If we're playing word association, the first thing that I picture when someone says "the San Francisco 49ers" is their big, badass offensive and defensive linemen. OK, the first thing might be a seething and livid, spitting and red-faced image of Jim Harbaugh with this sharpie-necklace flying around as he yells at the refs. But the second thing I think of is an image of their hulking, malevolent and cruel offensive and defensive line units all standing there, furrowing their brows and steaming and pacing and postering and intimidating everyone around them.
Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, and Isaac Sopoaga, for instance, on defense, with Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Anthony Davis and Alex Boone on offense. This is a team that personifies the old adage that "you build from the trenches out," and their ability to do so over the past few years has made them one of the most successful franchises in the NFL -- a couple of muffed punts from the Super Bowl last season and a berth to the biggest NFL stage this year.
Almost everything the Niners are able to do starts first and foremost with their dominance along the lines, and for this piece, I want to talk about something that may be gliding under the radar this week with the emergence of Colin Kaepernick as the NFL's exciting new pistol-and-read-option running, cannon-armed superstar quarterback: that being, San Francisco's running-back-oriented smashmouth ground game.
Now, don't get me wrong, Kaepernick has a lot to do with San Francisco's second-half hot streak and playoffs run, where they find themselves in the Super Bowl as favorites. I wrote about Kaep before the Niners' win over Atlanta and noted then that the thing about Kaepernick that sets him apart from his predecessor in Alex Smith, and was a major reason he replaced Smith mid-season, is that he can not only offer a multiplicity of plays in the read-option and pistol run game, but he can throw the ball downfield with precision and accuracy. He makes the Niners more dynamic. Exponentially.
Example: Let's take San Francisco's first matchup with Seattle, back in mid-October. Alex Smith was still starting for the Niners and "led" his team to a win at Candlestick Park over the visiting Seahawks, 13-8. In that game, Smith finished 14 of 24 passing for 140 yards, including a short middle checkdown pass to Delanie Walker that went for 12 yards and a touchdown. His long pass was 18 yards. This seems about par for the course -- efficient and steady, but not exciting nor explosive.
Just based off memory, Smith challenged Seattle's secondary maybe two or three times, and missed badly on each of them, including one pass to Kyle Williams early in which Williams had Brandon Browner beaten down the sideline but was overthrown. San Francisco had to lean on its core identity, and rushed the ball 32 times for 175 yards, chewing up time of possession in a tight game.
Full disclosure: I'm a Seahawks fan so I'm obviously biased, but I'll say this: the Niners' run game has never been doubted -- it's probably the most multiple and variable in schemes, formations, and personnel in the NFL, but, I remember that night vividly, and I distinctly remember having almost no fear that Smith could beat the Seahawks over-the-top with big explosive pass plays. That's why San Francisco's big-time chunk plays on the ground -- mostly coming from trap blocking schemes up front -- were so demoralizing. A Seahawks defense that, up until that point, had been very stout against the run, just couldn't get off the field when it needed to, and this allowed the Niners to get by with a win despite their fairly one-dimensional offense.
With Kaepernick, the extra dimension(s) of downfield precision passing, combined with the toolbox pieces of he brings with him from Nevada -- the read-option and more important, the pistol formation -- makes San Francisco's offense scary, frankly. I don't like writing that, for what it's worth.
To explore San Francisco's run game anecdotally, I wanted to break down the Niners' six-play, 38-yard lead-grabbing drive from their big come-from-behind win over the Falcons a little over a week ago. Following Michael Crabtree's disastrous fumble on the 1-yard line, the Niners had held the Falcons to a three-and-out deep in their territory, and returned the punt to the Falcons' 38 yard line.
1-10-ATL 38 (11:46) (Shotgun) F.Gore left tackle to ATL 31 for 7 yards (A.Dent).
On first down, the Niners use 21 personnel, two running backs and one tight end, and go to Kaepernick's trusty Pistol formation. I call this 'a Pistol Strong-I' look because frankly I don't know what Pistol formations are called, but this is essentially an offset-strong I-formation but with QB in pistol instead of under center. It's just a good example of how you can incorporate the pistol principles and advantages into your normal pro-style offense.
