Smith/Davis make adjustments in 49ers passing game

Posted: December 20, 2011 in 49ers, Coaching Chronicles, Pro Football
Tags: , , , , ,

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:

QB-Smith-to-TE-Davis-31-yd-pass

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.

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