Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

12 Sep 2012

Word of Muth: 49ers Down the Packers

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.

Posted by: Ben Muth on 12 Sep 2012

43 comments, Last at 17 Sep 2012, 7:46pm by DuckFan

Comments

1
by dryheat :: Wed, 09/12/2012 - 2:51pm

Also, please give me some feedback in the comment section on the telestrated plays. I like them better than the old diagrams,

I love it. This was like the early days of Madden...before he got uber-famous and senile.

2
by tuluse :: Wed, 09/12/2012 - 2:57pm

I didn't know the names of the 49ers offensive linemen before the article, and I was a little lost until I looked them up. Maybe at the start of each column, have a key with each lineman's name, position and number.

4
by turbohappy (not verified) :: Wed, 09/12/2012 - 3:05pm

Agreed. Especially the first Anthony Davis reference. I had no clue who I was supposed to be looking at in the picture initially.

13
by Ben Muth :: Wed, 09/12/2012 - 4:18pm

Got you. I'll try to add number and position number the first time anyone comes up in an article.

32
by RC (not verified) :: Thu, 09/13/2012 - 10:17am

Ben, rather than a list in the text, could you put a simple chart at the top of the article (maybe 5 circles with numbers in them and names above them). It'll be quicker to reference back to when you're halfway through the article.

Something visual is much easier to use than having to pick through text.

3
by turbohappy (not verified) :: Wed, 09/12/2012 - 3:03pm

The screen caps are awesome. Adds another dimension to an already excellent column.

5
by Joseph :: Wed, 09/12/2012 - 3:07pm

1. Screenshots are definitely better than the diagrams.
2. Adding the O-lines' jersey #'s would help.
3. On this last screen shot, one about 1/2 sec. earlier would have helped. I was wondering who the O-lineman on his butt was, and then you explained that Boone cut-blocked.
4. On any shot that focuses on an individual lineman and his block/technique, you might do a smaller screenshot. That way, you can still explain everything, and add in more pics without making the article/page longer.
Still the best article describing line play anywhere.

6
by commissionerleaf :: Wed, 09/12/2012 - 3:17pm

Agree with most of the comments above regarding style and have nothing to add.

Substance:

1. Did you have any opinion on whether an offensive lineman or coach would rather have Kendall Hunter running as opposed to Gore? Gore still seems a little harder to bring down, but Hunter is very fast and decisive.

2. Comments on Alex Smith's pocket presence?

3. You didn't talk about protection schemes very much. Who, if anyone, were the 49ers trying to protect? Staley (on Matthews?) Davis (who has a history of awful pass blocking, I hear?)...

14
by Ben Muth :: Wed, 09/12/2012 - 4:22pm

I thought Hunter looked a bit better, but it's just one game and Frank Gore didn't look Chris Johnson washed up or anything.

I thought Alex Smith looked really comfortable back there. Stepped up when he needed to, and had a good command of when pressures were coming that the o-line couldn't pick up.

Didn't think they went out of their way to protect anyone. I'd say Staley was alone a little more often, but I never felt like they were sending extra help to protect Davis. They had faith in both guys and just ran their offense.

18
by Little Bobby Tables (not verified) :: Wed, 09/12/2012 - 5:19pm

shots fired at Chris Johnson! Unfortunately Johnson chooses not to use his running away from the cops speed to evade them, instead immediately falls to the ground.

7
by Reader Martin (not verified) :: Wed, 09/12/2012 - 3:21pm

Thoroughly satisfying. I've been waiting for the fruits of the All-22 film all summer. It's good to know that football is still being played the way it is meant to be played. What is surprising is how much we miss from the standard TV feed, and how little insight we get from the in-game analysis. Considering how much money is spent on the broadcasts, I think the networks should be ashamed at how elementary the product is.

8
by bravehoptoad :: Wed, 09/12/2012 - 3:28pm

If weren't here telling me so, Ben, I would have just thought the line had a pretty good day against a bad defense, except that Matthews blew Staley up in pass protection. There's just no one else making these kind of evaluations, that I can find.

I'd love sometime to see some breakdown of those plays where SF brings in extra linemen, or D-linemen. Against the Pack they seemed to go nowhere. I'm curious to know what they're thinking with all that meat out there.

Love the new photos. I like the idea of running names and number at the top...I know the team pretty well, and still had to check that Goodwin's number was 59.

19
by Will Allen :: Wed, 09/12/2012 - 5:20pm

Eh, Matthews is a well above average edge rusher, and Staley was tasked with handling him without assistance, on the road. I think Staley did pretty well, all in all.

Agree with the photos, and the idea about adding data.

Great column. Hope every week works out close to this well for the Niners offensive line.

20
by LionInAZ :: Wed, 09/12/2012 - 6:06pm

Matthews *is* an excellent edge rusher, but there's no way he should be able to get in the face and knock down a tackle who outweighs him by 50-60 pounds and has good technique. It's one thing to beat the T with speed around the corner or with a spin or swim move inside, quite another to just overpower a LT much bigger than you.