With this look, Kaepernick can hand off to Frank Gore like a normal pro-style I-formation would function, and fullback Bruce Miller can act as lead-blocker (or, obviously, Kaepernick can pass, or run). The advantage to using the pistol look here, though, in favor of the full shotgun, is that the pre-snap alignments of Gore/Miller do not give away the run direction (as a normal shotgun plays would, based on which side of Kaepernick Gore is standing). Kaep can take one step right and hand off to Gore, or take step left and hand off to Gore, and the timing is completely the same.
Additionally, as Pistol inventor and former Nevada Head Coach (and Kaepernick's former coach) Chris Ault summarizes: "The back is hidden; he's completely concealed by our quarterback. When you have the traditional I-back teams, where the back is at seven yards, it's a lot easier for [opposing] linebackers to key him."
"The beauty of the offense is that if you're an I-formation team like we were before we converted [and like the Niners are at their core], it fits into the same schemes that you were running. You just get the ball to that back sooner on run plays."
As said, the Ault offense fits well with what the old school Harbaugh (both Harbaughs actually) wants to do, as he's stayed true to his former coach and mentor Bo Schembechler's decree that whatever you do on offense, you need a fullback and a tight end. Jim, Bo's former quarterback, recollected this week what Shembechler told him when Harbaugh got the job at San Diego:
"Before he said ‘congratulations' or anything he said, ‘Jimmy, tell me you're going to have a tight end that puts his hand in the ground on every snap. Tell me that you will have a fullback that lines directly behind the quarterback and a halfback in the I-formation.'"
Harbaugh simply replied, "‘Yes coach, we will have that.'"
To which Schembechler said, "‘Good. Congratulations on getting the job.'"
What's cool about the Pistol formation is the ability to simply incorporate that and read-option principles to old-school, traditional I-formation plays with a fullback and tight end, like a lead-counter, which is exactly what the Niners do here.
At the snap, the Niners' offensive line blocks right and Bruce Miller lead-blocks counter to the line left. It's not a true lead-counter, of course, which would see Gore take one step right, receive the handoff, and then follow Miller left, and in this case, Colin Kaepernick "reads" the defensive end on the backside before choosing to hand off to Gore or run it outside to the left himself.
In this case, as Atlanta had done against Seattle the week before, the defensive end holds contain on the outside, forcing the handoff. However, that defensive end's moment of hesitation acts as a de facto block, and allows Gore to hit the hole hard enough to get through an arm tackle. Football is a numbers game, and Kaepernick's ability to freeze the DE acts as an extra, invisible blocker up front, and allows the Niners to move downfield and take angles on backside pursuit or secondary tacklers.
Gore picks up seven yards.
This particular personnel grouping and formation serves as a good talking point because one of the reasons the Niners have been moving to the Pistol so much over the last two games (34 of 75 plays from scrimmage in their NFC divisional-round victory over the Green Bay Packers (45.3-percent) and 28 of 51 plays (54.9 percent) against the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game, according to NFL research) is that they can run their "base" pro-style offensive stuff from pistol and their read option stuff from pistol, and it looks the same pre-snap.
The Niners can continue to run their offense through the vast multitudes of personnel groupings, formations and blocking schemes -- trap, wham, power, lead, counter -- that they've been running all year, but now can run all of that stuff out of the pistol looks, too, screwing up keys and reads for defenders and giving them even more things that they've never seen before in the week or two of practice before. Do you know how much this makes
love hate love and hate the Niners at the same time?
Jim Harbaugh, Greg Roman, and the Niners' offensive staff kept the Pistol stuff close to their vest until the playoffs -- they never ran more than 17 plays (31 percent) out of the Pistol in any game before the postseason, and over the final two regular season weeks, pretty much eliminated it all together (five times against Seattle Week 16, two times against Arizona Week 17).
I got a text during the Niners' romp over the Packers in the NFC Divisional Round that said something like, "It looks like the Packers have never even seen the read-option." Colin Kaepernick rushed for an all-time NFL quarterback record of 181 yards, and 176 of the Niners' absurd 323 rushing yards came from read-option looks. Teams only have so much time to prepare for their opponents, and with San Francisco's near abandonment of the read-option the four or five weeks before their matchup with the Packers, it makes sense that it looked like Green Bay hadn't really prepared for it.
