Film Room

Analysis beyond the numbers

Film Room: 49ers Offense-Ravens Defense

by Andy Benoit

Click here for Film Room on the Ravens offense vs. the 49ers defense.

The 2011 Thanksgiving contest between these two teams -- the last time they got together -- is virtually irrelevant. The Niners had three days to prepare for last year’s game, not 13. They were facing a slightly younger, much healthier Ravens defense. And, of course, their quarterback was Alex Smith, not Colin Kaepernick. San Francisco’s game plan that night was cautious, if not reactionary. This time around, Jim Harbaugh’s game plan will be aimed at making Baltimore be the reactionary team.

1. 49ers run game

People tend to forget that even before Kaepernick and the read-option lightning struck this offense, the 49ers were a legitimate Super Bowl contender on the strength of a bruising run game alone. By now, you know what makes this run game special: a gigantic and gifted offensive line, Frank Gore’s professionalism as a runner, and the array of different formations that Harbaugh and coordinator Greg Roman utilize.

Kaepernick’s read-options are most valuable for augmenting San Francisco’s already-stupendous rushing attack. As we saw with the Falcons in the NFC Championship, you can eliminate Kaepernick as a runner by selling out against him. But what we also saw was that this approach can leave you vulnerable against Gore.

Graphics by Matt Glickman

Stopping San Francisco's run game hinges largely on the simple idea of winning in the trenches. All five Niners linemen weigh over 315 and move well as run-blockers, especially Joe Staley and Mike Iupati on the left side. It’s a very well-coached, synchronized unit. On a good day, the Ravens defensive front is one of the few in football that’s capable of competing with this group. Haloti Ngata –- who presumably benefited from last week’s bye –- is as dominating as they come when healthy. Terrence Cody, who has lost snaps to surprising veteran Ma'ake Kemoeatu, has been more consistent against double-teams. Terrell Suggs and Paul Kruger are both fantastic athletes who have enough strength to set the edge. And, with Ray Lewis back, Baltimore’s linebackers have been much sharper at diagnosing run designs. A lot of Sunday’s action on the ground will simply come down to which team executes the best.

2. 49ers pass game

Expect the Niners to throw a lot on first down. That’s when Harbaugh prefers to take deep shots -– almost always off play-action out of either two-receiver or one-receiver sets. (Randy Moss is the lone wideout in the one sets, but tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker are just as likely to be the target.) Two weeks ago, the Niners frequently threw smoke screens and quick strikes to Michael Crabtree on first-and-10. Don’t expect to see that kind of aerial run game extension Sunday night. It was likely a game-plan wrinkle aimed specifically at exploiting the off-coverage and meager tackling of Atlanta’s Asante Samuel. Ravens corners Cary Williams and Corey Graham are much more physical near the line than Samuel. Also, Kaepernick hasn’t looked very comfortable in the quick-strike game.

What you will see is San Francisco throwing out of unbalanced formations. They love to put two receivers to the wide side of the field and close the formation on the other side with two tight ends. They do a great job creating matchup problems by motioning and shifting from these sets. This sometimes has the added bonus of defining reads for Kaepernick, which limits his responsibilities in the pre-snap phase. (You’ll notice the Niners don’t give Kaepernick a lot of pre-snap responsibilities on pass plays. When Kaepernick does make adjustments at the line, 99 times out of 100, it’s a run play. And of those 99, about 98 of them are some form of read-option.)

3. Baltimore’s response

As we’ve highlighted multiple times in recent weeks, the Ravens love to play quarters coverage. (We ran a graphic in Week 16 and again in the Wild Card round that explained quarters coverage. If you aren’t familiar with it, click here for a quick look. It’s likely the Ravens will stay with quarters this Sunday. It’s a great coverage for disguising looks and capitalizing on the range of Ed Reed. Also, it allows the linebackers to play zone principles underneath, which is what an aging Lewis needs.

Quarters is also a relatively safe way to defend the run -– specifically the read option. In quarters, the safeties, though lined up 12 or so yards off the ball, are technically responsible for the outside run gaps. Thus, they’re naturally aggressive downhill. Their gap discipline is pivotal against the read-option. If Kaepernick keeps the ball, it’s on Bernard Pollard and Reed to quickly fill at the second-level seams. If the Ravens have outside guys Suggs and Kruger sell out against Kaepernick the way Atlanta did, Pollard and Reed must be ready to fill inside when Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe get caught in the wash. (Which, even on any linebacker’s good days, will inevitably happen at least a few times.)

