by Ben Muth
The Patriots had one of the greatest offensive performances in DVOA history on Sunday. I’ve been following them all year, and usually there would be no question that I would be writing about them after a game like that. But when Jim Harbaugh unleashes Colin Kaepernick on an unsuspecting public (or at least an unsuspecting Dom Capers), I feel that it requires at least 2000 words and a dozen pictures.
Before we get to San Francisco’s scheme, Kaepernick, and all that other fun stuff, we have to talk about the 49ers offensive line: they kicked the asses of Green Bay’s front seven. Anthony Davis played his best game of the season. Both guards, Alex Boone and Mike Iupati, were their usual dominating selves. Jonathan Goodwin was left with a 3-4 nose tackle one-on-one as much as any center I’ve ever seen, and more than held his own.
As good as the rest of the line was though, the guy I want to talk about is Joe Staley. The left tackle had by far the toughest assignment. He was matched up with Clay Matthews in the passing game for the majority of the game, and he had struggled against Matthews back in Week 1. On top of that, Staley was dealing with a very painful bone bruise in his arm. Despite all this, Staley played one of his best games of the season.
The thing that really jumped out to me was how smartly Staley attacked Matthews in the passing game. Whenever the 49ers were sliding to the left, Staley was really aggressive in engaging Matthews. He got into the edge rusher’s body much more quickly than defenders are used to dealing with. By taking the action to Matthews, Staley was able to land his hands before Matthews could start his pass rush move. Staley could be this aggressive because he knew that if Matthews did counter, he still had Iupati to help out.
The aggressiveness also really helped when Staley was by himself in pass protection. After seeing the aggression, Matthews wasn’t able to time his rush when Staley took a more conventional set, because by that point he was used to the aggressive sets he had been seeing for the majority of the game. Staley won the mental duel by keeping Matthews off-balance with his constantly changing pass sets and punches.
Of the two pressures I counted Staley giving up, one wasn’t even to Matthews. On that play, San Francisco was sliding left and Staley jump set the linebacker, Matthews took a step up field and dove hard to Staley’s inside. Staley was locked on by now and followed Matthews into the line. As a result, the left tackle completely missed the nickelback blitzing right where Staley should have been. Fortunately, the nickelback missed Kaepernick, who then scrambled for a first down.
A lot has been made of the Packers insistence on playing man coverage and allowing Kaepernick to run free on the second level when he did decide to pull the ball down. The man coverage was obviously an issue, but the Green Bay rushers getting knocked out of their pass rush lanes was also a key to Kapernick's success.
There were a couple of plays when uncovered guards would help out an engaged offensive lineman and drive the defender three-to-five yards out of their lane. With 1:48 left in the second quarter, the Packers ran an inside linebacker cross blitz, and Iupati punched Brad Jones from the left-A gap all the way to the right B-gap. When LaMichael James threw a cut block on Matthews (playing inside linebacker just for this stunt) looping into the left B-gap there was an enormous hole for Kaepernick to scamper through.
Now let’s get into the interesting schematic stuff. To be completely honest, I wouldn’t consider myself a read-option expert by any means. We dabbled in it a bit once Jim Harbaugh arrived at Stanford, but nothing past the absolute basics. Still, there is plenty to talk about.
Let’s start in the first quarter. The 49ers were in a Pistol Strong Left formation with tight end Vernon Davis flexed out. They called a Zone Read Arc Bluff play. That means the H-Back Delanie Walker was coming across the formation to pretend that he was going to slice block the defensive end, then escape outside of him and block the outside linebacker or safety (Morgan Burnett in this case). The entire offensive line just runs Inside Zone left. The only difference is that they push one linebacker further than they typically would, so, the right guard and right tackle are actually working to a linebacker across the formation.
It seemed like Green Bay's game plan coming in was to gap exchange (or scrape exchange, if you prefer) against read-option looks. That means that the end guy on the line would slant down and force a "keep" read from the quarterback, while the linebacker would scrape over the top and contain the quarterback. It’s probably the most popular adjustment to stop traditional zone reads.
Erik Walden does his job by forcing the keep read from Kaepernick. The problem for Green Bay is that Burnett (circled below) seems unaware that being outside of Walden and containing Kaepernick is not the same thing. Burnett fills on Walden’s hip and completely loses leverage to Walker. If Burnett had gotten a little more width, he could have forced Kaepernick inside and Walden might have been able to make a tackle for a short gain.
But Burnett did not get any width. Now Walker is outside Green Bay’s contain player and Kaepernick is right behind him. Burnett is so out of position that Walker just has to lay a hand on him, almost like a stiff arm, to be able to lead Kapernick into the secondary for a big gain.
That play is actually the baseline for the next couple of plays I want to discuss. In the above play, Green Bay had a decent enough scheme, but awful execution. If Burnett is a little better, maybe the 49ers only gain four yards. Most teams aren't going to run their quarterbacks all game for four-yard gains. Instead San Francisco gained 18 yards and continued running quarterback options, including one for a 56-yard yard touchdown in the third quarter that is probably the lasting image of this game.
