Throughout the media there are hundreds of analysts that are all willing to give you their evaluation of a team or player. They use vague descriptions such as athletic freak, football intelligence or simply a good football player often based on highlights or stats to back up their bold claims and rarely bring any concrete observations to solidify their opinions. After years of frustration trying to decipher which analyst knew what they were talking about, the ones who do know what they are talking about are the ex quarterbacks that had to fully understand what all 22 players were supposed to be doing during their playing days, otherwise, the vast majority of sports analysts are simply talking heads. As any football player will tell you, the only way to judge a player or teams performance is to watch the tape. So when the NFL released the Full 22 Footage as part of their Game Rewind last year, BallsDeepSportsBlog quickly pounced on the opportunity.
After a year of getting used to the overwhelming amount of information in each 10 second clip, from the sideline and end zone cams, we are ready to start breaking down the game tape to provide insight into why that play worked or how a certain player is successful at the NFL level. Last week, the 49ers 34-28 win over the Packers was the game of the week so we decided to breakdown the six plays that explain why the 49ers came out on top.
In the divisional round of the playoffs last year, the 49ers used the read option to dismantle the Packers 45 to 31 with Colin Kaepernick setting an NFL record of 181 rushing yards by a quarterback. In the offseason, the Packers coaching staff traveled to Texas A&M to learn how to stop the read option or at least avoid being embarrassed on national TV again. After the Superbowl loss to the Ravens, the 49ers and Kaepernick got back to work trying to improve after a breakout season. This summer he got a full offseason as a starter under his belt which provided the essential time required to learn the intricacies of Greg Roman’s offense and show that his was more than a running quarterback. Here are the three themes that dictated the game on Sunday.
1. Packers committing to stopping the run
As discussed above, the Packers were determined to avoid last year’s embarrassment, and they successfully did with formations designed to stuff the running lanes that were gaping last season. Continually, they stacked the box with 8 players and had BJ Raji, Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly, who weigh in at over a 1,000 pounds combined, fill the interior gaps while their outside linebackers, Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, crashed off the edge to attack the mesh point of the read option and disrupt outside runs. Just look at this Frank Gore run off right tackle
Game Situation: 2nd Quarter, 3:13, 1st and 10 at GB 34, 49ers 14 Packers 7
Pre snap: the Niners are in the Pistol with FB Miller and RB Gore in the backfield with Kaepernick, WR Kyle Williams out wide right and WR Boldin in the slot. The Packers respond with 8 in the box with a high safety over the two wideouts to the right.
After the Snap: the off tackle play requires the whole line to slide right and Anthony Davis reach block the weak side inside linebacker to seal the left side of the hole. While both of these are successful, Nick Perry, the play side outside linebacker crashes the backfield forcing the lead blocker, Miller, to push him behind the play leaving no one to pave the way for Gore. This combined with the run blitz by SS M.D Jennings blew the play up before Frank even had a chance to turn it upfield, resulting in a lost of 2 yards. Beyond this, look at the flow by the linebackers who are completely focused on the run action and are coming downhill with a purpose at the snap. It did not help that both wide receivers failed to lay a hand on either of the men positioned directly over them.
Bottom Line: the Packers were selling out against the run by bringing their SS into the box and crashing the edge with a run blitz. This play was doomed from the beginning and no amount of execution could have turn this into a successful play.
Game Situation: 3rd Quarter, 0:43, 2nd and Goal at GB 10, 49ers 21 Packers 21
Pre Snap: the Niners are lined up in the full pistol, two backs next to Kaepernick and Gore directly behind him. Every Packer defender is within 8 yards of the box, obviously helped by the fact that the ball is at the Green Bay 10 yard line, and they are all expecting a run.
After the Snap: The Packers have clearly studied up on the read option as both inside linebackers flood the A gap taking away the inside handoff and Clay Matthews crashes the mesh point taking away the quarterback keep. Regardless of what Kaepernick does this play is doomed because of the Packers alignment and execution, but he decides to pick the worse of the two options and is crushed by Matthews for a 7 yard loss.
Bottom Line: The Packers clearly learned from their Texas A&M trip, as they successfully stuffed both the inside dive and the quarterback keep on the read option.
2. 49ers exploiting the Packers running stuffing plan
Greg Roman and Jim Harbaugh must be given a ton of credit for taking to the air before the Packers shut down the 49ers run game, with 8 of the first 10 plays being designed pass plays. As Bill Barnwell of Grantland summed it up “Just when you think you have the answers, Jim Harbaugh changes the questions.” Throughout the offseason, 49ers beat writers foresaw this with their praise of Kapernick’s continued growth as a passer despite the lack of playmakers on the outside, this was before Boldin had what Kaepernick called a ‘grown man game’ on Sunday. The run stuffing scheme displayed by the Packers showed its limitations when Kaepernick dropped back to pass with a complete lack of pressure, due to the run stopping defensive linemen in and trying to contain Kaepernick’s running lanes, and the linebackers failing to get depth on their drops into zone coverage. These defensive schemes combined with Kaepernick’s evolution as a passer, particularly his ability to toggle through his progressions, led to his huge 412 yard 3 touchdown day.
Game Situation: 2nd Quarter, 14:21, 3rd and 5 at SF 32, 49ers 7 Packers 7
Pre Snap: the 49ers are in 11 personnel with TE Davis spilt out as a wide receiver and motion Boldin into a tight trips formation to gain two advantages, a free release which is especially helpful for a receiver that ran a 4.7 40 10 full years ago, and creates confusion on who has who once the receiver break their routes. The Packer’s SS is again creeping forward into the box and the right CB is playing press coverage on Kyle Williams out right with a single high safety above.
