Posts Tagged ‘49ers’

Well, Trent Baalke and the 49ers have done it again…

In the this year’s NFL Draft, they managed to pull two draft picks out of their sleeve that no one saw coming.  This was not much unlike the 2011 draft when  Baalke and then first year NFL head coach, Jim Harbaugh, put their heads together to find two key pieces in building a foundation for the 49ers defense in years to come: Aldon Smith and Chris Culliver.

Both players paid dividends in their first season.  Smith’s efforts (14 sacks) won him NFL Rookie of the Year award and Culliver developed into the teams nickel cornerback and a valuable contributor for one of the league’s top special teams units.  Coach and General Manager have earned instant credibility with their ability to evaluate and select players that will have a lasting future on their roster.

This year they decided to go on the offensive with their first two selections.

With the 3oth overall pick in the 2012 draft, they selected wide receiver AJ Jenkins from the University of Illinois.  Like many others, I was rooting for the Niners to pick Coby Fleener, a versatile 6’6″ tigt end from Harbaugh’s last coaching stop, Stanford University.  When I heard the name AJ Jenkins, my response was, “who?”

But, after watching some game film on Jenkins, I can see that he is a vertical threat, has excellent hands, and he is involved in all levels of the passing game.  He catches the ball on all types of routes including the post, fade, slant, shallow cross, deep out and corner.  He also lines up in multiple positions, in the slot, on and off the ball and is deployed in motion to take advantage of his speed.

Watch the clips of his Big Ten game against Northwestern and see what Harbaugh was talking about when he described Jenkins as being “very versatile … we probably would start him out at one position and teach him that. Then we’ll transition with him. He’s a very smart guy, very bright guy. I don’t think it will be a problem for him to pick up and learn multiple positions.”

If you are intrigued and you want to see more of Jenkins and the versatility he will bring to the 49er offense, watch his highlight reel.  Some people [bloggers] have compared him to New York Giants all-pro wide receiver, Hakeem Nicks.  And, upon closer review, Jenkins’ long arms and great catch range make that a fair comparison.

In the 2nd round, the 49ers stayed with the theme of speed and added Pac-12 standout running back LaMichael James with the 61st overall pick.  When asked about LaMichael James’ ability to fit into the 49ers, there were a number of areas that Harbaugh felt his second round pick could make an impact.

“I’ve seen him play up close. I’ve seen all the things he can do and lost games to his team, large degree of his efforts,” said Harbaugh.

When he faced him as head coach at Stanford, Harbaugh described James as an overall “explosive” player and that the characteristics that stood out to him in James’ game – “change of direction, speed, playmaking ability, durability, number of carries, number of yards, number of touchdowns” – were all elements that make him a special player.

In reaction to the suggestion that the selection of James indicated an indictment of Frank Gore, Harbaugh insisted that, “he will come in to compete with solid football players … winning football players … it’s gonna get real real, real fast.”

Regarding both Jenkins’ and James’ opportunity to compete on the team, Harbaugh explained that “they definitely have great ability, and speed … a lot more to their game than just speed, both of those youngsters that we’ve added in this draft. They’ll get opportunity and they’ll have the license to go out and compete and find their role. Whether that’s a contributor, starter, how much of a contributor if they are a starter. That will unfold.”

He went on to compare James “favorably” to all-pro running back Ray Rice and confirmed that someday he could see James handling a similar type of workload as Rice in Baltimore.  Not only has Rice has averaged 240 carries and 1095 yards per year since he was a rookie in 2008, but he has also amassed an average of 63 receptions and 559 receiving yards per year as well.

For now, I’ll settle for James’ presence on the field providing a constant threat to beat the defense to the edge with fly sweeps, outside zone plays, or screens.  They are also getting a durable one-cut runner and a weapon in the passing game as both a primary and check down receiver.  Watch James’ snaps against in state rival, Oregon State University, to get a feel for his playmaking ability.

James should factor in as an explosive playmaker in more ways then one.

