Offensive line problems highlight the needs in the NFC North ... except in Chicago, which is kind of unsettling to think about.
07 Feb 2013
by Ben Muth
The 2012 football season is officially in the books and the Baltimore Ravens, with apologies to the Toronto Argonauts, are the World Champions. There’s a lot that could be written about their offensive line, and how they came together after a late season shuffle to allow Joe Flacco to play the best football of his career. But this column has focused on the 49ers offensive line this year, and I’m not one to change horses midstream. The next two weeks I’ll look at how San Francisco’s offensive line played in Super Bowl XLVII; this week I'm focusing on their play before the blackout.
I thought the 49ers' offensive line outplayed the Ravens' front seven. Their pass protection was solid. The three sacks were all either coverage sacks or the result of an otherworldly jump by Paul Kruger (jump as in he timed it perfectly, I'm not implying he was offsides). The 49ers line also generated solid movement in the running game.
All five individual linemen played well, though one was slightly disappointing, but I want to focus on Alex Boone. The right guard was a first-year starter in 2012 and surprised a lot of people, including me, with how well he played all year. The Super Bowl was no exception. He was great in pass protection, particularly in picking up linebackers who had timed the snap count well on their blitzes, which is never easy. The only thing resembling a pressure he gave up was on a well-designed twist on the first play after the blackout, and that was just as much Jonathan Goodwin’s fault as it was his. But where Boone really excelled was trap blocking.
San Francisco is one of the few teams in NFL or FBS football that runs the trap on a consistent basis. It’s an old play, with roots dating back to Pop Warner, where the playside defensive tackle is allowed to cross the line of scrimmage unblocked before being "trapped" by a puller from the opposite side of the line. The reason that such a classic play fell out of favor was that defensive tackles got too big and too good at recognizing it. They would fire out, realize no one was blocking them, and turn to stuff the trap blocker in the hole. As a result, the trap was seen less and less at the highest levels of football.
Starting last year, the 49ers started to bring the trap back. There are a couple reasons Greg Roman and company have had success with what was thought to be a dead play. The first is that since no one runs it anymore, defensive tackles aren’t used to playing it. It’s simple, but players get good at techniques through repetition, and since the 49ers are the only team that uses the trap as more than a strange gimmick, defensive tackles never practice against it.
The second reason is that the 49ers run a couple of different schemes where they leave defensive linemen initially unblocked at the point of attack. They run a wham concept -- which is basically the exact same as the trap -- but instead of a pulling lineman, a fullback or tight end comes from either inside or outside and blocks the defensive tackle instead. So when a defender is unblocked against the 49ers, he doesn’t know whether to look outside for Delanie Walker or inside for Alex Boone. Or maybe he’s unblocked because Colin Kaepernick is reading him for an option. It’s hard to play a gap technique when you have no idea who’s coming to block you from where.
The final reason is probably the most important: San Francisco has really good guards. Both Mike Iupati and Boone are big, strong guys who can move guys out of the hole. They would make a lot of schemes look good. Let’s take a look at a trap play from the second quarter.
This first frame is just so you can get an idea of the basic play concept; what’s really exciting here is the execution. You can see in the second frame that Ravens defensive tackle Pernell McPhee does a decent job of recognizing the trap block (probably because he had already been steamrolled by Boone on the same concept in the first quarter) and turning towards Boone to take it on.
Of course, recognizing the trap block and defeating it are two completely different things. Boone gets under McPhee’s facemask with his shoulder and forearm, then drives the defender straight onto his back and into the turf. I almost put a heart around the final frame instead of a circle, but I didn’t want Chris Culliver to stop reading.
It’s rare to see a straight one-on-one pancake block in the NFL and Boone had two in the first half of the Super Bowl on this one concept. That's a nice way to end a breakout year for him.
Iupati did not have as strong of a day. He wasn’t bad by any means (in fact I’d say he was above-average), but he wasn’t as good as he had been the majority of the season. He gave up a couple of pressures and didn’t generate the kind of movement that he usually does. One snap that sticks out in particular is a play where Haloti Ngata stuffed him into the hole on a trap.
He wasn’t bad by any means, but as one of my favorites this year, I was hoping for a really dominating performance on football’s biggest stage. That didn’t happen.
Schematically speaking, something that really jumped out to me was how much success San Francisco had running some new plays against Baltimore that they hadn’t shown against Atlanta or Green Bay. Two plays in particular stood out as new wrinkles in some of their most successful schemes. The first was a quarterback power they ran on third-and-short.
The power scheme was the 49ers bread and butter last year and for the first half of this year. They’ve gotten away from it a little bit for the read-option since Kaepernick took over, but they still run the hell out of it when it’s called. The basic concept is to create a double team on the frontside (either with the tackle and tight end or tackle and guard), kick the edge player, and pull and lead through with the guard.
