Sunday's upset was the latest in a series of unexpected wins for Jeff Fisher and the Rams. How do they keep pulling this off?
14 Feb 2013
by Ben Muth
Welcome to Part II of the Super Bowl breakdown. If you missed it, here’s Part I. There’s a ton of individual plays I want to talk about, so this week’s column is basically going to be a comic book with duller colors and fewer deaths from a direct result of onomatopoeia.
On their first drive after the blackout, the 49ers marched right down the field and scored on a long pass to Michael Crabtree. The drive mainly consisted of long passes and Colin Kaepernick scrambles, two things that don’t really concern us for the time being. We’re going to skip ahead to their next touchdown drive.
After a big punt return from Ted Ginn and a pass to Vernon Davis, San Francisco was inside the 10-yard line. Greg Roman dialed up a counter trey. I don’t know who invented the counter trey, but it was the 80’s Redskins of Joe Gibbs and Joe Bugel that perfected it and brought it to widespread use.
Since this is 2012, the 49ers run it a little differently than the Hogs, but the scheme itself is the same. San Francisco ran it from a shotgun trips alignment and faked a sprint out pass or quarterback sweep to the left, bringing Frank Gore across the formation for a counter to the right.
The blocking is a simple down-down-kick scheme. Ideally you create at least one double team on the play side, and here the 49ers get one from tackle Anthony Davis and guard Alex Boone. Mike Iupati pulls and kicks out the end man on the line of scrimmage while Delanie Walker comes across and leads up into the hole.
A lot of good stuff happens on this play, but let’s start with the strong double from Davis and Boone. You’ll notice they’re hip-to-hip and driving the three-technique off the ball and inside. They’re widening the hole and giving Terrell Suggs a lot more space to close down before Iupati comes to kick him out.
As they’re double teaming the defensive tackle, Boone sees Dannell Ellerbe trying to run through the A-gap. Just like on a power scheme, the front side double team is working to the backside inside linebacker (Ray Lewis in this case). But the double also is responsible for all run-throughs, meaning if the playside linebacker tries to shoot the gap, you have to come off the double and handle it.
The reason the double-teaming guard has to come off is that the puller probably won’t be there in time to block the playside linebacker if he bursts through the line immediately. Boone sees Ellerbe’s runthrough late, but is able to dive and cut him down in the A-gap (arrowed).
The other key thing from the shot above is that Suggs is trying to work underneath Iupati’s kick-out block. That’s going to force both the lead blocker (Walker) and runner (Gore) outside.
Walker reads Iupati’s block beautifully and gets outside the pile up and onto safety Ed Reed (circled and very blurry) where he throws as pretty of a cut block as you’ll ever see. Gore essentially walks in for the score.
What went wrong for the Ravens? It looks like someone messed up on their run fit, because the game plan to stop this type of play sure wasn’t to have a coverage-first defensive back play off a lead blocker and make an open-field tackle. Either Suggs wasn’t supposed to spill the play, Ellerbe wasn’t supposed to run through, or defensive coordinator Dean Pees wildly overestimated Lewis’ ability to scrape over the top of everything (arrowed).
That last one is my working theory. Considering this is basically the same blocking action as power, a base 49ers run, it makes sense that the Ravens repped the hell out of how they wanted to fit it. A really effective way to stop power is to create a bunch of trash on the front side (by running through with the inside linebacker and wrong-arming with the edge guy) to force the ball carrier lateral. They're then counting on the backside linebacker to scrape over the top of everything. It’s tough for the pulling guard to see the backside player, so he usually goes unblocked and should be able to make the play.
The problem is that power is typically run to the strong side, and counter trey is run to the weak side. So instead of Lewis recognizing the play quickly, running through to plug a hole, and taking the teeth out of a double team while Ellerbe runs over the top to make the play, Lewis is the one that had to do all the running. That’s not what you want Ray Lewis to do during the last game of a very long career.
In the play above, Lewis over-committed to Kaepernick’s initial action and then had no chance to run across the field with Gore. He wasn’t blocked, and still came nowhere close to making the play.
After the Gore touchdown, the 49ers defense made their biggest play of the game by forcing and recovering a fumble in Baltimore territory. San Francisco’s offense failed to pick up a first down though, so the 49ers were forced to settle for a field goal.
