Colin Kaepernick has succeeded in making the San Francisco 49ers just enough better than last season's team, which has resulted in a Super Bowl appearance. He has added a big-play dimension that was sorely lacking with Alex Smith at the helm.
That has taken the form of a much-improved downfield passing game, as well as Kaepernick's own ability to attack defenses in the running game. In both playoff victories, the second-year quarterback has overcome early mistakes to produce dominant performances.
These performances reveal two key things that should worry the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII. There are also two things that ought to concern the 49ers.
Locking on favourite receiver and trusting arm strength too much
If Kaepernick has an obvious weakness it is his habit of locking on his primary receiver too early and for too long. He also has a tendency to trust that his arm strength will beat any coverage.
Both of these bad habits surfaced against the Green Bay Packers in the divisional playoffs. Take a look at the screen shot below to see where Kaepernick's trouble started.
The 49ers are in a read-option look, showing a triple-option. Kaepernick is flanked by two lead blockers and is lined up in the pistol, or short shotgun, just in front of Frank Gore. His primary receiver will be Michael Crabtree, shown in the highlighted portion.
In the screen shot below, notice how quickly Kaepernick zeroes in on Crabtree. The 49ers are going to attempt to coax the safety, Charles Woodson, down into the box, shown by the blue arrow.
Even when Woodson doesn't drop down, Kaepernick keeps his eyes firmly on Crabtree as indicated by the red arrow.
The screen shot below gives a clearer example from the reverse angle. Woodson is highlighted, positioned right in Kaepernick's line of sight. Due to Kaepernick's insistence to lock onto his favourite receiver, Woodson has been able to follow his eyes and not be drawn down into the box.
He has instead undercut the primary route. This soon forces Kaepernick into panic, as shown in the screen shot below.
With the pressure closing in, Kaepernick rolls the other way, believing his athleticism can still keep this broken play alive. He fires a pass across his body on the run, a cardinal sin for any passer, no matter how strong his arm is.
The pass was intercepted by Sam Shields, who was locked up with Vernon Davis in the highlighted portion. Shields returned it for a touchdown, which put the 49ers in an early hole.
Dual-threat quarterbacks often convince themselves that they can salvage any play because of their superior athletic ability. Kaepernick's belief that he can escape any trouble and still produce a play got him into trouble against the St. Louis Rams in Week 13.
Even on his best plays Kaepernick will quickly fix and stay on his primary target. These are just the mistakes of youth, but could prove very costly against a smart Baltimore defense in the Super Bowl.
Deciphering the zone blitz and making reads under center
During his early struggles in the NFC Championship Game, Kaepernick had trouble deciphering the zone blitz. The screen shot below gives one example of how the Atlanta Falcons fooled him early on.
The highlighted portion shows defensive tackles Corey Peters and Peria Jerry. They will be the zone droppers. The blue arrow indicates the blitz path for cornerback Dunta Robinson.
Notice that Kaepernick is under center. When under center, there is more onus on him to read the defense.
Without the option looks, he is not afforded the luxury of manipulating defensive formations and tendencies. He can then be manipulated by the defense, as shown in the screen shot below.
At the snap, Kaepernick again quickly focused on the play's primary receiver. However, he failed to read the zone blitz. Kaepernick didn't spot Peters, indicated in the highlighted portion, covering the underneath hook lane. Peters swatted away Kaepernick's ill-advised pass, and another 49ers drive stalled.
Connection with Crabtree and natural velocity
Quarterbacks who trust their arm strength can get themselves into trouble. However, there's usually a good reason why they trust that arm strength. Kaepernick is certainly justified in thinking his arm can fit a ball in anywhere, even if he shouldn't always apply that belief in practice.
He applies a natural velocity to his passes. This has shown up in the playoffs, with Kaepernick leading all postseason passers with a 9.5-yard average per attempt. The recipient of many of those passes has been Michael Crabtree.
He leads all 49ers receivers with 15 postseason catches and has quickly become Kaepernick's go-to receiver. The screen shot below perfectly illustrates these two trends in Kaepernick's form.
Crabtree is highlighted as the primary receiver. The Packers are going to rotate Woodson over the top and have him act as a deep, free safety, spying Kaepernick. Woodson's rotation is shown by the blue arrow.
To get the ball to Crabtree, Kaepernick is going to have to beat Woodson with his arm strength. A closer look at his throwing motion, shown in the screen shot below, reveals how Kaepernick achieves such high velocity on his passes.
The highlighted portion shows the motion of his arm just before he releases the ball. Notice that Kaepernick takes a rather long wind-up before firing the pass.
The screen shot below shows the throwing motion from the reverse angle.
With a throwing motion this deliberate and a naturally strong arm, it's easy to see how Kaepernick is able to generate such velocity and power in his throws.
The screen shot below shows how easily Kaepernick's pass beats Woodson to the top of the route. The strength of the throw gets the ball to Crabtree, despite Shield's close attention.
With this kind of strength, Kaepernick can fit passes into the tightest coverage and challenges safeties to beat the ball to the receiver.
Dangerous read-option skills
No discussion of Kaepernick would be complete without discussing the real dangers he poses from the option offense. His 56-yard touchdown scamper against the Packers demonstrates the challenge Kaepernick poses defenses from this look.
The screen shot below shows Kaepernick again lined up in the pistol formation. He is joined by two backs. From here, he can hand off, pitch, execute play action or run himself.
The key for Kaepernick is to read the outside defender—in this case that is linebacker Eric Walden, shown in the highlighted portion.
Kaepernick is going to base his choice on Walden's response to his first action. This is shown in the screen shot below.
Kaepernick attempts to influence Walden by faking a handoff to LaMichael James. This is shown in the highlighted portion. Walden now has two choices.
He can either crash down to stop the perceived inside run, or maintain his outside rush lane and protect the edge. His potential paths are indicated by the blue arrows.
As soon as Walden goes inside, Kaepernick's mind is made up. The screen shot below shows how the 49ers scheme the play to set Kaepernick free.
The 49ers have fullback Bruce Miller come across and execute a cutoff block on the edge. The fake to James draws the defense inside. Linebacker Brad Jones takes a direct path to the running back, indicated by the red arrow.
These two factors create a clear path around the outside for Kaepernick, shown by the blue arrow. The screen shot below shows how easily his athleticism allows him to exploit the space.
What makes Kaepernick so dangerous as a runner is that he has similar speed to that of Robert Griffin III, combined with the kind of power Cam Newton can generate. Notice how easily he outran the Packers' trailing defenders. His long strides and acceleration make him a threat to stretch the field at any time.
The 49ers have designed a subtle and fluid read-option package. It can be adjusted to attack changes in a defense, and Kaepernick has become a master at manipulating the edges of a front.
Kaepernick's form heading into Super Bowl XLVII has been awesome. The Ravens defense will need all of its experience and savvy to counter his dual-threat ability.
The read-option may concern Baltimore defenders the most after their struggles against the Washington Redskins in Week 14. However, they've seen it now and may also be encouraged by some deficiencies in Kaepernick's game.
His penchant for locking on to his primary receiver is something a safety like Ed Reed could expose as a fatal flaw. The same could be said for his deliberate throwing motion. That might be a recipe for disaster against an aggressive Ravens secondary.
Kaepernick will also have to demonstrate the ability to better decipher zone pressures. The Ravens have utilised some smart zone blitzes in the playoffs and are sure to test the young quarterback.
However, Baltimore will have to stay wary of Kaepernick's knack for breaking open close games with quick-strike big plays either on the ground or through the air.
All screen shots courtesy of Fox Sports and NFL.com GamePass.
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