San Francisco 49ers: Breaking Down the NFL's Most Underrated Offense
Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIRE
Green Bay Packers defensive back Jarrett Bush offered the ultimate insult after his unit was torched by Alex Smith, saying:
We beat ourselves. They really didn’t beat us...We just have to hunker down and make sure we’re gap sound and get on the same page. Obviously, small things being miscommunicated on the field become big things, so they exploited us and that’s what happened (h/t Green Bay Press Gazette).
Wait a tick, isn't that what good offenses are supposed to do?
Exploiting defenses is the hallmark of every great offense, and the 49ers are well on their way to becoming one of the best teams in the NFL in this department.
Look, we all know that the 49ers didn't put up gaudy passing totals in 2011, but then again, Smith hardly had anyone to throw the ball to on the outside. Still, he ended the season as the No. 9 ranked quarterback in terms of passer rating and was Pro Football Focus' No. 8 ranked quarterback.
Is Alex Smith an elite quarterback?
This season, with loads of talent on the outside thanks to the addition of Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, Smith is ready to take the next step as an elite quarterback in the NFL, as his performance against the Packers in Week 1 clearly shows.
On a side note, I'm getting sick and tired of hearing about how Jim Harbaugh is "protecting" Smith by drawing up quick-read, quick-throw plays in the passing game. For those who may not know, the West-Coast offense is predicated on such plays, as Joe Montana and Steve Young can tell you.
But, I digress.
Combined with the 49ers' dominating power-rushing attack, this offense is going to make a lot of good defenses look bad in 2012. Their ability to both pass and run with success on any given play gives Greg Roman and Harbaugh the luxury of being able to exploit any weaknesses an opposing defense may have.
Let's take a look at why the 49ers are set to dominate on offense in 2012.
Red Zone Options
The 49ers were ranked No. 30 in the NFL in 2011 in touchdown percentage in the red zone (h/t TeamRankings.com). One of the biggest reasons they had such a hard time scoring touchdowns down by the goal line is that Michael Crabtree was their only legitimate threat as an outside receiver, and teams locked him down.
Things are much different in 2012, and Smith finally has the tools at his disposal to make the team's trips into the red zone turn into six points, rather than the dreaded three we all grew to loathe last season.
Here is a prime example of what the 49ers will be doing all year long (screenshots courtesy of NFL Rewind).
The 49ers are in a 2nd-and-9 down at the Packers' 14-yard line. The offense lines up in a formation with two tight ends, one back and two receivers. Randy Moss and Michael Crabtree line up on the left, while Delanie Walker and Vernon Davis are set to the right.
Walker comes in motion and creates an extremely unbalanced formation with three targets on the left—the wide side of the field—leaving Davis by himself on the right side.
Davis ends up getting double-teamed by Tramon Williams and M.D. Jennings on the play and A.J. Hawk covers Gore coming out of the backfield on the right side.
That left Morgan Burnett, Charles Woodson and Sam Shields on the left side with D.J. Smith hanging around the middle to cover Moss, Crabtree—who'd been tearing it up on the drive—and Walker. Those are odds I'd take every day of the week, and the Packers ended up getting mixed up in coverage, resulting in an easy read and pass for Smith to Moss for the touchdown.
The weapons the 49ers have amassed at the receiver position presents serious problems for opposing defenses, and we saw from this example how having them on the field down near the goal line can and will cause defensive coordinators headaches all year long.
Power Running Game
Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter present a difficult challenge for opposing defenses. Hunter could easily be a starting running back if he were on a different team, but for now he'll help the 49ers produce the best one-two punch in the NFL in 2012.
Hunter was a big part of the gameplan for the 49ers game against the Packers, and I expect the team to keep it that way throughout the season. Gore isn't a spring chicken anymore, and the fresher he is heading into the postseason, the better off the 49ers will be.
Granted, the Packers aren't exactly the best team in the NFL at stopping the run, but the 49ers were able to dominate on the ground at will last Sunday.
Here is an excellent example of how the 49ers have become one of the NFL's top running teams. This is a classic power-I formation with Davis on the right side.
Davis and Anthony Davis do a superb job of gaining outside leverage on their assigned defenders—Ryan Pickett and Nick Perry. Alex Boone gets off the line and starts pulling to the right, with Bruce Miller right on his heels. Meanwhile, Jonathan Goodwin gets to the second level to take on Hawk, while Mike Iupati and Joe Staley completely turn their defenders to the outside of the play.
Boone and Miller clean up Smith and Williams nicely, and the result is that Gore wasn't hardly touched until he was well past the Packers' linebackers, and he turned it into a 21-yard gain.
It isn't a complicated play, but that's the beauty of power running. The 49ers were a terrific running team in 2011, and as this current group starts to gel throughout the 2012 season, this aspect of the 49ers offensive attack will only get better.
One of the things I love about the 49ers on offense these days is the balance we see between the passing game and the running game.
In the game against the Packers, the 49ers passed the ball 26 times and ran the ball 32 times. That's right in line with the ratio we saw last year, when the team passed the ball 451 times and ran the ball 498 times.
Balance is key, but the best part about the 49ers in this regard is that Roman and Harbaugh are adept at exploiting teams' weaknesses throughout games. Calling the right play at the right time is an art form, and from what we saw in 2011 and what we saw last Sunday, this coaching staff understands the art.
Another aspect of coaching that often gets overlooked by the national media is how much of an impact Harbaugh has had on building up Smith's confidence to the point where he's now as sure of himself on the football field as Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady.
The 49ers have the talent to become an elite offense in the NFL. Smith is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL at taking care of the football, and the 49ers will be a dangerous team on offense in 2012.
Will the 49ers field a top-10 scoring offense in 2012?
The team finally has the weapons on the outside to stretch opposing defenses, and as long as the offensive line continues to play well, this offense will be among the top units in the NFL.
Between the running game and the efficient passing game, the 49ers will dominate the time-of-possession battle against their opponents this year. By the end of the season, this team will be well known as one of the most balanced and dangerous teams in the NFL.
Follow me on Twitter @JesseReed78
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