When addressing criticism that James would project to be nothing more then a third down back, Harbaugh said that he “doesn’t think that he’ll be limited to just a third down back. You have to take into consideration fourth down, too. This is somebody that has a chance to evolve into a punt returner, a kickoff returner …  He’s proven that he’s a multi-down back in our eyes.”

Finally, Trent Baalke offered his thoughts on poker and the 49ers backfield: “We’ve got a full house … that’s a good hand, right?”

Watch some more James highlights to let it sink in that the Niners just added one of the best college football players in recent years.

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When I created this website one of my initial goals was to explore Bill Walsh’s West Coast Offense in greater detail, and to provide a glimpse of how offenses today rely heavily on the concepts established decades ago by Walsh. 

Recently, a reader contacted me to explain that he shared an equal appreciation for the system that has become synonymous with 49er success during their glory years.  Michael Schuttke is an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee studying psychology and works with at-risk youth and teens. He has previously written articles at nfldraftdog.com as a team columnist for the Atlanta Falcons. 

Michael has expressed interest in using this forum to delve into the history and evolution of the West Coast Offense.  From the day’s of Paul Brown and situational scripting to the use of formations, concepts and strategies for planning, teaching, installing and executing offensive football, the West Coast Offense has provided a solid framework for what we see today, on all levels. 

Like myself, Michael was heavily influenced by the writings and teachings of Bill Walsh. The first Super Bowl he watched ended with “The Drive”, making him a life-long 49ers fan at the tender age of 5, setting the stage for a Zen-monk like devotion to learning all he could about the West Coast offensive system, quarterbacking and the game of football as a whole.

Enjoy the following guest blog – Part 1 in a series – researched and written by Michael Schuttke, with diagrams and links contributed by Saturday Nite Lites, exploring the roots of Walsh’s West Coast Offense and it’s foundation based in “21” personnel and the “split-backs” formation…

As most investigations go, this one started with what looked like a simple path.  However, I have had to go down many roads to make a thorough discussion of Bill Walsh’s distinctive formational feature to his offense.  The formation set I am referring to is the split-back formation (a.k.a. flat-backs in some circles) out of 21 personnel (2 running backs, 1 tight end). So far, no major conspiracies have been discovered but, oddly enough, a fish’s head was stapled to my door with “Red Right Slot – A Right – 322 Scat Y Stick” written on it followed by “stop now”.

Y Stick: A Bill Walsh / West Coast Offense staple

I think it was from a spread guru who heard what I was up to…

Anyway, in investigating an age-old formation that has appeared to have, at least temporarily, gone the way of the dinosaur, I came across a statement by a famous source within the football realm that I thought would serve as a good introduction to this topic.

Traditional West Coast Offense "split backs" formation

Recently, Mike Mayock was discussing the abilities of draft prospect Robert Griffin III (RGIII as he has been branded; personally, I am hoping he adopts a symbol that evokes Freudian phallic stage “stuckness”, a la Prince and refers to himself as “The Quarterback Formerly Known As Robert Griffin III”).  Specifically, Mayock went on to address the distinct possibility that the talented quarterback will land with the Cleveland Browns, who have two first-round selections (#4 and #22), ammo that will likely be needed to acquire the second overall selection from the St. Louis Rams to ensure they will get Griffin (assuming the Colts do not pick him over Andrew Luck).

In reference to the strategic tendencies of the Browns offense, Mayock is of the belief that the current tendencies will only serve to hinder Griffin’s development if the Browns select him.  The statement he made though to justify this was where I wanted to begin our discussion.

Mayock stated:

If Cleveland moves up to get this kid, they have to make this kid comfortable . . . he’s too explosive and too much of a play-maker to have him just sit there and read the triangle the West Coast offense is. In other words, [offensive coordinator] Brad Childress and that group of coaches in Cleveland are going to have to change some things to make this kid the playmaker he is.”

