Archive for December, 2011

The 49ers hit Red Zone pay-dirt on Monday Night Football by running the ball in with Frank Gore for their second touchdown of the evening.  The play that they employed from the Steelers’ 5 yard line on 2nd and goal was “F-Counter”.

This play differs from the traditional GT-Counter where the backside Guard and Tackle pull, kick-out and lead – as it features traditional Power-O blocking assignments for the offensive front.  If you’ve watched the 49ers much this year (or Jim Harbaugh’s offense at Stanford) you know that they like to run Power-O.  The advantage of running F-Counter, as opposed to GT-Counter, is two-fold: 1) everyone else on the offense essentially blocks their bread-and-butter play – Power-O and 2) it is a quicker hitting misdirection play then traditional GT-Counter.

Notice the differences in basic assignments for the three run plays:

As you can see, there are a few more moving parts to the GT-Counter scheme.  Not only do both the back-side Guard and Tackle have to pull, but the Fullback must cutoff any penetration coming off of the pullers’ departure.  This adds for a nice element of misdirection, however, it is a difficult scheme to perfect if it is not part of your core philosophy, a-la Joe Gibbs and the Counter Trey.

By simply switching assignments on their go-to play – the Power-O – between the back-side Guard and Fullback, the 49ers get a quicker hitting misdirection play that is relatively cheap for them to practice.

I have also heard Coach Harbaugh refer to this as their “wrap” play, after they used the same scheme for a 17 yard TD run to extend their lead in the 4th quarter, in a hard fought battle, against the New York Giants.

In the 49ers offense, “wrap” may very well be a term that they tag onto their basic Power-O play.  For instance, they may call their base play with a number, i.e. 16-Power.  To run the misdirection play with similar Power-O blocking, they can simply replace power with wrap, i.e. 16-Wrap.  The number tells everyone else that they are blocking 16 (Power) and the “wrap” tells the Fullback and back-side Guard to switch responsibilities.

To view Gore’s 5 yard TD run against the Steelers, click here.

Below is what the 49ers offensive front saw before the snap on Gore’s score.  The Steelers defensive front called for Left Tackle, Adam Snyder, and Left Guard, Mike Iupati, to double team the defensive lineman lined up over Iupati.  Snyder’s job is to drive the defensive lineman down the line as Iupati works through him vertically, ready to come off and block the back-side inside linebacker.  Center, Jonathan Goodwin blocks back on the defensive nose tackle and Right Guard, Alex Boone, pulls with a tight path, looking to kick out the first man showing up off of Staley’s down block.  Fullback, Bruce Miller, delays to allow Boone and quarterback, Alex Smith, to clear before he comes back across the formation and leads through to block the front-side inside linebacker.  Anthony Davis and Vernon Davis cutoff any penetration from the back-side.

This is what the pre-snap assignments look like:

If you watch the play closely, you will notice that neither Iupati nor Miller get to their initial blocking assignment.  In fact, right before the snap the play-side inside linebacker blitzed the (A) gap to Iupati’s right.

Often, with younger offensive linemen, this is problematic to the double team.  If the inside man on the double team fails to anticipate an A-gap stunt or blitz, and stays on his double team, the play will undoubtedly be blown up in the backfield.

However, through film study and practice repetition, Iupati knew to have his eyes up and to be alert for “front-side run through”.  He was able to easily ignore the double team and execute a down block on the blitzing linebacker.  Snyder and Iupati were most likely very aware of this possibility (based on the above factors) and probably had some kind of communication in place to inform Snyder that he would have to secure the down block on Iupati’s man without help from Iupati.

Fullback, Bruce Miller, may have had a call echoed to him by the offensive line to alert him to the switch.  It is more likely, however, that he executed his block based on visual cues and stimulus response conditioning.  That is: he was ready for either scenario – like Iupati and Snyder – after numerous repetitions on the practice field (along with film study) working on turning up and blocking the first wrong color from the inside-out.

Notice the assignment change for Iupati and Miller as they recognize front-side run through:

Seeing how this play has paid dividends more then a couple times (click here to view Kendall Hunter’s run against the Giants), I would look for it again when the 49ers get into the red zone … or more so when teams are selling out at the point of attack to stop their bread-and-butter play, the Power-O.


Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Recently, I came across a scathing article by Jeff Pearlman, a columnist for, in a feature he did for Esquire.  If you are an Alex Smith “hater”, you will revel in it’s repugnant nature.   However, if you are anything like me, you are excited about the efforts of this year’s squad, and in particular, the back story concerning how much hardship Smith has undergone in order to reach the level of play he has attained today.

There is so much that goes into putting together a winning team, let alone a successful offense that doesn’t detract from your efforts to win games by turning the ball over or squandering scoring opportunities.  It just seems that, with the evolution of fantasy football, the 400 yard, 3 touchdown performance is the only thing that people value anymore.

Here are a few jabs from the author.  First, in regards to Smith’s transformation this season:

In the best season of his seven-year career, the 49ers quarterback has been repeatedly — and enthusiastically — praised as “smart,” “adaptive,” “instinctive,” and “an excellent game manager.” All of which are ear-friendly descriptions, and all of which mean the exact same thing: For a crap player, this guy hasn’t fully embarrassed himself. In other words, that Alex Smith kid really can’t throw or run, but the Niners sure have found ways around it!

Then on to his performance on Monday Night Football against the Pittsburgh Steelers:

Smith delivered what Smith has all season, a series of dinks, dunks, and dils (a word I just invented — Definition: to throw a ball in the manner of former Vikings quarterback Steve Dils). Blessed with Davis, as well as receivers Michael Crabtree and Ted Ginn and the otherworldly running of Frank Gore (as well as a coveted position in the NFC West, the most dreadful division in the recent history of organized sports), Smith doesn’t have to accomplish much to win. And that’s important, because he’s incapable of accomplishing much.

Save another time – my argument against the fallacious reasoning supported by arguments (like this one) that the NFC West is some downtrodden version of what everyone believes is true competition.  Finally, he trivializes Smith’s role as a player who simply does what is asked of him:

Though a nation’s longing eyes turn toward Tebow, they should be focused upon Smith, an average man doing average things for an excellent team. When Coach Jim Harbaugh tells Smith to roll out and throw a three-yard screen to Gore, he does so. When Harbaugh tells Smith to hit Crabtree five yards out on a slant, he does so, too. The whole thing is uncomplicated and precisely scripted, the updated version of NFL Quarterbacking for Dummies.

You can read the entire article here.

Really, Pearlman?

That final line … “The whole thing is uncomplicated and precisely scripted, the updated version of NFL Quarterbacking for Dummies” … it really doesn’t sit well with me.  It’s like he is holding in contempt the whole idea of quarterbacking and team oriented football that we, as 49ers fans, have been trying to get back to for years.

I prefer to look to someone a bit more knowledgeable on the subject than Pearlman for inspiration.  In fact, I’ll go straight to the God Father of modern offensive football, and the architect of this once proud 49ers franchise – Bill Walsh – to decide if Smith and the 49ers apparently should be doing more than what the coaches ask them to do.

In his book, Finding the Winning Edge, Coach Walsh described how the impetus for the West Coast Offense came about when he was a coach with the Cincinnati Bengals:

“We decided that our best chance to win football games was to somehow control the ball. As a result, we devised a ball-control passing game in hopes that if we could make 25 first downs in a given game and if we also had good special teams play, we would have a reasonable chance to stay competitive in the ball game, In the process, hopefully something good would happen”

Hmm? … sounds like a game manager is exactly what this system calls for … and this sure sounds like the blueprint for Jim Harbaugh’s overall philosophy this year.

I remember when Joe Montana was labeled as a “system quarterback” who was only able to flourish due to the dink and dunk style, which ultimately led to the “finesse” label.

Who knows what Joe would have been without Walsh and his “system”?

4 Super Bowl Championships say that it doesn’t matter.

The strides that the 49ers offense makes this year to next will speak volumes about whether or not Smith will become the next “system quarterback” to flourish in the West Coast Offense.

For now, I think the only thing that will quell some of the intense criticism of a man that simply, “does what is asked of him”, is a trip to, and victory in Super Bowl XLVI.

And that is what I am rooting for…

After all, the “West Coast Offense amounts to nothing more than a total attention to detail and an appreciation for every facet of offensive football and refinement of those things that are needed to provide an environment that allows people to perform at their maximum levels of self-actualization” (Walsh ’98).