On the next possession, San Francisco once again found their way to the red zone, this time thanks to long pass to Randy Moss and a long run by Gore. On second-and-7 from the 15, Baltimore decided to bring a cover-0 pressure at Kaepernick.
There’s a lot going on up there, but it’s all gap-sound, which is the key when you’re facing a mobile quarterback with cover-0 behind it. Both defensive ends are rushing straight up the field for contain. On the offense’s right, Ellerbe is rushing the A-gap while Courtney Upshaw handles the B-gap. On the other side, Haloti Ngata and Suggs are running a twist, with Ngata going wide to the B-gap and Suggs coming behind into the A-gap. Lewis has Gore man-to-man.
San Francisco looks to be in a 2 jet half-slide protection. That means everyone but right tackle Davis is sliding to the gap on their left, and Gore is coming across the formation to block whichever linebacker comes first. Keapernick is hot if both linebackers on the right side come.
One interesting thing to note is that Alex Boone takes a step-and-a-half in his slide to the left before stopping in his tracks and working back towards Ellerbe. This break from assignment is actually taught because of one very popular blitz.
The most common blitz in both the FBS and the NFL out of a 3-4 is what most people call "strike." It’s so common that other teams even call it the "NCAA blitz" because everyone runs it.
On strike, the defensive line slants one way, let’s say right, and the linebackers to the other side blitz outside the slant. In this case, imagine Arthur Jones and Ngata slanting hard towards the offense’s left, with Jones coming all the way to the A-gap and Ngata looping out for contain. Upshaw would rush wide and Ellerbe would rush almost straight ahead into the B-gap behind Jones. Teams often will drop the other defensive end into coverage. Defenses love it because you overload one side, forcing teams to throw hot, but you can also run sound coverage behind it.
Because offenses saw so much of that blitz, they started to adjust the rules of the most common protection to account for it. Now, a lot of teams will teach their guards to stop in their tracks if they see the nose tackle working hard away from them in the same direction as the slide. That’s what Boone does here (arrowed). When he sees Ngata slant away, he stops and ends up picking up Ellerbe in the A-gap, leaving Upshaw for Gore. The quarterback will still be hot. You can’t coach him to look to see if both linebackers come, but you’re only hot if the guard can’t come back and pick one of them up.
You’ll notice that because Boone aborts his slide, the 49ers can’t pick up the looping Suggs. The 49ers still have enough bodies to pick up the stunt, but it’s really difficult to do so because of the way the Ravens are running the twist. It’s not ideal, but since Kaepernick is supposed to throw hot anyway, it shouldn’t matter.
Of course, Kaepernick sees hot reads differently from most quarterbacks. Rather than immediately look for his hot receiver, he decides to pull the ball down and run away from the pressure. The Ravens have that accounted for though, because DeAngelo Tyson is already wide for contain. Tyson (circled) is bull rushing straight into Joe Staley. That's a strange choice if you’re trying to keep contain, but I’m sure he knows what he’s doing.
It looks like Tyson is having a hard time changing direction in order to chase down Kaepernick. That’s weird, because most people can push a 320-pound dude one direction, then immediately stop that momentum, reverse field, and get up to top speed instantly. But again, Tyson is a professional I’m sure he has this under control.
This is what drives defensive coaches insane. You dial up a risky-but-fundamentally sound blitz. You get exactly what you want: an unblocked defender and a young quarterback who doesn’t want to throw hot, so he tries to run around and make a play on his own. This is how you create negative plays for the offense. But instead, your idiot defensive end would rather put both hands in the middle of Staley’s chest because this could be the play where his crappy bull rush finally leads to a sack.
It’s amazing to me how often contain rushers fail to keep contain on blitzes. It’s like they don’t know what the rest of the defense is doing. If they just do their job, they can fall ass backwards into cheap sacks that count the same as the ones Dwight Freeney gets with his insane spin move. But Tyson wanted to do his own thing, so instead of being gifted a sack, he’s gifted The X of Great Shame.
Following the Kaepernick touchdown scramble, San Francisco decided to go for two. They lined up in shotgun tight end trips to the right. Baltimore came out with eight men on the line of scrimmage and basically held up a sign that said "we are blitzing everyone we can."