Instead, they probably invested more time preparing for the Niners' variable and effective pro-style blocking schemes that I mentioned before, because they should have been. Trap, power, counter, sweep, all executed brilliantly by probably the NFL's best offensive line.
Problem with Kaepernick and the new-49ers' offense is that now San Francisco has so much multiplicity in its offense that it's virtually impossible to adequately prepare for what you may see in any given week. After Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards and two touchdowns on 16 attempts against Green Bay, he only ran twice against Atlanta and the Niners switched to a different gameplan with a whole new set of plays on the playsheet. Instead of having Kaepernick run the football, he handed the ball off to their stable of excellent backs.
That's where in-game adjustments by opposing coaching staffs become absolutely key. I suppose one advantage that the Ravens have over previous Niners opponents is that if anyone knows Jim Harbaugh and his habits or patterns, it's his brother John.
2-3-ATL 31 (11:11) (Shotgun) F.Gore right end to ATL 29 for 2 yards (A.Dent).
Niners go heavier to their 22 personnel grouping on second down and 3. Delani Walker starts out in the pistol's diamond formation, but then motions up and right, settling off Vernon Davis' right shoulder. At the snap, the Niners run an old school Jim Harbaugh classic Power-O blocking scheme up front with a pulling left guard and with FB Bruce Miller lead blocking. Kaepernick hands off to Frank Gore, who knifes past a defender to pick up two yards.
3-1-ATL 29 (10:29) D.Kilgore and L.Davis reported in as eligible. A.Dixon right end to ATL 25 for 4 yards (T.DeCoud).
I don't know how you get any more old school in the current NFL than a 7OL-2TE personnel grouping. This looks like something you'd see back before the forward pass was invented. San Francisco's 'Jumbo' package includes their normal beast of an offensive line, plus guard Daniel Kilgore (at fullback) and guard Leonard Davis as a de facto third tight end, to add to Delanie Walker, Vernon Davis, and a 6'1, 233 pound running back in Anthony Dixon.
Even though I pretty much hate the 49ers with every fiber of my being, I can really appreciate Greg Roman's style, and this personnel grouping is exhibit A. For what it's worth, I'll credit that Roman is not afraid to utilize his roster of players in a way that showcases their abilities as athletes. Bruce Miller is a pro-bowl caliber fullback that played defensive end in college, and the Niners frequently utilize 6'4, 293 pound fullback/defensive end Will Tukuafu or 6'2, 330 pound nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga as lead blockers in their offensive schemes.
I mean, this is the kind of crap we think up in the offseason that sounds super awesome but would never actually happen in a real NFL game because NFL coaching staffs don't care how wicked awesome something like that might be. For some reason that I still have problems coping with, Niners fans are lucky enough to get to live out these dreams of seeing a 300-pound Tongan lay hat on a near-universally-hated-outside-of-Seattle opposing cornerback with a big mouth.
(For the record, I love Richard Sherman almost more than any NFL player, that play was flagged and called back anyway, and I think even Niners fans would love Sherman if he was on their team. But still... the premise of this collision is awesome. I'd love to see, say, Red Bryant in the backfield as a f*cking fullback leadblocking on, say, Donte Whitner, theoretically... shutting him up, theoretically -- that would probably be pretty cool, theoretically.)
OK, back to the subject at hand:
Through the commotion, you can make out No. 77 Mike Iupati pulling right to lead block behind, well, over one ton of human, allowing Dixon, who is the size of a fullback in his own regard, to pick up that crucial yard when you need it most, trailing by three points with a trip to the Super Bowl hanging in the balance.
For some reason, this type of 7OL-2TE-1FB set isn't very popular. But it should be.
The best part of all this is that San Francisco doesn't even just use this look on third downs. Earlier, in the second quarter, it ran this same look on a first down and picked up three yards. On first and 10. Weird. But cool.
Jim Harbaugh is known for hyperbole, certainly, but when he said this week that "Greg Roman is the best. He's the best coordinator in football, I really believe that. Innovative. I believe he's changed a lot about football this season in terms of bringing the traps back to football, bringing the counter back to football, bringing wham plays back into football. Some of the formations that we use, back into football," well, I don't really doubt him all that much.