Now, in principle, I agree with Mayock’s bigger idea.  The Browns (or any team that lands RGIII) should construct their offense around the strengths of their quarterback rather than force a square peg into a round hole.  The majority of Griffin’s collegiate career has been spent lining up in the shotgun formation in Baylor’s wide-open spread offense.  However, if the colossal rookie year of Cam Newton taught us nothing, “spread quarterbacks” are not a college gimmick quarterback doomed to mediocre performance in the NFL.  Various teams around the NFL ran well over half of their plays from the shotgun formation this past year.  Various studies of quarterback performance confirm that most quarterbacks are simply better when they set up in the shotgun than under center, even with the same personnel on the field.

The Spread Offense, with a dual threat at quarterback, adapts split backs with shotgun

The Spread Offense, with a passing threat at quarterback, adapts split backs with shotgun

How does this relate to Bill Walsh and the famed West Coast Offense, perhaps the seminal offense of the late 20th century and for sure into the early part of this century?  Good question reader.

What The Walsh Offense Wasn’t

Walsh was never a fan of the shotgun formation, something he was not shy about stating.  For Walsh, there were simply too many variables to account for, particularly with regards to the center to quarterback snap, which he wanted to eliminate.  The genesis of the West Coast Offense and how it differed from offenses that came before it was the extremely defined nature of timing that occurs between the footwork of the quarterback and the subsequent timing of the receivers routes, specifically their breaks and the progression the quarterback would move through from one target to the next.

In the following clip, Bill Walsh breaks down the art and science of quarterbacking and the importance of timing in the West Coast Offense:

It is a misnomer though to say that a West Coast Offense cannot be based out of the shotgun. Chris Brown of smartfootball.com and myself got into a discussion about this via e-mail with each other wherein the end takeaway was that all of the “signature plays/concepts” most commonly associated to the West Coast Offense can also be run “from gun” but that there needs to be a change in the vertical stems of the receivers.  In short, the receivers need to take their routes ever so slightly longer to account for the “time lag” between the quarterback having to focus on catching the snap before he can look at the defense as compared to when he takes the snap directly from under center and can then immediately observe the movement of under-coverage defenders.

View the following clip to see an example of how a spread offense incorporates the standard West Coast Offense route concept, Y-Stick:

So where did Mayock go awry in his statement?

ANSWER: By defining “triangle reads” to “just” the West Coast Offense.

Really, any passing concept that is worth its salt will incorporate stretching the defense to some degree on two planes; horizontally and vertically.  The only other real read that differs from this is a true “Flood” concept, where three players attack what is essentially a vertical plane at different depths but all coming into one relatively straight alignment at some point. In the triangle read, the degree to which any one “stretch” is emphasized does vary (e.g. the “stick” concept will not stretch a defense as vertically as the “smash” concept, but “slants and flats” is also going to stretch the defense more horizontally than “smash” and have more of a vertical threat than “stick” does on the linebacker level of the defense; but it still is run in roughly the same vertical area…you get the idea).

Smash: Vertical stretch on cornerback

Y Stick: Horizontal/Vertical stretch on linebacker

Slant/Flat: Horizontal/Vertical stretch on safety or linebacker

However, any sound play design in the passing game will incorporate what all amounts to gaining a numbers advantage.  At the end of the day, whether it be passing or running, an offense is always trying to get more “at the point of attack” than what the defense can respond with.  This is why we pull lineman.  This is why we option a defender.  This is why we “flood” a zone.  All of these ideas are essentially about creating movement and getting more of “our men” in one plane of the field than “they have”.

Walsh may have become very known for this concept though, long before it was popular, namely creating “triangles” inside of the defense. For Walsh and the West Coast Offense, the central idea of the offense was to time to the exact step when the quarterback’s back foot would stop his drop from center to when the throw would be made to the first receiver in the read. Indeed, many of these throws were made “on time” (no hitch step), such as the square out and the quick out.  Others were thrown with a hitch step (in-routes and curls) or even two (post routes). The beauty of the triangle approach is that it makes any read of the quarterback very quick and simplified.