The Ravens rushed everyone straight ahead and played cover-0 behind it. It was a Pop Warner-level blitz, but one clever thing they did do was to have Reed blitz off the edge and Suggs account for Gore man-to-man. Every offense is going to account for Suggs as a blitzer, so by making him a dropper you really increase your chances of freeing somebody up.
I circled Staley above because he’s tapping his hip. It’s hard to tell that from the picture, but trust me, that is what’s happening. Staley’s doing that to let Gore know that he’s pinching down inside immediately, meaning that Gore has anything off the edge. He essentially turned a half-slide protection into a full-slide protection.
Backs are taught to work inside-out when handling threats off the edge. So Gore goes to Suggs and leaves Reed unblocked. I guess you could hope that Gore would see that Suggs isn’t rushing hard and try to come off on Reed, but that isn’t realistic, particularly with the jump that Reed got. The Ravens forced Kaepernick to throw right away and it wasn’t something he was able to do accurately. Obviously, this would come into play again.
Following the failed two-point attempt and a field-goal drive by the Ravens, San Francisco got the ball back one last time. They were down five and had a chance to win the game. Greg Roman decided to lean on what had been their best play up to that point: the zone-read arc lead. They ran it on the first play of the drive, and called it again a few plays later.
I diagrammed the play in Part I, but there it is again. The reason the play was so successful for San Francisco was that Suggs would see the arc block from Walker and rush wide to take away Kaepernick, leaving a huge hole between the double team and Suggs.
Here though, the Ravens are running a version of the strike blitz I talked about earlier. Ngata (lined up as a three-technique) slants hard inside to the A-gap while Ellerbe blitzes into the B-gap. Staley sees the blitz coming and slows up to gather Ellerbe down inside with him. Notice the super-wide left arm that he uses to club/grab the linebacker.
It’s great awareness by Staley; the key to the play, really. Now, it’s up to Lewis to come across the formation and make a tackle.
Lewis gets there in time, but can’t play off Bruce Miller’s lead block. Walker is also outside and he picks up Bernard Pollard. Gore (arrowed because the picture is so blurry), bounces it outside of Walker’s block and gains 33 yards before being run out at the 7.
The play above was the fifth time San Francisco ran zone-read arc lead in the game. They gained nine, seven, 21, eight, and 33 yards on those snaps. That is incredible production, so it makes sense that they called it again on the very next play, first-and-goal from the 7.
LaMichael James gained two yards on that play.
That’s why I don’t like people blaming the late-game play calling for San Francisco’s loss. On first down they ran the most successful play they had. On second down they got the quarterback out of the pocket and gave him a pass/run option. Then they tried to call a straight Kaepernick run, but couldn’t get the play off. They ended the drive with two pass attempts. I don’t know what else they should’ve tried. Maybe zone-read arc lead again, but that would’ve been the fourth time on that drive, and all from a formation that they didn’t run anything else out of.
The final play is a bit of a mystery to me. It looks like Gore went the wrong way, but it’s tough to tell without knowing what protection was called. One of the frustrating things about writing this column is that it’s easy to tell the protection when everything goes right, but tough when just one guy does something wrong.
It looks like the offensive line is running 3 jet and Gore is running 2 jet, but it might have been a man-protection scheme where a lineman went to Gore’s guy and that’s what screwed everything up. The shame of it is that San Francisco had enough blockers to pick up the blitz, but just didn’t execute. I’m sure whoever was to blame will have a long offseason full of regrets.
That's a wrap on Word of Muth for the 2012-2013 season. Usually, I would to give a review of the 49ers offensive line as a whole, but I think my thoughts on them are pretty clear: I think they’re the best unit I’ve seen since I started this column three years ago. None of the starting five are free agents, so there's little to talk about. The 49ers are set up front.
I’m going to take a couple of weeks off, but I’ll be back sometime in March with new stuff. In the meantime, be sure to follow me on Twitter. If you have any suggestions for offseason columns, I’d love to hear them in the comments. Right now, the plan is to go back and look at teams I didn’t cover this year, but I’m open to doing other things as well if I get some good ideas. See you soon.
20 comments, Last at 21 Feb 2013, 4:04am by Raven