Here, the Ravens are in a base 3-4. That means the double team is going to be between tight end Vernon Davis and right tackle Anthony Davis. Walker is kicking out the edge defender (outside linebacker Terrell Suggs) and Iupati is pulling and leading up in the hole.
Since Kaepernick is running the ball, the 49ers have an extra man to use: running back Frank Gore. They use Gore as an additional lead blocker.
I highlighted the double team above because the 49ers do a great job generating movement on the Ravens' best lineman, Ngata. There are two common ways people double team in the NFL. The more traditional way is to have the two blockers step laterally towards each other, get hip-to-hip, and create a two-man bulldozer to drive out the defender. The goal is to simply overwhelm the defender with pure tonnage and brute strength.
The Davises are doing it the other way: they’re trying to use Ngata’s own coaching against him, almost like an offensive line version of judo. Anthony Davis steps like he’s blocking inside zone to the left: that means he steps with his inside foot and aims for Ngata’s inside number. Ngata is two-gapping (he has both the B- and C-gaps), so when he feels Anthony Davis try to reach him inside, he starts closing with the tackle since it reads exactly like inside zone to the big man from Oregon.
Vernon Davis fires out like he's attempting a down block (45 degree angle) and aims directly for Ngata’s hip. Since Ngata’s momentum is already heading that way, the additional drive from Vernon Davis on Ngata’s hip knocks him further down the line. Also, since Vernon Davis is just engaging the hip of Ngata, the defensive tackle can’t grab him and keep him from getting up on linebacker Ray Lewis. It’s a terrific technique that probably isn’t used enough.
With a great double team from the tackle and tight end, and a serviceable job from Walker on a tough kickout block (he just didn't have a lot of space to create momentum), there’s a huge hole for both the lead blockers and Kaepernick. Iupati and Gore ended up on the playside inside linebacker, which is a little unfortunate from a pure efficiency standpoint. It was still extremely effective if you are just trying to gain two yards on third down, though. Kaepernick ended up diving down in front of Bernard Pollard for a nine-yard gain.
The other new wrinkle they threw at Baltimore in the first half was a twist on their zone read game. It was from a full house pistol alignment, and used the two up-backs in the formation to account for all contingencies.
It’s an arc-lead concept off the zone read. Walker arcs to widen the edge defender (which forces the give read on this play), and blocks a defensive back off-screen in case Kaepernick were to keep the ball. Bruce Miller comes across the formation and leads on the middle linebacker.
The 49ers had been running a similar concept out of a strong pistol formation (fullback offset towards the tight end, imagine Walker isn’t in the picture above) against Atlanta and Green Bay. But in that concept, Miller would be the only blocker in the backfield and he had to read whether to arc outside or lead up. From this formation, the 49ers can get both on every single play.
Circled above is the blunt force double team that I talked about earlier in the column. It’s a sign of good coaching that you let your guys play to their individual strengths. Everyone knows that it doesn’t make sense for Wes Welker and Randy Moss to run the same route tree, but it’s amazing how many people (including coaches) think an offensive lineman is just an offensive lineman.
Joe Staley is probably the best run-blocking tackle in the NFL. Mike Iupati might be the strongest guard in the NFL. It makes sense for them to double team differently than a tight end and a 23-year-old tackle. Staley and Iupati can grind up anyone, so the coach's job is to put them in a position to do just that.
The battering ram double team drives the defensive tackle straight into one inside linebacker, and Miller leads up on the other one. Gore cuts it up inside and gains seven yards before getting hauled down by Miller’s man.
It was a solid concept that the 49ers would break out a few more times in the second half for big gains, including the 33-yard gain by Gore that set up the game-ending goal-to-go situation.
But for all the good things San Francisco did up front, the story of the first half was one of missed opportunities for the 49ers. There were so many near-misses for the 49ers that kept them out of the end zone. Kaepernick missed Crabtree on the sprint out at the end of the half to force a field goal. There was the ball just tipping off of Crabtree’s fingers in the end zone on the play before a third-down sack that led to another field goal.
Hell, the first play of the game was a huge gain to Vernon Davis that was called back because of an inexcusable mental error on the outside. San Francisco followed that up with Frank Gore slipping while trying to cut outside on a perfectly-blocked second play of the game. For whatever reason, the 49ers just never fully clicked on offense in that first half, and it ended up costing them Super Bowl. Well, that and Flacco, Jacoby Jones, and Anquan Boldin.
That does it for this week. Come back next week for part two of the Super Bowl breakdown.
23 comments, Last at 11 Feb 2013, 5:57pm by RickD