I don’t know, but it seems that most of these players (this TEAM) have encountered that environment that Walsh describes – here and now – with Harbaugh and this staff (who will throw all the credit back to the players).

I would say that many players are realizing their full potential and I am excited to see more as the season unfolds.  And, I hope to see more players doing simply what is asked of them.

Before last night’s 49ers/Steelers game I explained that I thought the 49ers would feature the  shallow crossing concept to create winning match-ups in efforts to get the ball to their play-makers: Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree and Kyle Williams. As I stated before, the play concept is great because of its versatility against man and zone coverages (the previous post breaks down the play in a zone blitz situation against the Cardinals).

Well, midway through the third quarter, leading only 6-3, the 49ers need a big play to spark some momentum.  With a first and ten from their own 21 yard line they dialed up the shallow cross concept and gained 31 yards on a nicely thrown ball from Alex Smith to Davis.  This time, however, Smith passed up his initial target on the shallow crossing route, Crabtree, and hit the big gainer to Davis on the deeper crossing route.

Notice the tight window that Smith had to put the ball into due to the trailing defender and safety, Troy Polamalu, closing in over the top:

Here is the NFL video of the play:


Two things to note here, based on my previous analysis of the 49ers’ use of the concept: First, the play against the Cardinals was run against a zone blitzing defensive scheme; this play is run against a man blitzing defensive scheme. Second, I had stated that against man to man coverage that the deeper crossing WR’s assignment would be to break off his route short and look to pick or rub the shallow crosser’s defender from the other side.  As you can see from the diagram and film clip, this was not the case.

Coaching points:

1) Davis recognized the man coverage and adjusted by breaking his route deeper, toward the far sideline.  He did this because he was able to exploit a mismatch and beat the linebacker over the top.  The defender played the route tentative because of the explosive ability that Davis possesses.  He should have attempted to jam Davis upon his release and force him outside or funnel him inside, depending on the safety help he was expecting to get over the top.

If either one of these instances were to occur, I believe Davis would not have adjusted to break his route deeper, but in fact, he would have broke his route underneath:

LB forces outside release

LB forces inside release

2) However, Davis’ ability to attack the defender’s leverage with speed (run directly at him) and freeze him – preventing him from making any lateral movement in an effort to jam – is just one of the reasons he is such a threat, anywhere on the field. This advantage in ability allowed Davis to get on top of the linebacker in coverage and effectively create the big play opportunity for the 49ers offense. David Woodley, the linebacker in coverage, also made a mistake when he immediately opened his hips, letting Davis run uncontested, right by him and over the top.

3) I would say that Davis took his “best available release” and that Woodley’s inability to get any sort of contact – to get him out of his route stem – allowed Davis to take the over the top opportunity. If Woodley would have done a better job of re-routing and staying on Davis’ hip, then Davis’ only move would have been to sink his hips, throw the defender by, and break flat underneath.

4) Once Smith recognized that it was man to man coverage (reading the strong side/inside linebacker turn and run with Davis) he initially wanted to throw to Crabtree on the shallow crossing route. Since Crabtree did a poor job in getting any kind of separation from his defender, Smith looked to his second option, Davis, on the “basic cross” (west coast offense term for the deeper crossing route).

5) Smith takes a 5-step drop, pumps once and recoils, as he reads Davis’ adjustment to take the route deep. Unable to step up in the pocket, due to push up the middle by the Steelers’ “Nose/Tackle” (N’T) stunt, he stands tall and lofts a beautiful touch pass to Davis, over the top of the linebacker and in front of the safety.

Smith and Davis took advantage of the Steelers’ mistake – they attempted to cover Davis with an inside linebacker 1 on 1 – and made a momentum shifting play on their way to scoring the first of two touchdowns by the offense on the night.

Because of Davis’ relevance in the 49ers passing game again, I would expect to see the Seahawks attempt to “bracket” him with double coverage this weekend, and force Smith and the 49ers passing game to look to other options.

In turn, this should also have an ancillary effect – by committing safeties to defend against Davis – and open up the numbers in the box for increased production in the running game. Look for the 49ers to return to a “ground and pound” game plan this weekend against the Seattle Seahawks.