After the Snap: The Packers drop into something resembling Cover 3 and the rush is negated partially by an effort to contain Kaepernick
to in the pocket and partially by the excellent 49ers offensive line. Kyle Williams runs a 10 yard comeback that occupies the left corner while the trips bunch of Patton, Davis and Boldin run a shallow crossing route, corner and 15 yard in respectively. The combination of the quarterback spy by one of the inside linebackers and the shallow crossing route takes both linebackers out of the intermediate zones, while Davis corner challenges the left CB taking him away from of the play. This leaves the FS safety, who started 20 yards deep at the snap and since dropped an additional 5 yards as the upfield routes of of Boldin and Davis threaten him vertically, leaving him 8 yards away when Boldin breaks inwards to a perfectly timed Kaepernick pass that gains 22 yards.
Bottom Line: Those 8 man fronts looked great against the run but they are exposed here as Kaepernick is given time and open space in the middle of the field resulting in a big play.
Game Situation: 1st Quarter, 7:58, 1st and 10 at SF 31, 49ers 0 Packers 0
Pre Snap: The 49ers break the huddle with 12 personnel, 1 back 2 TE, but spilt both Davis and McDonald out to the slot on either side with Boldin and Kyle Williams out wide on each side. The Packers are aligned in their base defense with their SS covering Vernon Davis and the FS in a single high look.
After the Snap: A quick three step drop has Kaepernick looking to the right flat for a swing pass to Frank Gore,
but the defensive end smartly jumps to dissuade the throw, if not for this it would have been an easy 5 yards as the Packers were in man and the linebacker responsible for Gore was either caught inside or occupied by Davis’s crossing route. After bringing the ball back down, Kaepernick switches to his second progression, the aforementioned Davis cross, which is double covered . Kaepernick again quickly switches to his third read, McDonald, who is wide open in the middle of the field as result of his man being pulled out of position by Gore’s movement into the flat. All of this again is possible due to the complete lack of pass rush due to schemes and personal decision meant to stop the run. All in all, Kaepernick goes through 3 progressions and gets the ball out in 3.7 seconds to an open McDonald for a 26 yard gain.
Bottom Line: Kaepernick is a polished pocket passing quarterback, he proved he can work through his progression quickly enough to defeat defenses that take away his first two options, which is essential for a successful quarterback in the NFL.
3. Quick drops and up tempo passing game shredding the 49ers defense
This will not be news to 49er fans, but the 3 step drop passing games of Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers, I know everyone gets lit up by these elite quarterbacks but the 49ers have an top 5 defense that has contained most other NFL offenses so seeing them get shredded is unusual. A gross generalization of the 49ers defensive game plan is to get pressure with their excellent front four while dropping seven and keeping everything in front of the defense, allowing for the usually excellent tackling defense to limit yards after catches. The elite quarterbacks have had success using quick routes to eliminate the pass rush while exposing the 49ers corner’s limited quickness and refusal to consistently challenge the receivers at the line of scrimmage. This combined with an up tempo, no huddle offense which limits any defense’s ability to change coverages has caused the 49ers defense problems. In the Packer game, the tempo was particularly important as on their 12 drives, excluding the final one which ended as the clock ran out, there was 5 three and outs, 2 turnovers, 1 five play drive and 4 touchdown drives, each of which was under 3 minutes. Except for the single 5 play drive, when the Packers were able to get a first down, they scored a touchdown extremely quick, primarily using short passes with a high tempo that exposed the conservative 49ers defensive game plan.
Game Situation: 1st Quarter, 2:52, 1st and 10 at GB 30, 49ers 7 Packers 0
Pre Snap: The Packers line up in a shotgun 10 personnel with three wideouts spread out to the right side. The 49ers counter with their nickel package with FS Eric Reid playing in the deep middle. The Packers spread out the 49ers defense with this alignment, putting the pressure on their weakness defensive unit, their secondary.
After the Snap: A quick play fake by Rodgers sucks the linebackers up as Green Bay had been running it, to little success but enough to keep the linebackers honest, opening up space for the quick seam route by Randell Cobb. Rodgers doesn’t even move his feet after the play fake and darts it to Cobb as the man over the top, Whitner, has no chance to affect the catch. He is quickly tackled but after a gain of 14 yards and the offense is quickly rushing to the line of scrimmage to trap the 49ers in their personnel and limit their potential coverages. The GIF below shows a play from the 49ers Patriots game last December in the middle of the Patriots 31 point outburst, which occur after switching to an up tempo quick passing game. Notice the similarities between both plays, quick hitches and slants accompanied by a quick enough drop to negate the pass rush.
Bottom Line: The 49ers defensive game plan and personnel will continue to be attacked in this manner in 2013, luckily for 49ers fans there are only a handful of quarterbacks in the NFL who can orchestrate such a well coordinated offense.
Overall, the 49ers Packers game was as good as it gets in week 1 of
a NFL season, two elite teams trying to game plan for opposing offenses and defenses that hadn’t put any of their 2013 tendencies on film yet. The 49ers were more successful by taking advantage of Green Bay’s determination to stop the read option with a precise passing display that proved that Kaepernick is an elite quarterback not just a runner. Hope this gave you some insight into what happens on Sundays and look for more Deep in the Game posts covering a variety of teams, players and schemes.