Eight weeks ago, the Vikings were undefeated and ranked No. 1 in DVOA. Now they're 6-6 and probably done. What went wrong?
15 Nov 2012
by Ben Muth
A lot has been made of Jeff Fisher’s aggressiveness against the 49ers on Sunday. Most of the attention has rightfully gone to the two fake punts, but the Rams were just as aggressive on defense. In addition to constantly stacking the box to stop the 49ers running game, St. Louis used frequent stunts and slants from the defensive line to penetrate gaps and blow plays up in the backfield. Their activeness caused a lot of problems for San Francisco’s front five throughout the game.
Jonathan Goodwin and Alex Boone, in particular, struggled against the Rams' movement up front. Goodwin had problems handling Kendall Langford, who was using a lot of quick swim moves right off the snap to get penetration immediately. It seemed Goodwin would either get beat right off the snap or control Langford handily throughout the play. Quick swims look great when they work, but they can get you killed if you swim towards a double team because of how exposed they leave your ribs. Langford seemed to pick his spots well, because I never saw him really take a big lick.
Boone didn’t get beat as cleanly as Goodwin, but would sit a little behind his blocks whenever someone slanted inside. Usually he was able to maintain his assignment somewhat, but he allowed enough penetration to muck up pullers and cutback lanes throughout the game. It was probably the worst game that either Goodwin or Boone played all year.
On top of the frequent slants, the St. Louis defense also showed a willingness to bring heavy pressure on key plays. The Rams brought seven or eight defenders on two of the most important third downs of the game. The first happened to be Alex Smith's last play of the game.
The 49ers had a third-and-7 from the St. Louis 14. San Francisco was in a single-back personnel grouping and motioned to a trips right formation. The Rams were in a Nickel 4-2 and brought seven rushers, sending Cortland Finnegan and Jo-Lonn Dunbar off opposite edges, and James Laurinaitis into San Francisco’s right B-gap.
The 49ers were in 2 Jet protection. That means that Goodwin (C), Mike Iupati (LG), and Joe Staley (LT) were sliding left. Boone (RG) had the three-technique over top of him, and Anthony Davis (RT) had defensive end Chris Long. Kendall Hunter was responsible for Laurinaitis and Finnegan.
As you can see above, Hunter sees Finnegan coming first and moves out to block him. The slide picks up Dunbar as well as the two defensive linemen to the left. That leaves Laurinaitis completely unblocked: It is Smith’s job to get rid of it before the unblocked rusher gets to him.
Luckily for Smith, the 49ers have a perfect call for the blitz. It’s a basic spacing route combination that is usually a first-day install for any West Coast offense. The trips side runs a streak, out, hook/out combination. The hook/out is a hook against zone coverage, and an out against man-to-man coverage. There is a quick slant on the single receiver side.
Based on what the Rams showed later in the game, I think they were in Cover-0 behind the blitz here. Michael Crabtree runs the hook option of the hook/out here even though it’s probably man. I'm guessing this is because he’s so wide open, he thought it was zone coverage.
Smith does a good job of recognizing the blitz and gets the ball out to Crabtree quickly. Crabtree makes a guy miss and gets into the end zone, but he had a lot of help from the Rams initial alignment.
There’s a saying in football that goes "you can either hide a blitz or run it right, you can’t do both." Here, the Rams elected to hide their blitz. If you look at the wide shot of the play before the snap, the Rams aren’t aligned like a team that is going to bring the house. As a result, they are out of position.
Once the 49ers snap the ball, everyone on St. Louis’ defense simply has too far to go to make a play. Laurinaitis is unblocked, but he has to take a non-direct line to the quarterback. Craig Dahl has Michael Crabtree man-to-man, but has run twenty yards across the field to get to him. By the time he gets there, he has no chance of making a tackle on Crabtree. The reason teams don’t show their blitzes sometimes is because they don’t want to let quarterbacks audible to the perfect call. Here, the 49ers had the perfect call in the huddle (a quick-developing pass play with lots of immediate options) and there was nothing the Rams could do.
Despite the early touchdown, the Rams stayed aggressive throughout regulation and into overtime. The aggression would pay off on what turned out to be San Francisco’s last play.