24
by Will Allen :: Wed, 09/12/2012 - 6:36pm

Of course, it is the threat of getting beat with speed that often leads to a much bigger man to get back on his heels, allowing the smaller one to gain leverage and thus overpower the bigger man. Yes, if all big men had consistently good technique, it wouldn't happen as often as it does.

Clay Matthews is going to make some people look bad, especially in Lambeau, when trying to block him unassisted, and he will make them look bad in a variety of ways.

9
by Eric71 (not verified) :: Wed, 09/12/2012 - 3:31pm

I liked the screen caps, but in some cases there was a little ambiguity as to which part of the shot I was supposed to be looking at. Something like labeling with letters or numbers or a similar approach might help a bit. Overall though I found them very helpful.

10
by James B (not verified) :: Wed, 09/12/2012 - 3:33pm

Only thing I would appreciate is marking the players better. For those of us(me, for example) who don't have a real understanding of line play and are getting it via these kinds of articles, figuring out who came from where can be rather difficult from still shots, especially in congested areas like the highlight, which contains 5 49ers and 2 Packers.
Also, identifying defensive players more clearly by position in your text may help. While the vast majority of people know where Matthews, Raji and Woodson play, naming Arizona defenders outside of Peterson is going to leave me lost.

Other than that, awesome. As some one fairly new to football, line play tends to be hard to understand, and these articles help a lot.

11
by zenbitz :: Wed, 09/12/2012 - 3:42pm

I agree the run blocking was awesome... but I have concerns about the pass protection that allowed 4 sacks in 30 dropbacks... not including 4-5 QB scrambles (one might have been designed).

On the other hand, Smith clearly has "Eat the Ball" written 3,000 times in really small type on that wrist band of his.

16
by Karl Cuba :: Wed, 09/12/2012 - 4:31pm

It's hard to know how mich Staley was affected by breaking his nose on the opening play.

One of Woodson's sacks was just a missed assignment by Miller, who is pretty effective when he knows who to block, he had an excellent game other than that.

12
by zenbitz :: Wed, 09/12/2012 - 3:49pm

For others - the Niners line is (left to right)

Staley 74
Iupati 77
Goodwin 59
Boone 75
A.Davis 76

Leonard Davis is 68

Vernon Davis (TE) is 85

The average 49ers Davis is 76.33. The Average Smith is 68. But you probably know the Smiths.

Miller (FB) is 49 although you cannot see his number, Kendall Hunter (RB) is 32.

15
by Karl Cuba :: Wed, 09/12/2012 - 4:28pm

I'd like to say nice things about this but the spam filter is killing me.

17
by Anonymouse (not verified) :: Wed, 09/12/2012 - 4:48pm

Did you happen to count the # of uncalled false starts? I didn't watch the whole game, I only saw 1 as it happened, but I read a report that there were 4 total.

21
by James-London :: Wed, 09/12/2012 - 6:23pm

Screen capture is great-makes a really good column better.

Phil Simms is a Cretin.

22
by Aloysius Mephis... :: Wed, 09/12/2012 - 6:24pm

The comment about Iupati pulling right is great. Even on the 23-yard touchdown run by Gore, he looked uncertain about who to block and sort of split between two defenders. He did just get a hand on A.J. Hawk. Not sure Hawk could have caught Gore even had Iupati not been there.

23
by LionInAZ :: Wed, 09/12/2012 - 6:36pm

1. Love the evaluation.

2. The editing needs to better connect the text with the screen grabs. The last screen cap here appeared 3 paragraphs before it was mentioned in the text, and there was no pointer provided to the relevant image.

3. As long as you're evaluating one OL, why not do the opponent's too? For example, I'd love to hear if the 49er D wins line battles by holding, as implied by a recent FO article. I'd be happy to wait an extra day for the added content.

26
by Karl Cuba :: Thu, 09/13/2012 - 7:15am

I think that article overstated the holding. It should really have said that the niners defensive line wins some of its battles by holding, in a similar manner to many other lines and like many teams that push the rules right up to the edge to gain maximal advantage. That doesn't really trip off the tongue though does it.

Also, the screen grabs in question in that article showed that the Justin Smith hold had nothing to do with the sack as Aldon Smith ended up looping around the center after reading how the blocking had developed, the left tackle had no chance to get across to there, even Joe Thomas.

28
by Ulrik (not verified) :: Thu, 09/13/2012 - 7:52am

In the first screenshot the tacle is clearly heading straight for the looping end/weakside backer (can't remember), and the D-lineman in question only has his oustretched hands on his shoulder. No way could he end up with the o-line locked up without holding.

30
by Karl Cuba :: Thu, 09/13/2012 - 9:33am

I'm not saying that Justin Smith wasn't holding on that play, just that as Aldon Smith looped around the center the left tackle wasn't going to be in position to block him anyway. And one example of holding, however clear it is, does not mean that all good plays that the niners make from stunts are all the result of holding. I've seen Justin Smith obliterate a left tackle while totally ignoring the left guard who was trying to block him.

I would also be amazed if this was unique the 49ers.

31
by glickmania :: Thu, 09/13/2012 - 10:06am

I'm not saying that Justin Smith wasn't holding on that play, just that as Aldon Smith looped around the center the left tackle wasn't going to be in position to block him anyway.