I’d like to take a closer look at an element of the 49ers passing attack that I feel will help them contend with the blitzing scheme of the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday Night Football – the shallow cross.

The 49ers have run several versions of this play, getting the ball to Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker in different situations.  I would look for more underneath crossing routes by all 49ers WR’s tonight.  They seemed to have some success with them early against Arizona (and Giants also), but went away from them late.  They are good against the blitz and the WR’s can settle vs zones and run away against man-to-man.

Let’s look at the following diagram as an example:












On this particular pass play against the Cardinals, the offensive line protected and Smith got the ball out to a crossing Vernon Davis.  There was a void in the Cardinals zone blitz scheme and Davis turned it into a 32-yard gain to put them inside the 10 yard line, setting up a go ahead score (field goal) late in the first half.

Here is the NFL video of the play:


A few coaching points to note on this play:

1) The offensive line protected the gut blitz by sliding 4 men to the right; they effectively passed off the inside gap stunts and linebacker exchange by keeping their shoulders square and getting depth off of the line of scrimmage.  RB Kendall Hunter stepped up to take the inside linebacker who initially came from depth and was able to slide underneath Smith’s drop to mirror the linebackers path.  The line ended up collecting Hunter’s assignment in their slide, so he committed to helping secure the pocket for Smith.

2) Smith takes a 5-step drop and reads the weak-side outside linebacker’s drop as he gets depth with Walker.  Smith delivers a pass on-time to Davis on the shallow cross as he hits a void in the underneath zone and has room to run after the catch.

3) The play has a high value in it’s versatility against both zone and man coverages.  If it were man to man, Walker would break his route off flat across the field and Davis would essentially look to “rub” his defender into Walker or his trailing defender to create separation.

4) The post/wheel combination with Tedd Ginn and Kyle Williams outside effectively clears out 3 defenders on the play as well.  The strong safety makes the mistake of not looking back to find the crossing Davis.  If he had done this Davis would have had to make a more distinct effort to “settle” in the zone rather than to keep running.  Likewise, Smith would have been forced to make a more precise throw to Davis’ back shoulder, away from the would-be flat defender.  But, for some reason the Cards all-pro safety decided to keep his eyes outside and sink to provide underneath help for the deeper route combination.  Smith and Davis took advantage of this and turned what should have been a routine 8-10 yard pass play into a 32 yard catch and run.

Look for more of this tonight as the 49ers attempt to counter the Steelers’ blitzing strategies.  The shallow cross is another staple of the west coast offense and provides Smith and the 49ers offense with the opportunity to get the ball out quickly to their play-makers with room to run after the catch.  It also allows for picks and rubs against man coverage and can be a viable way to get WR’s Crabtree, Ginn and Williams more involved as they employ different versions of the same play.

A brief but succinct analysis by Matt Barrows of National Football Post on the ‘spot’ concept used in the NFL

– Previously, I had put together an article on similar concepts here.  Unfortunately, some of the video I had added to illustrate these concepts  has since been removed due to copyright issues – and I’ve been too lazy to edit the older post.  Instead, I offer you this: a very comprehensive piece surrounding these concepts and their relationship to vertical, horizontal and triangle stretch reads from Chris Brown at

– I could always just send you to Brophy’s excellent website, Cripes! Get back to fundamentals… and tell you that everything you find there is gold.  I have his site bookmarked on my toolbar, and literally, as I look at the titles of his 20 or so most recent posts, every single one of them begs to be delved into and broken down, piece by piece, to uncover some incredibly valuable nuggets of football coaching information.  He writes about all facets of the game, but I have been especially interested in his offerings centered on Noel Mazzone’s (former NFL WR/offensive coordinator and most recently ASU’s offensive coordinator) melding of pro style passing with college style spread and run game, college and pro adaptations of inside zone and stretch in the run game, and his overall access to some great coaching cutups and clinic films presented for your leisure, or in-depth study.  Try these on for starters:

Back to the future: Sliding with Noel Mazzone

Why Noel Mazzone: Dennis Erickson and the one-back spread offense

Mazzone Revisited

Airraid Wrinkle (Part II) & Airraid Adaptation (cntd)

Alex Gibbs: Stretch/Run Game Developments (part 1) (This post features nearly 5 hours of clinic discussion – between Gibbs and former Florida Gator Offensive Coordinator, now Mississippi State Head Coach, Dan Mullen, and former Florida Gator Offensive Line Coach, now Temple Head Coach, Steve Addazio – on the inside and outside zone game implemented at the NFL level.)

