What make the 49ers quarterback such a matchup nightmare for the Falcons this weekend?
I'm not going to try to convince you that the NFL is changing and that college style offenses that heavily feature the zone read option and/or the Pistol formation (and the myriad of wrinkles therein) are here to stay. Many believe that it's a fad or gimmick, that teams will 'figure out how to defend it this offseason,' or that the threat of injury to quarterbacks will make that stuff fade into Bolivian (h/t to Iron Mike). Hell if I know.
Here's what I do know: the two 'read-option/pistol' quarterbacks whose teams were still alive NFL Playoffs as of last weekend, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick, sure made a strong argument for their brand of football's staying power in this league, as they both put on offensive clinics on a huge stage. On Saturday night, Kaepernick accounted for 444 total yards and four touchdowns; 263 yards passing and two touchdown passes and 181 yards rushing, with another two scores coming on the ground as the Niners routed the Packers to move to within one game of the Super Bowl. Russell Wilson, not to be outdone, accounted for 445 total offensive yards and three touchdowns for the Seahawks in a losing effort to the Falcons; 385 yards passing with two touchdown passes to go with his 60 yards rushing a his rushing TD, as the Niners' NFC West brethren mounted a 20-point fourth-quarter comeback, took the lead, only to lose on a last-second field goal.
As a Seahawks' fan and writer, I'm obviously biased, and I like to think that my quarterback lives up to his nickname and Twitter handle 'DangeRuss' - he's a threat to gouge you through the air, and if you don't respect his ability to run, he'll hurt you there, toying with defensive ends on the read-option, escaping pressure, foiling blitzes, and demoralizing a defense. This dual-threat type of player that can use his arm or legs is exactly that -- dangerous, and frankly, a real pain in the ass to prepare for and defend if you're an opposing defensive coordinator. For these reasons, with a mixture of begrudging respect and admiration, Colin Kaepernick scares the hell out of me; both this season as the Niners' Super Bowl run meets a Falcons team that smote Seattle's ruin upon the mountainside last weekend, and beyond into next year and for the next decade of NFC West rivalry.
I'm legally obligated to hate the Niners and all their players, (though I admit I loved the Nevada star when he was coming out of college and shuddered in horror when Jim Harbaugh picked him) but as it goes with great teams and their players, in this case, the bourgeoning star in Colin Kaepernick, I may hate him, but dammit, do I respect him.
Here's an example of why: Kaepernick's 181 yards rushing last week against the Packers was an NFL record for rushing yards by a quarterback in a single game. Ever. All-time.
Let that sink in for a second.
Even more impressive than that, 179 of those 181 yards came before contact, so Kaepernick is so explosively fast that he was just running past people before they could even get a hand on him. More important, Kaepernick was using his ability to run, and I'm borrowing a term from Niners legend Steve Young, he was using his ability to run judiciously. 179 yards before getting touched. That's beyond judicious.
"So with the pistol and with quarterbacks that can move around being better trained earlier, I think you're going to see that people will see the benefits of mobile quarterbacks in the long-term and that will still be hopefully the prototype. Now, Peyton [Manning] and Tom [Brady] have forever proven me wrong on that, but I think you're starting to see that the potential for what mobile quarterbacks can do on third down and just piercing plays to defenses, as they learn the job. Because as soon as a mobile quarterback learns the job, ... that's when you get to complete capitulation of defenses. They just don't know what to do.
Now, the second part is the thing that you wonder, can you stay the long haul. Can you stay healthy? ... How can guys that can move around stay healthy, have long careers? You get smart fast, and you use that weapon really judiciously. And I think RGIII learned a ton this year, and with this injury will be forced to deal with learning a lot more - and quickly. He's a smart guy. He will. ...
You can make these phenomenal plays - 80-yard runs, make five guys miss - sooner or later you'll expose yourself to something that you nor your team can afford, and that's just judiciously understanding your weapons and using them in the right way and with experience.
20 of these superbly judicious yards and the first of his two rushing touchdowns came in the first quarter, on 3rd down, as Young pointed to above, as the Niners trailed the Packers 7-0. Kaep had just thrown an ugly pick-six and like any great quarterback, showed the ability to forget the possession prior and focus on getting back in the endzone.