If one looks at the West Coast version of the commonly used “snag” and “stick” concepts, one clearly sees that the key features of this passing concept are retained when a “spread team” such as the New England Patriots, runs this same concept from shotgun and with multiple receivers at the line of scrimmage.

The New England Patriots use an empty set to combine the "snag" and "stick" concepts, effectively giving QB Tom Brady his choice of concepts to read, based on the defensive pre-snap alignment

 

So this brings us back to our original query…what makes a West Coast Offense just that and, more specifically, what made Walsh’s version unique?

For me, in approaching this idea, the place I continually came back to was in Walsh’s formations and use of motion.  In particular though, it was how almost all of Walsh’s offense was based out of a split backs (a.k.a. flat-backs in some circles) look, with one back on each side of an under center quarterback, each back aligned behind the offensive tackles.  Minor variations existed (e.g. the backs may be aligned directly behind their same side tackle or they may split his inside-leg or, as this video shows, both can be split but even the depth and horizontal spacing of the split can vary) but the majority of his offense was built out of very basic, 21 personnel.

21 Personnel (2 running backs, F & H; 1 tight end, Y) Split Backs or "Red"

The variants to use old West Coast terminology were often with where the fullback would align.  In what is often known as “Far” (or “Brown” in Walsh’s verbiage), the halfback would align “far” from the tight end behind the weak-side tackle.  In  what is often known as “Near” (or “Blue” to Walsh), the halfback aligns behind the strong-side/TE-side tackle.  In both of these sets though, the fullback is stacked in a way that places him in alignment behind the quarterback and center.

21 Personnel Far or "Brown"

21 Personnel Near or "Blue"

This set allows for a strong “downhill” diving action by either the halfback (as seen at the 2:00 minute mark of the previous hyperlink) or the fullback.  One can also begin to cue other runs off of this diving action, wherein one back dives down and the other moves in an arc behind this back, often receiving a pitch or direct hand-off from the quarterback.  If this quick-hitting nature sounds familiar, it should as the run concepts fundamental to the Walsh West Coast system ultimately come from the Wing-T offense.  A system populated at the turn of the 20th century at the University of Delaware, the main difference between a pure Wing-T team and a split-backs “Pro-Set” is the “wingback” is now a “flanked out” receiver.  We also call this player the “Flanker” now in most terminologies.  However, as this article discusses, the elements of the Wing-T were very strong in how the run game for the Walsh offense worked.

However, the bread-and-butter formation of the Walsh offense was the same 21 personnel but out of split backs.  What is lost in “downhill” running (which isn’t that much, as seen here at the 1:35 mark; the Broncos are basically in a goal-line defense and every relevant defender is accounted for in this man-block, trap dive as the left tackle pulls inside the guard and goes second-level) is gained in edge protection, more immediate release from the backs into pass patterns and holds the same cross-faking properties as the “Blue” and “Brown” sets.  Indeed, “Red Right/Left” became the signature formation of the early 49ers dynasty.

And for good reason…there is much that can be done out of the split-backs set.

The main intention Walsh had was to have his backs control the under-coverage defenders, allowing routes deeper downfield to develop.  Contrary to popular belief, the mainstay concepts Walsh wanted to build his passing game around were not the famed 3-step routes (especially the quick slant) but rather more intermediate routes that came via the 5-step passing game.  As such, he frequently had backs run routes such as shoots, arrows, swings, angle routes, and sit routes.  Option routes were also implemented as well, something that Brigham Young developed heavily under LaVell Edwards in the 1980’s.  The BYU offense ultimately spawned the USC “Pro-Style” offense that came to fame under Norm Chow and then what we now see as the Air Raid of Mike Leach today, both at Texas Tech and what we will likely see in his current position at Washington State.

