Looking back over the 2011 season, the San Francisco 49ers were limited in scope on offense but effective nonetheless. The offense struggled on third downs and in the Red Zone, yet finished 11th in scoring. Credit a stout defense and superb special teams, as no team had better average starting position than the 49ers.
Of course, a plus 28 turnover ratio doesn’t hurt either.
In retrospect the Niners had a lot to overcome. There was a new coach which means a new system. There was also a lockout, which meant no OTAs or contact prior to the new collective bargaining agreement.
The 2012 season is different. The team has added exciting free agents and draft picks. There’s a normal offseason schedule which means more time for coaches to assess as well as create, and there is the chance to consider four scheme adjustments for this year.
The Alex Smith of 2011 was at his best. Oh, he missed throws but he also didn’t make the critical mistake. But one thing Smith is capable of is calling his own audibles. Going into his eighth season gives him the familiarity with the league and its personnel.
There are times when the Niners can use a no-huddle offense to keep the defense static, meaning the opposition won’t be able to get different personnel groups on the field for certain situations.
Don’t expect a Peyton Manning-like performance from 2010, but there were times last year when the Niners had no chance on third down because of their limited threats on offense. With new personnel—Moss, Manningham, Jacobs, James, Jenkins–the team has more options. Limiting what the defense can do will make this year’s team a greater threat.
The Niners were the best tackling team in football. And defensive coordinator Vic Fangio recognized that. His schemes were, for the most part, pretty basic: lots of two-deep safeties, man by the corners, letting the linebackers run, Justin Smith and Aldon Smith harassing the quarterback.
But with such superior talent, especially at the linebacker position, it might be a benefit for the Niners every once in a while to turn everyone loose. That is, bring eight or nine with an all-out assault on the pocket.
It’s the sort of defense that under-talented teams have to employ once in a while, a la the Atlanta Falcons of 1977. Coach Jerry Glanville coined the term “Gritz Blitz." The point was to make the QB force a play before he was ready.
For the Niners' sake, doing this once in a while and then bluffing it can create confusion. It’s a defensive tactic aimed to confuse the opposition. That tactic can allow a great defense to be even more effective.
There was a great moment before Alex Smith rolled into the end zone during his fourth quarter scamper for a TD against the New Orleans Saints. Trent Dilfer, during a radio interview on KNBR, told the hosts that when the Niners came out in an “empty” backfield on that third-down play, Dilfer, watching on television, was screaming “no, no” at the TV.
The Saints defense blitzed when they saw the empty backfield and they tended to come from the right side of the offense. The Niners, offensive coordinator Greg Roman in particular, made the right call, “Nine.” A simple bootleg left by Smith.
This year, the Niners have more weapons, and thus this might be a good time to employ some unique formations such as “trips”–for triple or three receivers–to one side of the formation. To do it, at times, may mean more empty backfields, but it also forces the defense to put a lot of personnel on that side of the field. That can open up other options for the offense such as one-on-one coverage for tight end Vernon Davis.
The Niners have two excellent candidates for this offense in backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick and second round draft pick LaMichael James. Kaepernick ran a version of this play in the Piston offense at Nevada, as did James during his stint at Oregon.
It’s the sort of change-up play that the defense has to prepare for and it even requires different personnel to defend. When done correctly, it’s an offense that lets larger players like tackle Anthony Davis release downfield to block smaller (but quicker) defenders. The blocks don’t have to be lasting to be effective; when done correctly, merely getting in the way is enough for fast players like CK and James to find a lane and create big gains.
Just one more weapon in the arsenal.