Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
12 Sep 2012
by Ben Muth
I am really enjoying the All-22 Coach’s film now available with NFL Game Rewind Plus. It is a revelation. Not to knock previous work in this column, but the difference between the broadcast feed and the end zone shot for every snap is like the difference between seeing underwater with and without goggles.
Not only can I see technique much clearer, I no longer have to spend 20 minutes trying to determine whether or not the defensive tackle was a three-technique (outside shoulder of the guard) or a 4I-technique (inside shoulder of the tackle). Whatever anyone says about Sheriff Goodell's failings, and there are plenty of them, you have to give him credit for pulling a Prometheus and bringing light to us, the unwashed masses.
That being said, it didn’t take new camera angles to see that the 49ers offensive line played really well against Green Bay. They protected very well (with one exception), and moved the ball on the ground effectively against the Packers’ front seven. Before we talk about the positives, I am going to address the one negative first, just because I mentioned something about it in my offseason column about San Francisco.
Joe Staley had the toughest assignment of the day as he was matched up mostly against Clay Matthews. Staley, like all his teammates, did well in the running game. But he did struggle in protection when left one-on-one with the Pro Bowler, giving up a couple of sacks and some pressures as well. His biggest issue was his inability to use his hands to punch Matthews and take him off his rush path.
The problem is that he tends to let his hands drop in his set against wide rushers. So, when it comes time to punch, his hands have too far to go, and the pass rusher is into his chest. Let’s go to the tape (well, screen grabs of the tape) and take a look at this for ourselves.
If you look at the first shot you can see Staley (circled) just in range of Matthews. See how his arms are almost completely straight, so his hands are down around his knees? It looks like he’s either about to hug Matthews or tell him "come at me bro." Contrast that with Anthony Davis. Good body position, with his elbows cocked at 90 degrees, and his hands in his framework ready to deliver a blow. That’s how it should look.
Now, look at the next shot. Matthews is underneath Staley’s helmet with both hands right in his chest. Staley’s hands are outside where they can’t generate any leverage. He’s already on back on his heels. While it may look like Staley is in decent position body wise, the reality is that Staley is already beat.
As the play progressed, Staley overcompensated on the bull rush by leaning too far forward. Matthews simply used his inside leverage to yank down and drop Staley on his face. The end result was a five-yard sack on the first drive of the game.
Now that we've looked at the bad, we can get on with the good. For 49ers fans, the most encouraging thing might be Alex Boone -- the first-year starter stepped in and played really well. My favorite part of his game was how effective he was on pulls. The 49ers ran a good deal of the pin and pull outside zone, where everyone runs basic outside zone except for the playside tackle and guard. The playside tackle blocks down, and the guard pulls around to the right side. Boone did an excellent job leading around the edge.
Usually, with big guys pulling around, you'll accept them just covering defenders up. But Boone was doing a good job of dropping his hips and exploding into defenders to move them out of the way, opening lanes for Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter. It was an impressive performance for someone who was knocked as unathletic coming out of Ohio State. He also looked good in pass protection.
The other big concern for 49ers fans up front is probably Davis. The former first-rounder was solid, if unspectacular. He did a nice job in pass protection. I can recall just two times where he really got beat, and both times Alex Smith stepped up in the pocket to avoid the pressure. Davis was also pretty good in the running game, though one thing I did notice is that he had a hard time sticking to linebackers at the second level. He got to them fine, and made solid contact, but would let them come off late and make the play. His initial blocks still allowed the backs to gain four-to-seven yards, but it is something he should work to clean up.
Finally, we come to the two guys that played the best up front for San Francisco. Jonathan Goodwin committed fewer errors than any other 49ers offensive lineman, with the possible exception of Boone. I’m struggling to think of a time when he got beat; he did his job on every play. He had a couple plays that stood out, but for the most part he just blocked his man and prevented him from making a play.
Mike Iupati, on the other hand, jumped off the tape at certain times ... but he also had a couple of negative plays. Most of Iupati’s struggles came when he was pulling to his right: he had a hard time deciding where to turn up, and who to block once he got there. The result was that he threw a couple of no-hitters. When he did make contact on a pull, he was a beast. He had a block on Charles Woodson in the fourth quarter that looked almost comical because of how nonchalantly he flattened the newly converted safety.
If the play didn't involve pulling right, Iupati dominated. It started with the first play of the game, when he knocked B.J. Raji to the ground on a down block. When they ran behind him, he moved defensive linemen wherever he wanted. (I posted a nice before and after shot on Twitter.) In pass protection, he stonewalled his man 95 percent of the time. It was particularly noticeable when he drew Raji, who was mostly terrible in this game. The only time he gave up a pressure was when Matthews lined up over him and they ran a twist.
If someone was grading the performances, they might have Goodwin marked higher, just because he made fewer mistakes. But I’d be surprised if anyone wasn’t more impressed with Iupati’s display of brute strength.
Closing up, I wanted to highlight a play that really summarizes San Francisco’s unit-wide domination up front. There was 9:17 left in the third quarter, and San Francisco was on Green Bay's 9-yard-line. They brought in Leonard Davis as an extra lineman, and lined him up on the right as a really big diversion (circled). The fullback was in an offset-I to the left.
The Packers were in a base 3-4 over front. That meant the nose tackle was shaded to the tight end side, and the weakside defensive end was playing three-technique. The 49ers ran a basic weak outside zone to the left. The play was basic, but the execution was flawless.
The first thing that jumped out at me is they got the center, Goodwin, to reach the playside three-technique (highlighted to illustrate how far he is from the center at the snap). Obviously, Iupati helps by blowing up the defensive end’s outside shoulder, but for a center to get his helmet outside on a non-stunting three-tech is really impressive -- some guards struggle to reach three-techniques. After Iupati secures the down man on Goodwin, he climbs to second level for the weakside middle linebacker.
Just outside of the combo block is Joe Staley, who releases to the safety immediately since he’s uncovered and the combo is accounting for the weakside middle linebacker. Staley latches on and drives his man all the way to the 1-yard-line. Staley did a nice job all day on the second level.
The last and most important block comes from fullback Bruce Miller. He goes to kick out on Matthews at the line of scrimmage. Matthews tried to jump inside and make a play in the backfield, but Miller redirected with him and allowed Hunter to bounce outside.
Also, of note is Alex Boone’s nice cut block on the nose (highlighted). It probably didn’t matter, since Hunter bounced it anyway, but it was a perfect cut. It could’ve been a touchdown-springing block if Hunter took it between the tackles.
It was a simple play design, with a personnel wrinkle, that was blocked as well as it could have been. Just good old-fashioned Budweiser-swilling ball right there, folks. I could’ve highlighted any number of plays that were run just as efficiently, which says all you need to know about how well the 49ers line played.
That does it for this week. Remember to follow me on Twitter. I’m going to try to put some diagrams and screen grabs they may not fit in the column over there. Also, please give me some feedback in the comment section on the telestrated plays. I like them better than the old diagrams, but I also have seen the play on video to fill in the gaps. Are they clear enough? I don’t want to get to the point where each play requires eight pictures, but I could take it up to three or four if readers think it’s a little vague now. Any input is appreciated.
43 comments, Last at 17 Sep 2012, 7:46pm by DuckFan