5 Scheme Changes the San Francisco 49ers May Implement in 2012
It's well-known that 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff are well-prepared individuals who display an impressively high level of football ingenuity.
After an extremely successful offseason that earned high marks from many pundits around the NFL, the men in charge of the X's and O's now have the required weaponry to unleash their creativity on the gridiron in full.
There is no lockout-shortened offseason to wipe out OTA's and severely hamper the NFL's new coaching staff's ability to implement their playbooks to the extent that they'd like.
Not this year.
The 49ers will return all 11 starters on defense from a year ago, and the offense now features new weapons everywhere you look. Quarterback Alex Smith is working hard on everything he should be to ensure he can allow Harbaugh to lengthen his leash and help the Niners get this offense off the ground.
Harbaugh, offensive coordinator Greg Roman and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio each have a flair for unleashing the unexpected, and you can bet they're chomping at the bit to unleash their entire bag of tricks during the upcoming season.
The 49ers and their championship-caliber roster are no longer a secret, so diversity will be a necessary focus in order to continue the winning trend.
Training camp is seemingly just around the corner, and the high level of focus and team chemistry in the Golden City will allow this motivated squad to make the most of their preseason preparations.
With coach Harbaugh, nothing is out of the equation. A surprise can come at any moment.
Harbaugh loves to let all things possible remain a mystery, but here are five schemes the 49ers have not used often (or at all) in recent years that may conceivably receive more attention in 2012.
Screens and Sweeps
The 49ers 2012 draft class isn't expected to see much action in 2012, but one rookie that brings the ability to contribute immediately is former Oregon star running back LaMichael James.
The undersized speedster packs more of a punch than you'd expect, and can be used in a variety of ways.
Despite the 49ers retaining the services of return specialist and part-time receiver Ted Ginn Jr., James is talented enough to see significant action returning kicks and punts as well.
As high as the 49ers—and Harbaugh in particular—are on James, there's a good chance James will steal 50-100 touches on the offensive side of the ball, too.
If this is the case, San Fran would be wise to utilize James in a Darren Sproles-type role while Frank Gore is still the man in the backfield.
I'm one of the few believers that James can provide true value as an every-down back, but for now that won't be necessary.
The 49ers need to get James in space, plain and simple. Hunter, though not as explosive as James, is another speedy option who would benefit from this concept.
The Niners bring a power run attack to every ball game they partake in, but one benefit of their offensive line is that they not only possess a rare ability to maul their victims straight up, but also excel when blocking out in space.
The left side of the line, particularly LT Joe Staley and LG Mike Iupati, are perfect examples of a road grader who can get to the second level and keep their ball carrier free of contact.
Gore had an unfortunate case of butterfingers in the passing game a year ago, and there were times when Smith didn't place the ball in favorable places, either.
But I've got a strong feeling that running back screen passes and outside runs (sweeps, pitch plays, reverses) will be incorporated into the offensive attack more often than in the past.
Speed kills, and the 49ers finally have it in its purest form.
That's a tool Harbaugh now has at his disposal that NFL defenses better not overlook when preparing for this offense.
Bringing Heat Up the Middle
Excellent awareness within the pocket.
Also, each one will face the Niners' tenacious defense in 2012.
One more thing those QB's all have in common—including more QB's the Niners will face this year (Mark Sanchez, Matthew Stafford, Ryan Fitzpatrick and even Sam Bradford)—is a substantial lack of mobility when flushed out of the pocket.
It may not be fair to put Rodgers in that category, but for the others it most certainly applies.
The 49ers have an extremely efficient four-man rush. But it isn't always enough against high-powered type of passing offenses of the caliber that the 49ers will face in 2012.
That's a hard point to make, considering Justin Smith somehow finds ways to beat double teams and second-year outside linebacker Aldon Smith is already an unstoppable force in his own right.
But rushing from the outside doesn't always cut it with top-tier quarterbacks that consistently display excellent awareness in the pocket.
Great signal callers can feel an outside rush seemingly before it even arrives, stepping up just as the pocket collapses while either dumping the ball a running back or firing it downfield.
When the inside linebackers blitz from up the middle, they are essentially taking a more direct route to the quarterback's drop back point (and also have better acceleration than defensive ends) and are forcing their hand as a result.
Quarterbacks like Brees, Manning and Brady are nearly unstoppable when they can step up in the pocket and keep their eyes down the field. More times than not, they'll pick a defense apart.