It’s possible the Ravens will invite Kaepernick to run early on in order to lay a few big licks on the youngster. As the Ravens reminded us in the AFC Championship, strategy and scheme are important for a defense, but exerting fundamentally-sound violence is more important. The Ravens beat the Patriots by smashing them. That could be a simple approach to beating Kaepernick, who, as a fleet-footed, upright runner, leaves himself awfully exposed at times. No one has had a chance to find out just how electrifying Kaepernick is after he takes two or three big shots.
Just because big hits can trump strategy doesn’t mean a defense can get away with being ill-prepared. The Ravens must be ready for when the Niners unveil unique formation and play designs tailored for beating quarters coverage. The Packers learned this lesson the hard way in the Divisional Round.

Graphics by Matt Glickman

This is just one of many ways an offense can attack quarters coverage. Earlier in the year, we broke down a play where the Browns ate up Baltimore’s quarters coverage with a great two-receiver route combination. This particular play applies to the Super Bowl matchup as well, since it is a route combination involving two wideouts on the same side of the field. (The Ravens responded to it that week by putting two corners on that side of the field.)

Graphics by Matt Glickman

4. Another Baltimore response

It wouldn’t be a big surprise to see the Ravens use a lot of man-free lurk coverage. With the exception of Crabtree, none of San Francisco’s wideouts are great at separating from press-man coverage. (And most of Crabtree’s separation comes horizontally, not vertically. He’s an intriguing and improving player, but he’s not much of a downfield threat.) Man-free lurk would keep a safety roaming over the top and a lurker acting essentially as a spy against Kaepernick. That’s vital for preventing the long scrambles.

What’s more, man-free lurk is a coverage that can be disguised easily. It’s a great way to eliminate seam routes, which the Niners love to throw for Davis. You can run man-free lurk from any defensive look and, because of the man-to-man element, it works behind any blitz.

The Ravens are certainly capable of also playing zone (either single-high or Cover-2) and relying on their back defenders to jump routes and deliver big hits. That’d be a safe way to keep Kaepernick in the pocket. The problem is a zone approach would allow the receivers and tight ends to run most of their routes unobstructed, which means Jim Harbaugh’s play designs would have every chance to work. Baltimore’s pass rush has been tepid at times, so they can't rely on that to bail them out in zone looks. That would be playing to San Francisco's strengths -– even if this Ravens defense is full of smart veterans who can readily identify play designs. By playing man or quarters (which can be considered a zone coverage with a lot of man concepts), the Ravens make the aerial game a battle of execution rather than design. Baltimore’s secondary is not elite, but John Harbaugh should like his men’s chances against a good-but-far-from-great Niners receiving corps.

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26 comments, Last at 22 Mar 2013, 8:03am

1 Re: Film Room: 49ers Offense-Ravens Defense

by A_man // Jan 29, 2013 - 2:58pm

It's amazing that the go-to film for learning to beat the Ravens is the flippin' Browns' offense.

Great stuff, as usual. Wish there was more of this kind of analysis to read on the internet.

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15 Re: Film Room: 49ers Offense-Ravens Defense

by Eric Quanstrom // Jan 29, 2013 - 10:42pm

Great stuff, indeed. Though I don't know if I agree that the Thanksgiving game is totally irrelevant. One of the key plays that didn't break the 49ers way was the surprisingly well thrown (for Alex Smith) deep ball on a go route to Ted Ginn which bounced off his chest (he had gotten well beyond Reed and I believe Ladarius Webb). The 49ers actually have a few options to pop the top off the defense-- you are correct to point out this isn't Crabtree's role-- including Ginn, Moss and (unknown commodity) AJ Jenkins.

Kaepernick throws a far superior deep ball to Smith, and it wouldn't surprise in the least to see Greg Roman / Harbaugh take long downfield shots if for no other reason than to do the unexpected, especially as it would be with a complete surprise like Jenkins.