Alex Gibbs: Stretch/Run Game Developments (part 2) (Continues with nearly 4 more hours of discussion of Gibbs’ system and how to adapt it to the college game with shotgun and reads.)

Rod Dobbs: Teaching & Installing Zone Runs

Attack Nodes: Running From the Gun

– Lastly (for now), I have been gathering information recently on all things relevant to running a high school football program.  I came across a great website titled Cheifpigskin: Football Video Haven.  This is a great site for coaches looking to grow as there are TONS of great videos concerning all areas of high school football development including overall program development, practice scheduling, O/D drills, in-depth documentaries, and more.  And it’s all FREE (most of it, anyway).  They even offer you a free downloadable eBook titled, Playbook for Manhood,  for joining their mailing list.  I have only perused it briefly, but it looks like it will be helpful in providing some real world examples in the effort to lead some of those uncertain youngsters – whom we often come across in the coaching profession – in the right direction; toward becoming a real man.  From a description on the website, the book’s author, Frank DiCocco, “The Playbook for Manhood addresses an important problem in our society today: the breakdown in the positive developmental process of our world’s young men.”


Coaching is coaching.

It doesn’t matter if it’s offense or defense.

It doesn’t matter if it’s football, basketball or water polo.

It’s teaching.

It’s building kids up so they believe in themselves.

It’s skill development and refinement.

It’s about breaking bad habits and creating good one’s.

It’s about pushing toward competitive greatness … individually and collectively.

Coaching is coaching.

It was tough going watching the 49ers lose against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.

I’ll leave the armchair analysis for the bloggers and know-it-alls.  It’s amusing to reflect back on some of the early criticisms of this year’s squad.  Remember when they were “winning ugly” by forcing the running game, playing smart field position football and relying on the defense? All I remember hearing was, “oh, the 49ers can’t win if a team takes away the run and forces Alex Smith to beat you,” and then Smith effectively “managed” the offense to a victory against the surging Giants.  It still wasn’t enough.  Steve Young went on local radio and lamented that they needed to “just throw the ball 40 times to see what happens … open up the offense.”  The team continued to win, but often not in spectacular enough fashion, for some self important critics, err, journalists.  Smith’s stats weren’t good enough, Crabtree wasn’t getting the ball enough, Davis was misused … they relied too much on the defense, they didn’t protect the passer.  The venerable Lowell Cohn of the Press Democrat, after the loss to the Ravens, asserted that the 49ers could not take anything positive from a loss.  He must know because of all the experience he has in coaching and leading men the way Harbaugh and his staff have this year.  And then this week after the Cardinals game, some were upset when Harbaugh was not buddy/buddy with the media and their probes about red zone woes, go-to players, and play-calling in crucial situations.  For me, Harbaugh said exactly what I expected him to say.  He addressed his team’s issues as exactly that.  The team’s issues.  It was more important for him to communicate that the 49ers would take accountability from within.  The message was clear when the only player to speak with the media was punter, Andy Lee.  They are going to get to work on fixing their problems so they can continue to improve as they approach the playoffs rather than sit around the locker room answering the same questions over and over.  They key is doing versus talking.  And I would much rather see them do then talk any day.  Unfortunately, for some, that’s just not good enough.

It’s refreshing to see good reporting when you do see it, however.  Instead of complaining about the lack of information, and spewing out negativity about how the 49ers season is doomed, one long time beat writer, Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News, did some actual reporting.  He got outside the box and went back to 49er roots to get some perspective on this week’s loss and this year’s team in his article titled, “Eddie DeBartolo likes this San Francisco 49ers team — a lot.”

Reading his article reinforced my feeling that the 49ers are still on the right track during this turn-around season, despite the pride swallowing loss to the Cards this weekend.  To keep things in perspective and provide some compelling parallels to the dynasties that were the 49ers of the ’80’s and ’90’s , Kawakami reached out to the one and only Eddie DeBartolo Jr, the former 49er architect of those momentous years.