But if you flush them out, they're not nearly as effective throwing on the run. All Pro linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are two of the best inside linebackers in the game today because of their remarkable speed and tackling abilities.
They're also excellent pass rushers—we just haven't seen them do it much.
Of course, I don't expect Fangio to let these guys go blitz crazy in 2012. Willis, in particular, is far too valuable covering tight ends like Jimmy Graham, Brandon Pettigrew and Rob Gronkowski. And the majority of added QB pressure will becoming from Aldon and Ahmad Brooks on the outside.
But I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to see them in the opponents' backfield when the time is right.
No Huddle Offense
There's no doubt Alex is loving the fact that he's finally able to spend more than one season learning his head coach's playbook.
As his confidence in both himself and the playbook continue to grow, expect Smith's freedom to make his own decisions continue to grow as well.
I don't mean to say Harbaugh is going to sack the clock-sapping, ball-controlling approach the 49ers are continuing to establish in favor of a no-huddle, fast-paced approach. But there are times in a football game when this type of offense brings you added benefits that it otherwise may not provide.
And not just when you're losing at crunch time or there's less than two minutes remaining in a half, either.
When a defense is tired, a no-huddle approach can help wear them out even faster and negate a defender's ability to hit the sidelines for a breather. However, the quarterback has to know what he's doing and be confident in his decision-making as well.
Plus, Harbaugh isn't going to sit back and let Alex run the show, a la Jim Caldwell with Peyton Manning.
But Jimbo is the type of coach that's always trying to mix it up, keep his opponents on their toes and guessing what could come next.
The no huddle offense is just another scheme Harbaugh should look to utilize, potentially creating confusion and hesitation from the defense that will allow the 49er offense to become an even more well-rounded bunch.
Three Tight End Sets
It's no secret that the 49ers have considered the power run game a staple of their offensive game plan for several years now.
Despite the added weaponry in the passing game, don't expect that to change in 2012. This is what the offensive line was built for, and it will be key to the 49ers' success moving forward.
It's also no secret that Jim Harbaugh loves to utilize his tight ends as much as possible. Even if that means throwing three of them on the field all at once.
Last year, that was difficult for Harbaugh to do. Third string TE Nate Byham missed the season with a torn ACL, and the depth just wasn't there.
Veteran TE Justin Peele came in and did a solid job, but the 49ers likely would've been far better off being able to access the tools Byham brings to the table.
Now healthy, Byham looks to bring his strengths to the forefront in 2012.
San Francisco selected the 6'4", 264-pound TE in the sixth round of the 2010 draft because of his superior skills as a blocker, and I have to believe Harbaugh is anxious to see what he's got.
We all know Vernon Davis is going to be on the field for virtually every snap the 49ers offense takes, and Delanie Walker will get his fair share of reps as well.
But with Byham, the 49ers can head to the line featuring three tight ends and do so with even more confidence that the outcome will validate their play call.
The running back and wide receiver positions have been the hot topics this spring and summer, but don't sleep on these tight ends.
Neither Harbaugh or Roman will be.
Can you guess how many sacks the 49ers' secondary racked up in 2012?
If you answered zero, you'd be absolutely correct. San Fran ranked seventh in the NFL with 42 sacks from its formidable defense, but they all came from members of the front seven.
However, that doesn't mean there are no capable options.
The 49ers are stocked full of hard-hitting defensive backs that can contribute in the pass rush once Fangio continues to expand his defense in San Francisco.
Safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whiter are two fine examples. Wouldn't you enjoy seeing one of these two put a lick on an opposing quarterback the same way that they light up running backs and wide receiver?
Similar to blitzing the inside linebackers, however, you leave the middle of the field susceptible to the big pass play anytime you send an extra defender into the opponent's backfield.
But you're also creating the potential of scoring a game-changing sack, forcing a fumble, or—at the very least—an errant pass.
The Niners' have a corps of defenders with extremely solid playmaking abilities that could surely find ways to take advantage of the extra pressure.
Another downside, of course, is you will also be putting a significant amount of pressure on your outside linebackers to cover receiving threats.
With second-year outside linebacker Aldon Smith being extremely raw in terms of pass coverage, this attack would potentially put the 49ers defense at serious risk if the QB gets the ball off quickly and accurately.
It's up to Fangio, ultimately, to decide whether this is something he wants to implement into his already-complex defense. But most great defensive units have at least one player in the secondary who can ransack the backfield when you least expect it.
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