Norm Chow's "H/Y Option" concept

Much has been said about the decline of the traditional “fullback” position.  What I find funny is that this is viewed as some “recent” phenomenon when we can even see this going back to Walsh.  Particularly in the early 49ers dynasty, we can see how Walsh would play with what was essentially a two-halfback offense.

The core idea behind the spread offense is to get “speed in space” and force the defense to immediately react to an additional receiver presented at the line of scrimmage.  Walsh took that idea of “speed in space” but simply had the player start in the backfield.  In “Building A Champion”, Walsh spoke of how he would often have a player like Jerry Rice start aligned as a halfback before motioning out into the formation.

Walsh’s unique use of player positioning, even within his very basic 21, split-back structure, led to all sorts of adjustments that the defense had to make.  While it was basic in terms of personnel, Walsh’s offense was incredibly multiple with its slight variations in receiver splits, motions, back alignments (split even, split but slightly staggered, etc.). At the core of it all though, the “mode” of the offense revolved around a very basic personnel grouping and what, essentially amounted to a Split Back set, a Far set, a Near set, and slot derivatives as well as a “3-wide” variation for each.

Indeed, one does not need a billion formations, 400-page playbooks and 1,000’s of plays to be successful.  Vince Lombardi was an advocate of keeping things simple and he did pretty well with it. The Colts have done very well primarily basing out of either 11 personnel or 12 personnel through most of the Peyton Manning era.

“Well, things have changed Michael!” may aruge the pundit or “Peyton Manning doesn’t need a ton!” . . . Indeed, the times have changed.  And yes, great quarterbacks do give you an edge no matter what you are doing. Teams are indeed now more multiple on defense than ever.  Confusion is the name of the game, as Sean Payton noted.

However, offense always has a pre-snap edge in that, unlike the defense, it knows in advance where it intends to go. Offense is by its very nature pro-active.  The point of all the confusion is to force offenses to become more tentative and reactive. Most defensive sets are bound by rules built on coverage, front and offensive formation; in short, no matter how “aggressive” a defense gets, it is still fundamentally reactive.  Perhaps it becomes more aggressive through one-gap principles or heavy blitzing or both with the trend now of pre-snap movement and exotic lineman stemming actions.

There are multiple ways to this growing desire to confuse (no-huddle offenses are a start), but, besides changing pace to force a defense to “be more basic”/less exotic, there is the simple nature of keeping your offense “knowable” by all players by keeping things simple.  Any offense is much more likely to execute correctly after players have repeatedly been drilled relevant game skills, applied within the framework of the movement on key plays, taught in such a way as to know how to react to every defensive alignment that can realistically be seen, from front-alignment to coverage shell.

Walsh’s offenses were not simple per se but their main complexity came via the pairing of the various passing series he had with the blocking actions of his lineman.  Due to having built-in hot reads, plays and protections were very linked.  In the early days of one of Walsh’s disciples, Mike Holmgren, and a quarterback named Brett Favre, Holmgren refused to have Favre alter a single receiver route and instead only allowed for an audible to reset the entire pattern.  This is in part due to the linked nature that Holmgren’s early Green Bay version retained of Walsh’s offense; due to relying primarily on a man-blocking scheme that heavily incorporated players “double-reading”, it was vital to have the correct play work with the protection that would be optimal for blocking the “most probable” rushers.  I will later discuss how the zone-blitz would essentially kill the double-read and how this, more than anything else, affected the split backs formation.

In addition to controlling the under-coverage though, backs in Walsh’s 21 personnel, split-back paring would often be used to challenge the defense into its deeper regions as well.  The primary routes for this that were used were the “wheel” and the “seam” route.  Jason earlier discussed the 49ers use of the seam route in their 1995 Super Bowl win against the Chargers.  We can see use of the “wheel” route here at the 1:03 mark (albeit with a “back” in motion out of the backfield).  Clemson became absolutely excellent at running the wheel route, as seen here to Jamie Harper and to a now Buffalo Bill runner by the name of C.J. Spiller here and here. Note in the second Spiller touchdown how the throw was actually an underthrow though; this is the kind of subtle difference of a throw a college quarterback can make that makes his stat line look great but is not a good translation of how that throw must be made at the professional level.  It is such subtle differences Walsh often spoke about, as Mike Holmgren once recalled, that makes the difference between a good throw and a great, touchdown throw.