The good part of regular talks with Eddie DeBartolo Jr. is that every time I call him, it’s like picking up right in the middle of a crackling conversation.

The entertaining and challenging part is that occasionally it’s like picking up in the middle of a conversation he started on his own 20 minutes earlier.

Take Monday for example, when he said hello, paused for about .2 seconds, then launched into his feelings about the 49ers’ surprising loss to Arizona on Sunday.

“What happened yesterday is the same thing that happened to me, Bill (Walsh), Steve (Young) and Joe (Montana) — just exactly like that,” DeBartolo said by phone from his office in Tampa, Fla.

“That happened to us so many times in Phoenix, it’s unbelievable. We’d go down there, and we had the better team, and they’d just pop up and come up with games.”

For example, the 49ers lost in Arizona in 1988, which didn’t derail their march to a Super Bowl title, the third of five won in the Eddie D era.

The important point, DeBartolo said, is that his nephew Jed York hired Jim Harbaugh and now the 2011 49ers are set up to win tough playoff games.

“They are so much better than our 1981 team,” DeBartolo said of the first, epic 49ers Super Bowl team.

“Now, in ’84, and ’88 and ’89, and ’94, we had really good football teams. Defensively and offensively. I can’t compare (this year’s team) to that.

“But this year didn’t surprise me a bit. I told you last year they were going to be good.”

Indeed, a year ago almost exactly, DeBartolo told me that the 49ers had a strong roster but that his nephew had to make some important decisions.

Back then, Eddie D said he knew Jed York could do it. Now, DeBartolo is a proud uncle and pleased football patriarch.

Despite the issues with the league and the law that pushed him to sell the 49ers to his sister Denise DeBartolo York, Eddie D will always be an important voice in sports.

And recently he made it for a second year as a semifinalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But more to the point, because he’s close to Jed and is the only 49ers owner to win the Lombardi Trophy, when it comes to his views of this 49ers generation, DeBartolo is essential.

“Jed’s done a good job. He’s stood back; he did what he had to do in hiring the coach,” DeBartolo said. “Gave (general manager Trent) Baalke the responsibility.

“And he kept his father (John York) the hell out of the picture.”

OK, let’s backtrack a bit. This team, which has clinched the NFC West but hasn’t won a playoff game, is already better than the 1981 49ers, maybe the most beloved team in Bay Area history?

“Hell yeah,” DeBartolo said. “All in all, they’re a better team than ’81.

“Our ’81 team, Joe was just a kid then. Ronnie (Lott) and those guys, they were good, but they didn’t have the experience that this defense has. And the offense, too.

“This team has Frank Gore. We had Lenvil Elliott, we had Earl Cooper — good solid players but nowhere near Frank Gore. My god, he just broke the (franchise all-time rushing) record.”

Now to the obvious linkage from 2011 to 1981 …

In 1979, after a fitful start to his tenure, young owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. hired Bill Walsh after Walsh’s short, successful run at Stanford, and a few years later the 49ers were champions.

Now, after overseeing some tough 49ers seasons, young Jed York hired Jim Harbaugh from Stanford and has a 10-3 team.

“Of course, it’s reminiscent,” DeBartolo said. “(But) I think that Coach Harbaugh is different than Bill in a lot of ways. He’s way more intense.

“Bill kept a lot inside of him. Bill’s intensity, he kept to himself. He was an inner-intense man. But they’re alike in a lot of ways, too.”

So make no mistake, Eddie D believes this team has a shot at a Super Bowl run. And he’s definitely paying attention to the way the 49ers measure up against Green Bay, New Orleans and the other NFC contenders.

“If any team has the makeup to go in there in adverse weather conditions and play that Green Bay machine and beat them, I think the 49ers can,” DeBartolo said.

But the 49ers need the first-round bye, DeBartolo emphasized. Which brings us back to Sunday’s loss.

“Yesterday’s game, eh,” DeBartolo said. “They clinched the division (the week before). Come on, you know as well as I do it was a down position to be in.

“Now they should’ve won the game. But believe me, that doesn’t have a whole lot of effect on the team.”

He should know. In fact, he’s still thinking about it.

That’s what made him the owner he was, and why he has such credibility now when he says the 49ers are close to getting back to what they were.