It also seems that the 49ers c/would likely go against the grain with a number of stretch handoffs or toss sweeps to LaMichael James. Getting outside the tackles a few times early could be quite useful to pounding between the tackles later (familiar progression for the 49ers).

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2 Re: Film Room: 49ers Offense-Ravens Defense

by Will Allen // Jan 29, 2013 - 3:01pm

It's the last game of the year. I've got to believe that Ravens are going to be willing to risk a 15 yard penalty early to have either Suggs or Kruger get a full speed hit on an upright Kaepernick, fairly early in the contest, if Roman uses the read option early.

If you lurk/spy Kaepernick, with the other pass defenders in man, the lurker better also be a damned good, damned fast, tackler, because Kaepernick has the ability to make simply good athletes look inadequate.

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4 Re: Film Room: 49ers Offense-Ravens Defense

by Aaron Brooks Good Twin // Jan 29, 2013 - 3:46pm

You don't even need to wait for a read option. Just take a late hit penalty on a pass.

This is a common Bears strategy against Rodgers.

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5 Re: Film Room: 49ers Offense-Ravens Defense

by Tyler // Jan 29, 2013 - 3:47pm

I hope the Niners cut the hell out of the Ravens...

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10 Re: Film Room: 49ers Offense-Ravens Defense

by bearsfan1212 // Jan 29, 2013 - 7:01pm

I'm a Bears fan and would just note that the strategy has not worked ...

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20 Re: Film Room: 49ers Offense-Ravens Defense

by dweezil // Jan 31, 2013 - 4:56am


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3 Re: Film Room: 49ers Offense-Ravens Defense

by Will Allen // Jan 29, 2013 - 3:08pm

This may be my favorite Super Bowl, in terms of pre-game expectations, in a long time, in that I think it very likely that whichever team whose offensive line executes best will be the winner.

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16 Re: Film Room: 49ers Offense-Ravens Defense

by CBPodge // Jan 30, 2013 - 7:41am

See, this is my least favourite Super Bowl, in terms of pre-game expectations, in a long time. I just have a feeling that it's going to be a bit of a blowout one way or the other. Not sure which, but it just seems to me that if one team executes really well, the other team doesn't really seem to have much in the way of a plan B.

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6 Re: Film Room: 49ers Offense-Ravens Defense

by Brad M // Jan 29, 2013 - 5:04pm

Jim might kill his brother (and Jack might join in in) if the Ravens intentionally try and cheap shot Kaepernick.

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7 Re: Film Room: 49ers Offense-Ravens Defense

by Tyler // Jan 29, 2013 - 5:19pm

I really hope the Niners are anticipating this and figure a nice high-low or similar play might be the best form of preventing. Hopefully it doesn't wreck anyone's Knee, but maybe a nice sprain or something?

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8 Re: Film Room: 49ers Offense-Ravens Defense

by Will Allen // Jan 29, 2013 - 5:19pm

When attacking a qb running the read option, the border, between what is a legitimate hit on a player who might have decided to be a ballcarrier, and what is a cheap shot on qb, who ceased to be a threat as a ballcarrier, can become pretty hard to identify.

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9 Re: Film Room: 49ers Offense-Ravens Defense

by Tyler // Jan 29, 2013 - 6:53pm

I don't really agree, at least not all of the time; if you look at both of those pictures, Kaepernick has pretty obviously not got the ball, and there is a solid 2 feet space between him and the defender. 2 ft isn't a huge space, but it's enough that the defender has plenty of reaction time.

I also think/hope it helps that Kaepernick is pretty quick, he's actually almost sliding past the defenders in both of those shots.

We will see!

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11 Re: Film Room: 49ers Offense-Ravens Defense

by Will Allen // Jan 29, 2013 - 7:05pm

That space exists in part because the defender has hesitated. If the defender is told that his only resonsibility is to come down the line of scrimmage as fast as he can, and hit Kaepernick, and he honors that responsibility, things become less obvious.

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22 Re: Film Room: 49ers Offense-Ravens Defense

by Eric Nielsen // Feb 02, 2013 - 3:17am

Yeah, I'm a 9er fan but if there is any question if he is a runner the dl/lb has the right to flatten him.