Niners' guard Alex Boone agrees. "When we call traps and stuff, I think to myself, ‘When was the last time we ran a trap, high school?' We never really ran them in college but I think that's what makes G-Ro so great. He understands football to another level. He understands when things will work and when they'll be good. That's what makes him the best offensive coordinator."
1-10-ATL 25 (9:49) (Shotgun) L.James left end to ATL 17 for 8 yards (J.Babineaux).
The Niners, aptly, following a play where they had seven offensive linemen, two tight ends, and a fullback sized running back on the field, swap in the diminutive but speedy LaMichael James and a couple of receivers for first down. Back to their Pistol weak-I look, they run a sweep with James. This is the definition of a "change of pace running back." Running a sweep on the play following a Jumbo Power-O -- that's a great example of the Niners' versatility.
Miller cuts the defensive end that's been left unblocked by the line as a leadblock, and Joe Staley deftly moves left while engaging linebacker Sean Weatherspoon in the second level. He holds his block for several seconds -- and this is why he's a Pro Bowl LT.
James cuts it upfield inside of Staley and picks up eight yards.
This play is similar in look to an inverted veer run that the Niners executed to perfection earlier in the game for a touchdown (which Matt Bowen broke down excellently). The blocking up front is different, of course, and on the Veer, Colin Kaepernick's read-option handoff freezes the playside linebacker for long enough to let James scoot by, but in principal, it's a similar idea -- let James get outside in space and let his speed do the talking.
The willingness to do this, coupled with the personnel to execute downfield blocks, makes James a great change of pace running back that made a living at Oregon with outside zone runs. Greg Roman utilizes his roster of players in a way that showcases their abilities as athletes. It seems so simple, but I actually don't feel like every team does this well.
2-2-ATL 17 (9:12) C.Kaepernick pass short right to M.Crabtree to ATL 9 for 8 yards (A.Samuel).
Back to boring old regular offense. I formation. Two tight end set. You've just beaten up the Falcons over the last four plays by running it, so swing it out to Crabtree to let him make plays in space. Crabtree excels in YAC -- it's maybe his best feature. Let him do it. Eight yards.
1-9-ATL 9 (8:27) (Shotgun) F.Gore right end for 9 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
This is the same play as the first snap of the drive, but to the opposite side, away from the WRs, and Colin Kaepernick audibles into it. Damn you Kaepernick, stop doing things so well.
Bruce Miller motions into the strong-I Pistol look (I know it's not really called that, but for our purposes, it plays). Kaep moves him to his left. On the previous play, which picked up seven yards, the Niners ran left and used their receivers to lead block. The beauty here is that in this case, Kaep sees something he likes and they run it to the right.
Pre-scouting had shown that the Falcons play the read-option by having their defensive end stay home. In the week before, Seattle ran the read-option 12 times and Russell Wilson handed off 12 times -- it's because the defensive end is sitting there on the edge and not crashing down onto the running back, which dictates to the quarterback that he hands it off. The Niners used this to their advantage, leaving Abraham unblocked here and moving Vernon Davis downfield on an block, sealing the safety out of the play.
Like any old-school I-formation play, Bruce Miller lead blocks downfield, and sets the crucial block at the point of attack on Sean Weatherspoon, which springs Gore for the touchdown. Bo Schembechler would be proud.
This short drive encapsulates what the Niners do, at their core. They've utilized the read-option to augment it, and now have the ability to pass the ball downfield with Kaepernick, who has one of the strongest arms in the NFL, but at their core, the Niners punch you in the mouth, they run the clock, they pick up first downs, they keep your offense off the field, and they demoralize you by changing things up as soon as you think you've adjusted.
The awesome part of this Super Bowl, is that outside of my Seahawks or perhaps our NFC West brethren St. Louis Rams, the Ravens may be the other team in the NFL that is built right now to play with this kind of team. I'm not saying that as sour grapes -- just that it feels like a strength-on-strength matchup -- this game has the feel of a NFC West divisional matchup and it's no wonder that many call the NFC West the new AFC North.
I'm guessing the Ravens aren't buying in to that label, so for this reason, I think it's going to be very fun game to watch. Traditional smashmouth defenses and teams with run games, with both sides possessing a bit of the new-school on offense. San Francisco with its "college offense" and Baltimore with its downfield vertical passing attack. Can't wait to see how the Harbaugh brothers look to out-scheme each other.