Another advantage of a split-back set is its ability to quickly be “re-set”, especially in no-huddle situations.  The first Super Bowl I watched was the famous 49ers-Bengals match wherein Joe Montana drove the Niners 92 yards before throwing the game-winning strike to John Taylor.  Note though that, in the video clip of “The Drive” below, for almost the entire series, the 49ers were set in one personnel grouping – split backs.  There is use of a dual receiver slot side for a stretch but the essential features of Red Right/Left are retained; an “unbalanced” set at the line (i.e. three receivers to one side of the center, two to the other) but with back flow (a concept Walsh often spoke of) used to influence the under-coverage as well. By having backs releasing either on check-releases or immediately into the flats or hook/curl regions, either way, the offense can quickly get back to the line.

It is debatable whether this is “distinct” compared to non 21 personnel groupings as, again, the same route combinations can be run from almost any personnel grouping.  However, the incredible utility of split backs is illustrated as well on this drive as we often see backs check releasing and stopping blitzing linebackers before they release into vacated areas of the defense.  Again, zone-blitzes have helped reduce the effectiveness of these “dual-read” concepts but I will also address in a later writing how Walsh’s primarily man-blocking schemes out of Split Pro can also have partial slide protections incorporated to help correct for this as well as how to have “simpler” hot reads. Further, the faking/cross-faking action to split backs, particularly if under center but still present in shotgun sets as well, gives it a very distinct advantage to influencing linebacker play.

Any formation has strengths and weaknesses.  The point of this series though will be to show that maybe the 21 personnel, split-back offense perhaps died a pre-mature death…but that it may make a comeback before long as well.  Like fashion, offenses and defenses are cyclical.  As such, certain offenses have a certain Cher-like longevity (sans the plastic surgery and auto-tune vocal corrections) while others are more of a flash in the pan than Joey Lawrence’s hairstyle, before and after.

Things Change; Embrace It But Learn From The Past…It May Come Back Around (with or without hair plugs),

Michael

References:

http://www.ohio.com/news/break-news/nfl-draft-nfl-network-s-mayock-thinks-browns-should-pick-rg3-1.265095 ~ Mayock quote

http://chronicle.northcoastnow.com/2011/11/04/shotgun-not-a-quick-fix-for-browns-offense-players-say/ ~ Shotgun not a cure all

http://www.dawgsbynature.com/2011/9/11/2392880/the-2010-saint-louis-rams-offense-stick-snag-and-smash ~ Rufio on stick, snag and smash

http://www.slideshare.net/SmittyWerbenmanjensen/multiple-west-coast-offense-manual ~ Good comparison between system languages

http://www.cleveland.com/pluto/blog/index.ssf/2012/02/terry_plutos_talkin_about_the_46.html ~ Terry Pluto on the Browns use of the shotgun

http://www.dawgsbynature.com/2012/2/19/2810144/the-sunday-five-browns-getting-ready-for-the-nfl-combine ~ Where the Pluto article was initially found

http://jcfb.com/forum/messageview.aspx?catid=4&threadid=13717 ~ Good article on the general nature of the split back set

I just watched the last 4 minutes of the 49ers-Saints Divisional playoff game from this last weekend on NFL Network’s NFL Replay.  To say that this was one of the most exciting games I’ve ever been witness to seems like an understatement.  This game had it all: a hard hitting affair with offensive fireworks and a raucous home stadium providing the ultimate backdrop for the unfolding drama on the field.  The redemption of Alex Smith was apparent as he was not to be denied in those last 4 minutes.