It was once again third-and-7. San Francisco lined up in a weak offset-I with the tight end flexed to the left. The Rams were in a 4-3 Over with the Will linebacker walked up on the ball. They also walked up free safety Quintin Mikell to the line of scrimmage.
The Rams are once again coming with an all-out blitz. They bring eight rushers, though a couple of them are probably green-dogging. Both Mikell and Rocky McIntosh (the Will linebacker) are blitzing off San Francisco’s right edge. Laurinaitis and Dunbar are both blitzing to the right side as well. They look like they’re trying to fit in wherever they can find a crease on that side.
San Francisco has gone max protect and is in a full-slide protection. The two running backs are responsible for anything off the edge to the right and every offensive linemen is responsible for the gap to their left.
The goal of St. Louis is pretty clear: overwhelm the right side of San Francisco’s protection. A problem arises though when Goodwin decides to help inside when he sees Michael Brockers rushing very wide against Iupati. He ends up sealing off Langford in the right A-gap. Now there is a huge lane for Colin Kaepernick to run through. Kapernick is certainly capable for running for seven yards and a first down...
...But Kaepernick can’t run for seven yards with Long wrapped around him. Long made the defensive play of the game by beating Davis across his face, despite the fact that Davis was sliding that way already, and sacking Kaepernick right as he was pulling it down to run. It was a great play by Long and an inexcusable one for Davis.
Getting beat inside by a defensive end when you are sliding is a really bad screwup: it’s like a corner getting beat on a slant at the goal line when he aligned with inside leverage. It wasn’t the only time Davis had problems with Long (who really impressed me), but it was surely the most costly. The 49ers never saw the ball again.
This was also a good example of how an aggressive blitz can pay off even when it’s picked up. The 49ers running backs did a nice job picking up St. Louis’ edge blitzers, and the other linebackers were going to have a hard time finding a way through the mass of humanity. But because St. Louis brought so many guys, they got one-on-one matchups across the board. It only took one guy to win his matchup for the gambit to pay off, and that’s exactly what Long did.
Before we wrap up this week, I wanted to show a nice example of how simple motions can sometimes pay huge dividends for the offense. In this case it resulted in a 20-yard touchdown run for Frank Gore.
After the Rams fumbled a kickoff, the 49ers had a first-and-10 from the St. Louis 20. They lined up in an I-formation with two tight ends on the right, but before the snap, they sent Delanie Walker in yo-yo motion, meaning he went across the center and came right back to where he was.
Notice above where safety Mikell and corner Finnegan are lined up before the motion. Also, notice the Rams are in a base 4-3 Under, although that’s not as important.
Now there’s the picture just before the snap after Walker has motioned. Mikell has dropped down to the line of scrimmage just outside of the widest 49ers player. That’s because the Rams are about to slant their defensive front (including the walked up linebacker) to San Francisco’s left, so they need a defensive back to be the force player. It was originally Finnegan, but when Walker motioned across the formation, Mikell had to step up and take his place.
The yellow circle above is where Mikell came from, and where you would like to see Finnegan get to before the snap. Finnegan doesn’t get there, however, and is caught inside when the play begins.
There are immediate problems for St. Louis. Finnegan sees the off-tackle action, but isn’t sure what to do; probably because he’s a yard off the ball in the B-gap, which is uncommon ground for a cornerback. So, he delays a second before trying to shoot the gap and make the play in the backfield. Unfortunately, right as he’s doing this, Vernon Davis knocks the slanting McIntosh right into him.
Because of the slant, Gore is able to get outside very quickly, and now Mikell is the only thing between the running back and the sideline. The safety does a nice job of keeping his outside arm free against Walker at first, but eventually lead blocker Bruce Miller gets up to him and essentially double teams him until he comes off on Laurinaitis. No safety is going to be able to keep contain on a double team like that. As a result, Gore was able to get the edge.
Now, if Finnegan had been able to get back to where Mikell was originally lined up, he would have been an effective scrape player. The 49ers still probably would’ve gained seven-to-nine yards just because they had an off-tackle play called right towards the slant, but that's a far sight better than a touchdown.
15 comments, Last at 26 Nov 2012, 4:59am by Subrata Sircar