the 49ers settled for a quick slant to Boldin against off-coverage that only gained nine yards.
At this point in the game, the Colts were winning by just six points. The 49ers didn't get the ball again until early in the fourth quarter. Kaepernick came out throwing again, but this time he pushed the ball down the field to McDonald running down the seam. But Kaepernick overthrew him as he tried to force the ball to his tight end before the deep safety could come across to him. With 12 minutes left in the game, this was a crucial second-and-10.
The Colts trusted what had got them to that point, as they dared the 49ers to beat their receivers one-on-one. This time however, the Colts don't keep a safety deep when the 49ers empty the backfield. Instead, they walk both of their linebackers up to threaten a blitz over the center. Kaepernick responds by changing the play at the line of scrimmage.
The 49ers eventually run wide receiver screens to either side of the field. Kaepernick throws to the top of the screen where Hunter is waiting on the pass. When Hunter catches the ball, he is forced to hesitate as blocking comes across his face, but the Colts defenders are very active and crowd around him to tackle him for a short gain. That play led to a third-and-11 where the Colts reverted back to their single-high, man underneath coverage. Kaepernick's first read wasn't there before the pocket collapsed around him, and he was unable to escape a sack.
After that punt, the Colts extended their lead by scoring a touchdown. The 49ers got the ball back with four minutes to go, but the Colts dropped into Cover-2 to suffocate the 49ers' receivers even more. After two incompletions, Kaepernick fumbled the ball as he tried to force a big play with his legs. He coughed up the ball close to his own goal line, so the Colts easily scored a touchdown to ice the game.
Unquestionably, the 49ers' lack of talent at the receiver position played a major part in their struggles against the Colts. The Colts secondary challenged the 49ers receivers and the defense came out on top on almost every single play. Most notably, Boldin couldn't get free as he looked more like he did during the 2012 regular season rather than the 2012 postseason.
The receivers weren't the only issue. Kaepernick is still not consistent as a pocket passer. His eyes drop too quickly and he doesn't stand in the pocket to go through reads all the time. The 49ers offensive line looked nothing like it has over the last two seasons. The Colts were able to disrupt many more plays than teams typically can against this line. Iupati at left guard looked particularly poor, while Staley was uncharacteristically inconsistent. Goodwin couldn't handle Franklin and neither Boone nor Davis executed with the effectiveness that is typical of their play.
The Colts defense played well, but the 49ers should feel that they were more responsible for this display than the defense.
Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman are widely considered the two best cornerbacks in the NFL today. There is no clear third choice, but Patrick Peterson, Johnathan Joseph, Charles Tillman, and Joe Haden are all popular suggestions from fans and analysts. While each of those players is very talented in different ways, last season Leon Hall outperformed all of them.
In today's media-engulfed NFL, there are very few underrated players. Players who are underrated are celebrated so often for being underrated that they eventually become adequately rated. Hall has escaped this paradigm -- he has the reputation of a good player, but he plays like a special player. Last season, I ranked Hall as the third-best cornerback in the NFL. Hall successfully covered receivers on 85 percent of his snaps in man coverage. He played 267 snaps in man coverage on the season, with 145 of those coming in the slot. Hall's ability to play both inside and outside is something special.
Hall has a rare physical makeup. He is officially listed at 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds, but he has a combination of fluidity, length and speed that allows him to match up to any kind of receiver in any kind of situation. Hall is able to run down the sideline with Demaryius Thomas, fight for the ball in the air with Dez Bryant, and stick to Victor Cruz in space.
In Week 3, Hall was tasked with the unenviable proposition of containing Randall Cobb. The 23-year-old receiver entered week three with 16 receptions for 236 yards and two touchdowns. In each game, he had over 100 yards and a touchdown as he proved to be a focal point of the Green Bay Packers passing attack. Many teams would consider adjusting their coverage for Cobb, but with Hall, the Bengals had no need to.
Hall covered Cobb for 17 qualifying plays under my criteria, which can be found at the top of this article. On those 17 plays, Cobb only came free twice: once on a deep out route when Hall lost his bearings coming out of his break, and once when Hall overplayed a double move to let Cobb free in the flat. That performance had us choosing Hall as one of Football Outsiders' under-the-radar Week 3 stars for Madden 25 Ultimate Team.
Two plays in particular showed off Hall's talent.
As he did on every single play when he covered Cobb, Hall lined up in the slot against the receiver. The Packers have one tight end to the left side of the formation, which draws one of the Bengals safeties close to the line of scrimmage. That leaves the other safety deep, while both of the defense's linebackers are pressing over the center at the line of scrimmage. This puts Hall on an island with Cobb.
At the snap, Cobb immediately attacks Hall's outside shoulder before cutting back inside on a slant route. With Cobb's quickness and intelligence in executing his release, he normally loses any defensive back who is playing press coverage at this point in the play. Hall is fluid enough to stick with Cobb at the release and is on his back as he enters his route. At this point, Rodgers can still get the ball to him if he leads him in field.
Rodgers does lead Cobb with a perfect throw, but as soon as Cobb puts his hands on the ball Hall is able to punch it out. Most defensive backs in this position would be too close to the receiver and give the referees an opportunity to flag them for pass interference. Hall isn't even touching Cobb, so he can't be called for a flag. Instead he relies on his outstanding wingspan and strength to knock the ball out of Cobb's hands. These are aspects of Hall's game that permeate through everything he does. He may not look like Calvin Johnson or Adrian Peterson, but he is a special athlete because of that combination.
That athleticism contributed to his interception that came on a play that is familiar for anyone who watches Hall regularly.
Hall is brilliant at handling double moves. His fluidity and length means that he doesn't have to overcommit to routes in order to be in position to make a play on the ball. On this play, early in the fourth quarter, Cobb runs an out route initially and Hall drops off into a position that allows him to watch the quarterback and be in position to make a play on any pass that goes Cobb's way.
Even though Hall was not in perfect position to cover the out route, he is able to perfectly mirror Cobb as he turns down the sideline. Because Hall is facing Cobb when he turns and not looking for the ball, Rodgers throws it expecting Cobb to be in a better position to make a play. Or for Hall to commit pass interference by not turning his head. Instead, Hall is perfectly composed and turns around at the perfect time to snatch the ball out of the air.
Teams don't throw at Hall that often. He doesn't look to bait quarterbacks either. Instead, he just goes out on every snap and covers receivers as well as anyone in the NFL.
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