3-8-GB 20 (9:09 1st Q) (Shotgun) C.Kaepernick left end for 20 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
Below, I've laid out the play design, as it's been drawn up. The Niners spread the Packers out by motioning TE Delanie Walker to the left wing, past Randy Moss in the slot, and by putting TE Vernon Davis tight slot right, flanked by Michael Crabtree and A.J. Jenkins out wide. The Packers counter with tight press on all five receiving options, in a man-to-man look. They have two safeties patrolling the secondary, and will rush with four.
As the ball is snapped, Kaepernick's primary target and favorite, Micheal Crabtree, is bracketed by two Packers defenders as he runs upfield inside the numbers, and as Kaep sees Crabtree heavily guarded, he pulls the ball down.
Seeing the backs of no less than five Packers defenders, Kaepernick climbs the pocket, sees an opening to his left, and smartly tucks the ball away to run for a first down.
With the Packers in tight man-to-man coverage, much too slow to react to a running quarterback as they play sticky pass coverage, the first down run quickly turns into a touchdown run.
See it play out in realtime. Kaepernick's breakaway speed is actually pretty staggering.
The Packers' defensive playcall, which failed to account for Kaepernick as a runner, nor assigned him a spy defender in case of the QB run, leaves a ton of open green underneath, which the 2nd year QB exploits quickly.
Now, being able to run is all well and good, but in the NFL, all the running prowess in the world doesn't mean a thing if you cannot throw the football. Period. We wouldn't be talking about Robert Griffin, Russell Wilson, or Colin Kaepernick if any of these three couldn't throw from the pocket.
Obviously, each of these quarterbacks' pocket passing ability varies and all three must work on that aspect of their game to have sustained successful careers. The thing about Kaepernick that sets him apart from Alex Smith and was a major reason he replaced Smith mid-season is that he can not only offer multiplicity of plays in the read-option, pistol run game, but he can throw the ball downfield with precision and accuracy.
Kaepernick has some distance to go with touch and ball placement on the short and intermediate timing routes, but his ability in the passing game ignited the Niners' offense and has turned third-year receiver Michael Crabtree into a star. As ESPN's Stats & Info points out, in San Francisco's first nine games of the season, all nine of those games with Smith as the starting QB, "Crabtree was 39th in the NFL with 510 receiving yards, and his average target depth was 6.4 yards downfield, the third-lowest of 76 qualified wide receivers. Since Kaepernick became the starter in Week 11 (9 games), Crabtree is fifth in the NFL in catches (50), fourth in receiving yards (714) and tied for second with seven touchdowns." To put that in perspective, in those first nine games with Smith, Crabtree had 59 total targets.
Though Kaepernick's performance has been a bit inconsistent over that nine-week period, his play has helped the Niners become a more complete and balanced team, not solely reliant on their defense to keep them in games. I know what this feels like, as a Seahawks fan. It's a good feeling. It must be fun for 49ers fans to know they can still win if they give up more than 20 points or muff a punt here or there.
Case in point: After giving up another touchdown to the Packers, the Niners scrap themselves back into the game, first with a nice delayed slant route by Crabtree that he took into the endzone to tie it up, and the followed by the play below, set up nicely by an Aaron Rodgers interception.
2-6-GB 20 (5:33 2nd Q) (Shotgun) C.Kaepernick pass deep left to M.Crabtree for 20 yards, TOUCHDOWN. Caught at goal line.
Now, one of the things I love about the chess match that is the game of American Rules Football is that teams will devise specific gameplans, make little tweaks, and adapt on the fly to exploit their opponents' weaknesses.
49ers OC Greg Roman undoubtedly noticed that the Packers were playing mostly man-to-man coverage on the outside and using their deep safeties to either bracket receivers inside as they head towards the middle of the field or use them in man-coverage on tight ends as they release from the formation. On the touchdown run play that I broke down above, the Packers played man-to-man, bracketed (double teamed) Michael Crabtree as he ran his route from the slot, and only had one rover over the top in the form of the free safety. This is similar to how they play things here.
On the touchdown pass to Crabtree, shown above, the Niners change things up a little bit formationally. From a different personnel grouping but from the exact same distance out, they throw Crabtree out onto the wing and put Vernon Davis in the slot. With LaMichael James to Kaepernick's right, he can see how the Packers respond. Because of the way the defense aligns itself prior to the snap and because of their penchant for man-coverage thus far in this game, Colin can guess that safety Morgan Burnett will have coverage responsibilities on Vernon Davis. This becomes more apparent when Burnett creeps in toward the line of scrimmage prior to the snap.