Steve Young would say that Alex Smith finally grabbed that “over [his] dead body” quality.  According to Young, this is when a great quarterback takes a stand and says, “it’s going down a certain way and you’re going to have to kill me if it doesn’t go down my way.”  That’s what I saw at the end of the game on Saturday, and throughout, as well.  Even though there were moments when many 49er fans could have thought, “here we go again,” Smith maintained his composure and kept making the plays when he needed to.

In his last drive, starting with 1:32 on the clock and only one timeout left, just after Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham had delivered a dagger of a score – an impressive 66 yard pass and run to re-take the lead, 32-29 – Smith lead the 49ers on a 7 play 85 yard drive, capped off by a game winning strike to Vernon Davis, leaving only 9 seconds on the clock. Smith calmly got his team lined up at the line of scrimmage and commanded the offense without panic.  He was calculated and patient in the way that he dropped the ball off to Gore as the Saints dropped into deep coverage, inviting Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to bring pressure, as he had done so routinely all game long.  Then, Smith saw his opening and did not flinch when he found Davis running away from single coverage, setting the scene for the dramatic victory.

The way this game ended for 49er fans brought to life an Oliver Stone-like image of the rise of ghost’s of 49ers past: Joe Montana, Dwight Clark and “The Catch”; Steve Young, Terrell Owens and “The Catch II”; a maligned 49ers quarterback getting the “monkey off [his] back,” a la Steve Young after the 1994 season’s Super Bowl; the 1981 49ers coming out of nowhere – with a 13-3 record, a genius-in-the-making head coach, and an NFL 2nd ranked defense to boot … all swelling up into one moment of history invoking action, attacking our sensibilities as to where the 49ers have been and what they are to become once again – a 10 year siege of ineptitude, failure and frustration wiped away with awe inspiring execution – bringing back shades of a dominant era and one of football’s original dynasties.

49ers head coach, Jim Harbaugh, said of the final offensive play, “I know there was ‘The Catch’ … I don’t know what you’re going to call this one … ‘The throw? The throw and catch?'”

Here is what Harbaugh’s “Throw and Catch” breaks down to on paper – notice the tight windows Smith had to get the ball through in order to give Davis a chance:

In typical Harbaugh fashion, the head coach was quick to praise multiple players when prompted about the game winning effort – reemphasizing this year’s 49er doctrine that it is always about the team, the team, the team.

“These guys are my heroes.  All of them.  Alex was heroic in this game.  So was Justin, so was Donte, so was Aldon, so was Vernon Davis.  You take your play to the heroic.  That’s what he did.  That’s what all our guys did.  Just the way they all fight.  It’s a wicked, competitive fight that’s in our guys,” said the steely coach as he reflected on what was, what has been and what will be as the 49ers push on in their run to grab the organizations sixth Lombardi Trophy.

Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of one of the most famous plays in 49er history.  I submit to you the diagram (from the appendix of Bill Walsh’s book, Building a Champion) of the play Walsh, Joe Montana and Dwight Clark made famous – simply known as “The Catch”:

On the play (Brown Left Slot – Sprint Right Option), Montana’s first option was to sprint-out and hit Freddie Solomon (#88) in the front corner of the end zone.  Fullback Earl Cooper (#49) and halfback Lenvil Elliott (#35) set the edge for Montana as he started his sprint-out to the right.  The offensive line reached on the front-side and hinged on the back-side.  The Dallas Cowboys were playing tight man to man coverage.  When Solomon was covered, Montana drifted away from the pursuing defensive linemen, allowing Clark time to change direction and lose his man, Everson Walls (#24).  He pumped once as he processed his options (1-flat, 2-over, 3-run) and a second time to get the taller defensive linemen to jump, providing a clear path to get rid of the ball.  Finally, he lofted a pass into the corner of the end zone where only Clark (#87) could reach it.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

Dwight Clark makes a leaping catch to send the 49ers into the Super Bowl

Enjoy the following short clip of a young Chris Berman and his live coverage of the play that started it all:

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 SI.com, 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:

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.