The 49ers are once again in the Pistol Strong Left formation (though this time Davis is not flexed) and bringing H-Back Bruce Miller across the formation. This time, though, Miller is slice blocking the end man on the line. The rest of the 49ers front is doing the exact same thing as the previous play.
As far as the defense goes, it doesn’t matter if you’re talking about stopping Darrel Royal’s Wishbone or the 2012 49ers -- the key to stopping the option is to have assigned roles and for the team to execute their assignments. Green Bay plays it straight up this time. The outside linebacker on the line has to contain the quarterback, and the inside linebacker is responsible for the running back. Trying to do anything else will lead to big holes in the defense and even bigger gains for the offense.
On this play Walden (93) has contain, which would mean the quarterback in the Read Option game. Defensive tackle B.J. Raji (90) has the B-gap. He has to take up that space and hopefully two blockers in the process, which would help inside linebacker Jones do his job. Jones (59) has the weak side A-gap, as well as the newly-created C-gap once the H-back comes across the formation. This means he has to stop the give man, Frank Gore.
The good news for Green Bay is that Jones seems to see the play coming and fills the C-gap very quickly. The bad news is that the other two guys on his side are really poor on their assignments.
Raji (circled) gets absolutely destroyed by the double team. He goes from the middle of the field to outside the right hash mark in the time it takes Gore to get to the line of scrimmage. He is further away from the ball than the opposite defensive tackle in the picture above. This play neatly sums up the horrible day that the former Boston College standout had.
Meanwhile, Walden (arrowed) decides to take on the slice block head-on and with both arms. If you read last week’s column where an outside linebacker got trucked because he didn’t see Zach Miller’s slice block coming, this may seem like a good thing. The problem is that Walden loses both his sight on Kaepernick and the outside leverage when he does this.
As an edge defender you always want to keep your outside arm free. It keeps your shoulders squared, so you can move laterally, and it prevents you from being hooked. But if you’re using both arms to try to blow up the H-back, your outside arm is never going to be free.
Yes, The X Of Great Shame is what happens to you when you try to keep contain without a clue. You end up chasing the guy who doesn’t have the ball, while the guy you were supposed to be watching is running behind you. And probably laughing at your expense. If I were an option quarterback I would be laughing, anyway.
What has to be disheartening for Packers fans is that their team simply had no answer as the game went along. They tried to gap exchange early and struggled, they tried to play it straight-up and had even less success. So, they went back to trying to scrape exchange again.
In an effort to blow your mind, the 49ers lined up in Pistol Strong Right this time. Miller is the H-back and he will be coming across the formation to block Green Bay’s edge defender. This time it is Jones, on a gap exchange with Matthews.
Once again, Raji is immediately washed down a few yards inside. I’m not sure I can overstate just how bad he was on Sunday. Watching him play, I’m amazed a gust of wind didn’t blow him out of the shot while he was dancing in those State Farm commercials.
Matthews crashes down hard inside to fill the canyon that Raji has created. That makes it an easy read for Kaepernick to pull the ball and take off for the outside.
Really, the hole Staley created by plowing Raji inside was so big that Kaepernick could have handed it off to James (labeled because he’s hiding behind FOX’s camera) and Matthews wouldn’t have been able to cover enough ground to make a play.
But since Matthews was crashing hard, Kaepernick was right to pull it. You can’t assume a fairly well-regarded nose tackle is going to get obliterated. Matthews has done his job by taking away the tailback, and Jones is in position to do his part containing the quarterback. He’s flowing hard to the outside, and if he forces the quarterback to turn it up inside Miller’s block there is a good chance Matthews can redirect and make the play for a short gain.
But Jones can’t outrun San Francisco’s fullback and ends up getting cut down by him. Kaepernick gets outside and adds another 19 yards to his rushing total. This play, more than the others really, illustrates why the Packers lost. The Packers were in position to stop the play here, but their front seven wasn’t talented or disciplined enough to do so.
It wasn’t just the read-option that Green Bay couldn’t stop. San Francisco did whatever they wanted in the running game. In fact, the best example of this is the first running play of the game for San Francisco.
It was second-and-1, the 49ers lined up in a Full House Pistol formation. Green Bay was lined up in their base 3-4.
The 49ers ran a halfback dive. Like a Pop-Warner-level halfback dive. The only coaching point is to block the guy in front of you. It is the simplest running play any team can run, with the possible exception of a quarterback sneak.
San Francisco didn't create a single double team across the entire line. It’s just their seven blocking your seven. The keys are that Iupati takes it to C.J. Wilson and Goodwin, as usual, handles Raji. There are not a lot of teams that would leave their center one-on-one against a 3-4 nose tackle like this, but obviously Greg Roman was confident Goodwin could handle Raji by himself.
Davis and Miller lead up through the A-gaps, and Gore hits the left A-gap for a six-yard gain before being tackled by a safety. They gained six-yards on second-and-1 with a play where the only technique involved is the infamous GATA technique. It’s almost a slap in the face to Green Bay.
In the end, it’s fair to say Greg Roman and Jim Harbaugh out-schemed Dom Capers on Sunday. But it also doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. The Packers simply couldn’t handle the 49ers offensive line. Better coaching might have slowed San Francisco down, but it wasn’t going to stop them. Not with the way that Jones and Raji played, anyway.