As the ball is snapped, the read for Kaepernick is whether or not Burnett will be bracketing Crabtree or taking Vernon Davis in coverage. Burnett takes an outside leverage alignment on Davis as he releases from the line, showing Colin that Crabtree is essentially on an island on the far left.
Burnett keeps his eyes on Kaepernick and Davis; the read is an easy one.
With the expertly designed play meant to get a one-on-one situation on the outside by running Davis on a post directly at the safety to the playside, Kaepernick simply has to gun the ball to Crabtree accurately.
Also important to the success of this play is the fact that this time, the Packers have assigned MLB A.J. Hawk to spy on Kaepernick; the 20-yard run from the first quarter still fresh in their minds. Hawk is slow in his drop and doesn't get much depth, preoccupied with making sure Keapernick doesn't run, and thus leaves a wide open passing lane for a deep slant route to Crabtree.
In this case, Hawk is way out of position to drop into a passing lane up the middle or on the offensive left, but the fact the Packers had to assign a spy in the first place acts as de facto play-action for the Niners.
Colin Kaepernick's ability to run has an almost an every-down play-action effect. Linebackers and safeties, corners and defensive ends, even if they hesitate for one second to make their drops or run in coverage for fear of a designed run or scramble, can find themselves a step slow or shallow in their drops -- the main idea behind running a play-action fake.
Now, this is just one example of a great play design, execution, pass and catch that the Niners managed on Saturday. Neither was the read-option, but both were opportunities created by Kaepernick's absurd mobility and escapability.
I don't know if the read-option as an NFL package is here to stay or not; it worked for the Niners in this game, but that may have been in part due to their very limited use of it the prior three or four weeks. It came out after the game that the Niners had shelved it a bit in the hopes of utilizing it in the Playoffs. In fact, according to ESPN's Stats & Info, "Kaepernick hadn't kept the ball on an option play since Week 14 [and] the 49ers used those plays only 12 times in the last three games of the regular season."
Whether that reticence to run with Kaepernick over those three games was the Niners' attempt to keep their cards close to their vest or simply to protect their quarterback from hits, we may never know. Against the Packers, who ran a lot of man coverages in the secondary, the read-option worked like a charm, to the tune of 176 yards on 16 rushes (per ESPN, 'both single-game highs for the 49ers this season'). A lot of this had to do with defenders running downfield with their backs turned to the LOS; against the Falcons, as the Niners look to go to the Super Bowl, this probably won't be the case. The Seahawks, who ran the read-option more than any other team over the NFL's final four weeks, only ran the zone read option 12 times against Atlanta in last week's Divisional Round game, and Russell Wilson handed it off each and every time.
My guess? Colin Kaepernick is going to have to beat the Falcons with his arm, and not his legs. And, he's certainly capable of doing that. Because the Falcons play more underneath zone coverage and have their eyes on the backfield, I woundn't expect many 50+ yard runs untouched. I know the Niners can run the ball with the best of them, and the Falcons aren't exactly stout in that area on defense, so I could see a lot of handoffs to Frank Gore and LaMichael James.
It will be interesting to see what Kaepernick can do in the passing game if the Falcons double team his favorite target in Michael Crabtree. Who will be his outlet? WIll Kaepernick be able to work the ball downfield to his other weapons? Will Vernon Davis be a factor? Will Randy Moss make a Playoffs cameo?
One of the reasons that Jim Harbaugh decided to go with Kaepernick over Smith is that Kaep makes the Niners' offense more dynamic. Not only can he run the ball when asked to, he can throw the ball downfield with power, and allow his receivers and tight ends to make plays. Again, per the limitless well of information, ESPN Stats & Info, "Kaepernick has completed the same amount of passes as Smith in one fewer start despite an average pass length of 9.7 yards downfield, the fourth-highest average in the league." When it comes to explosive plays, Kaepernicks' 15 plays of 30+ yards more than doubles that of Smith, who had six on the year.
This deep-ball accuracy and arm-strength meshes really well with his ability to run and use the zone-read-option. One of the most powerful reasons the ZRO may survive past this offseason as a small tool in a few teams' toolboxes is that it has a very real ability to enhance play-action. As teams jump/creep forward at the snap in anticipation of the read option handoff/exchange or keeper, Kaepernick can pull the ball back and drop back to pass, now owning a moment's hesitation by his opponent's linebacking corps and hopefully their secondary. This allows his receivers and tight ends to get a step, and he must simply drive the ball downfield for them to make plays. It's damn hard to stop, and the Falcons will have their hands full this weekend.