I've seen this brought up before and that assumption is incorrect. The point of the stunt is to make sure Aldon Smith is free to cut across the middle unhindered before rushing the QB. Without Justin Smith getting in the way, Aldon *can* be slowed down by the tackle as they are lined up against each other. Even a small amount of redirection could have done the trick as Aldon Smith is moving upfield the whole time with the exception of a slight stutter-step as he cuts the sharp corner towards the QB.

In short, Aldon doesn't loop around, he cuts directly across the field on a diagonal path to the opening created by Justin Smith & Dobbs. This is illustrated by looking at the yard markers in the screen shots. Just check Aldon's feet.

34
by Karl Cuba :: Thu, 09/13/2012 - 10:51am

I disagree, how can Thomas block someone moving away from him? Justin Smith might have been holding but Thomas would have had to have moved straight through him.

Aldon Smith moves round the right guard who isn't being held and is the man who could have picked him up. I'd say more but the spam filter is eating my posts.

34
by Karl Cuba :: Thu, 09/13/2012 - 10:51am

I disagree, how can Thomas block someone moving away from him? Justin Smith might have been holding but Thomas would have had to have moved straight through him.

Aldon Smith moves round the right guard who isn't being held and is the man who could have picked him up. I'd say more but the spam filter is eating my posts.

36
by Karl Cuba :: Thu, 09/13/2012 - 10:52am

Death to Spam filters!

38
by glickmania :: Thu, 09/13/2012 - 11:51am

If the screens don't break it down for you enough and the explanation in the Film Room article doesn't suit you go ahead and check the film for yourself. It's all right there.

25
by TheConfessor :: Wed, 09/12/2012 - 10:32pm

Just chiming in to again note that this is easily one of the best regular NFL articles out there, and one of the big reasons I keep coming back to FO. Kudos to Ben for the content, and kudos to FO leadership for making it available - please keep this running as long as possible.

27
by Karl Cuba :: Thu, 09/13/2012 - 7:43am

This article has a decent look at showing the 49ers running right out of a similar heavy formation to the second one Ben looked at.

http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap1000000061128/article/san-francisco-49e...

29
by Alex K (not verified) :: Thu, 09/13/2012 - 9:09am

Mr. Muth:

The new format with pictures rather than diagrams is fantastic, and I don't have a complaint but only a question: You said BJ Raji got stonewalled 95% of the time and it got me thinking if there's any move toward some kind of Individual Offensive Lineman statistics here? I know that there's charting of team rushing success but I'm really interested in individual line play, which obviously is tough to chart due to there being different schemes and the number of linemen on the field at a time. It has always been considered difficult to quantify line play, but I'm curious to know who spends the most plays throwing "no hitters," who is pulling, cutting, etc. Thanks for a consistently entertaining and informative read.

41
by Dan :: Sat, 09/15/2012 - 6:34am

Pro Football Focus reports individual offensive lineman statistics, but they're only relatively general 'success rate' type statistics - they don't track what specifically the lineman is doing (pulling, double-teaming, etc.). On passing plays, they count sacks, hits, and hurries allowed, which they use to calculate Pass Blocking Efficiency. On running plays, they just give a grade, which is basically number of good plays minus number of bad plays (with some weighting), normalized.

43
by Intropy :: Sun, 09/16/2012 - 12:27pm

They also tend to accord poorly with reality. I'm often left wondering why someone who didn't let in any pressure and did his job in the run has a bad score while someone who gave up a sack and needed help all night gets a good score. I don't know how they are making their determinations, but I just don't trust it.

33
by Mike Jones (not verified) :: Thu, 09/13/2012 - 10:27am

Just a note regarding the Packers' front on the final screen-capped play. A weak 3-tech and strong 1-tech would be a 3-4 under front, not an over front.

Either way, it's a type of 1-gap 3-4 that Houston also uses sometimes. See, for example:

http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1105995-football-101-bridging-the-gap...

39
by Ben Muth :: Thu, 09/13/2012 - 1:43pm

You're right. Brain fart by me. Good catch

40
by Ben Muth :: Thu, 09/13/2012 - 1:43pm

You're right. Brain fart by me. Good catch

37
by FrontRunningPhinsFan :: Thu, 09/13/2012 - 11:49am

Already the best football article here (or anywhere in my opinion) has just gotten better. I love everything about the new setup. I'd just echo what others have said regarding player, position, and number.

My only gripe is I could have sworn you said something in one of the offseason articles about doing an article on the Dolphins o-line and then I didn't see anything until this article.

What gives? Am I crazy, or did I get cheated?

Fire Jeff Ireland.

42
by Jerry :: Sun, 09/16/2012 - 4:11am

I just want to add my kudos for the telestration, and for the column.

44
by DuckFan (not verified) :: Mon, 09/17/2012 - 7:46pm

I just like to know: Is footballoutsiders standing by it's prediction of a 7-9 record for the 2012 SF 49ers? You might want to tell that computer that men, not numbers, play football. On the other hand, it's only two games, so, is it still 7-9?