Commentators on this board might be exaggerating the likelihood of one hit putting a young athletic dude out of the game. As a 9er fan I'm nervous about his ability to hold together over the long haul, but I would call any plan that involves knocking somebody out of the game in the short run pretty suspect.

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13 Re: Film Room: 49ers Offense-Ravens Defense

by zenbitz // Jan 29, 2013 - 7:50pm

there is actually a specific rule on this having nothing to do with passer roughing.

A defensive player may not tackle or hold an opponent other than a runner. Otherwise, he may use his hands, arms, or body only:

You can read it yourself, but it seems that defenders cannot even BLOCK an option QB unless he is "in the way of the guy with the ball" (my words).

Any offensive player who pretends to possess the ball or to whom a teammate pretends to give the ball may be tackled provided he is crossing his scrimmage line between the ends of a normal tight offensive line.

Note that this is why the running back diving up the middle MAY be tackled even though he doesn't have the ball. Also why I imagine you don't call QB run options when the QB runs up the gut and the RB goes outside! At least, non-Tebow QBs.

I think it also explains why you always see defenders "pull up" when they notice the option QB no longer has the ball.

I don't know what the penalties are - possibly 'illegal use of the hands' or 'defensive holding' or 'unnecessary roughness' (for a full on tackle).

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14 Re: Film Room: 49ers Offense-Ravens Defense

by Will Allen // Jan 29, 2013 - 9:40pm

I think the Ravens would be irrational to be unwilling to trade a couple full on shots to Koepernick in the first quarter, in return for a couple penalties, even of the 15 yard variety.

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23 Re: Film Room: 49ers Offense-Ravens Defense

by Eric Nielsen // Feb 02, 2013 - 3:24am

Yes good plan. Trade 30 yards of field position (whats the expected value? 3 points? I don't know I'm new here but I'm sure 30 yards isn't nothing) for the chance to replace the scary but limited guy you have been practicing for with the 3rd best quarterback in football this year.

All these borderline illegal tactics founder on the fact that Smith is cool, competent, and one of the best NFL QB's this year.

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24 Re: Film Room: 49ers Offense-Ravens Defense

by LionInAZ // Feb 02, 2013 - 3:27pm

If anyone who mattered thought that Alex Smith was really the 3rd best QB in the NFL this year, he would be starting this game, no Kaepernick.

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18 Re: Film Room: 49ers Offense-Ravens Defense

by Aaron Brooks Good Twin // Jan 30, 2013 - 9:58am

Read the next line.

Once the QB transfers possession of the ball, defensive holding disappears.

The line after this is amusing as well. Punting formations eliminate the 5 yard contact rule. Apparently the NFL has forgotten that the original incarnation of shotgun formation was known as "short punt formation", and Pittsburgh still punts from it occasionally. Under a strict reading of the rules, defensive contact after 5 yards should be legal against shotgun formations.

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12 Re: Film Room: 49ers Offense-Ravens Defense

by Bab // Jan 29, 2013 - 7:18pm

Great stuff. Niggling point - is the Sunday between the LC and the SB technically a "bye"? Seems odd to me.

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17 Re: Film Room: 49ers Offense-Ravens Defense

by William.Smith // Jan 30, 2013 - 8:32am

Great stuff. The Ravens D has their work cut out.

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19 Re: Film Room: 49ers Offense-Ravens Defense

by Big Al // Jan 30, 2013 - 5:30pm

This is so great! The other way I think Baltimore might attack the read option is by rotating coverage to the run side. The first picture on this thread is a great reason why you do it. Look at Crabtree. Standing like a statue while the entire field is moving. But better than that...I don't believe there has been one time in all of Kaepernick's starts where he has thrown the ball to the backside of the play. Opposite the way he opens up on the read-option. So if by design he isn't looking at the left side of the formation...then I wouldn committ more defenders to the front side of the play post snap leaving Crabtree one on one on the backside.

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21 49ers Offense-Ravens Defense

by Jones // Feb 01, 2013 - 12:49pm

Man I'm technically pretty new to american football, but you really managed to make even me understand how things work out on the field! Cheers mate!

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25 Re: Film Room: 49ers Offense-Ravens Defense

by write an essay // Mar 19, 2013 - 5:29am

Intresting post with useful information.

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