Why 49ers' Read-Option Will Expose Ravens Defense in Super Bowl XLVII
The Ravens weren't able to stifle Robert Griffin III's Washington Redskins in Week 14, as Alfred Morris ran wild while two rookie quarterbacks found success through the air en route to a 31-28 overtime win.
The NFL is a copycat league, and you can bet the 49ers will take a close look at the film to see what worked well against the Ravens for their upcoming Super Bowl matchup.
But it's not like the 49ers will need to make any drastic changes to exploit the weaknesses of Baltimore's defense. Led by dual-threat quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers' multifaceted offense has flourished, and as a result, the team has an offense as potent as its All-Pro-laden defense.
And no disrespect to RG3, who is one of the bright and shining stars of the NFL, but Kaepernick has been running the Pistol, read-option offense a lot longer than him, and he is just as dangerous on the ground and through the air.
Let's take a look at some specific plays that illustrate how the Redskins exploited the Ravens and how the 49ers can replicate or improve upon what Washington did.
Note: All screen caps are courtesy of NFL Rewind.
Alfred Morris Gashes Baltimore for 29 Yards
On the game's first play from scrimmage, the Redskins lined up in the Pistol formation, with fullback Darrel Young on Griffin III's right side and running back Morris lined up three yards behind him.
Paul Kruger was on RG3 the entire way. He rushed upfield to guard against the quarterback keeper to the left, actually working himself out of this play.
Young led Morris, heading to the left. This drew all three linebackers to the left side of the field, while the entire offensive line for Washington angled blocks toward the right side.
What we see is that a massive hole opened up on the right side for Morris, who bolted through the heart of the Ravens defense for a huge 29-yard gain to start the game for the Redskins.
The Ravens were so concerned about RG3 taking off and scoring—which he's apt to do if left unguarded—that the entire defense was fooled.
Now, we'll take a look at the 49ers using the same exact concept against the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game.
Frank Gore Gashes Atlanta for 11 Yards
Mike Nolan was determined to stop Kaepernick from running wild like he did against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Divisional round.
As a result, he preached outside contain discipline to his defensive ends, who consistently locked on to Kaepernick on read-option running plays.
Here we see the 49ers run a play that's almost identical to the one the Redskins ran, and just like the Ravens, Atlanta lines up with eight defenders in the box.
The 49ers offensive line angles all blocks to the left side, while fullback Bruce Miller cuts to the right to seal off the back end. Kaepernick correctly reads defensive end John Abraham, who doesn't even look at Frank Gore and is locked on to the quarterback.
It's an easy decision for Kaepernick to hand the ball off to his running back, and the 49ers get a nice 11-yard gain and a first down on this play.
This is an example of how the read-option forces defenses to pick their poison when defending it—especially when there's a skilled trigger man like Kaepernick running the show.
If Abraham had crashed down the line to tackle Gore, Kaepernick would have had a huge lane to the outside and a monster gain, just like he did against the Packers on his 56-yard touchdown run.
And running the ball isn't the only thing the read-option is good for, as we're about to find out.
RG3 Hits Santana Moss For a 31-Yard Gain
Consistent success running the ball out of the Pistol sets up the play-action pass to devastating effect.
Here we see the Redskins line up in almost the exact same set that sprung Morris' 29-yard gain to open up the game, and it opens up the field for RG3 to hit Moss, who is wide open cutting across the field on the left side.
The Ravens set up on defense to defend the pass, too, lining up with just seven defenders in the box, but the play-action sucked the linebackers up to defend the run, opening up the shallow and deep middle for exploitation.
The play-action pass sucked all three linebackers towards the line of scrimmage, and the receiver running a streak down the left sideline took a cornerback and safety with him, opening up the entire left side of the field.
The 49ers exploited Atlanta's defense a few times using this exact same tactic, as we're about to see.
Kaepernick Finds Michael Crabtree for a 33-Yard Gain
On the first play of the fourth quarter, the 49ers used play-action to freeze Atlanta's linebackers just like the Redskins did to Baltimore.
Unlike what we saw in the play above, Atlanta's linebackers barely bit on the play-action, recovering almost instantly to break out into coverage.
Furthermore, Crabtree wasn't nearly as open as Moss was for RG3, but Kaapernick's incredibly strong arm and willingness to fit the ball into tight spaces allowed him to take a shot to his receiver, who was being covered like a glove by cornerback Robert McClain.
What the play-action did do for the 49ers that made this completion possible is that the linebackers, who recovered nicely, weren't able to get back far enough in their zones, leaving the deep middle open to exploitation.
Furthermore, Vernon Davis, who had torched Atlanta all game long, had two defenders bracketing him over the top and underneath, opening up the right side of the field.
Kaepernick's throw was on the money, and the 49ers gained one-third of the field on one play.
Atlanta played this about as well as it could, yet the 49ers were able to exploit them due to the effectiveness of the read-option offense.
Kaepernick understands how to run the read-option out of the Pistol formation better than any quarterback in the NFL.
He learned and perfected this offense under Chris Ault—the man who created the Pistol—during his time at the University of Nevada, and the 49ers have been smart enough to harness his unique skills to devastating effect.
Defenses have to choose which poison they're willing to ingest, as the 49ers are effective at running the ball conventionally, running the ball on quarterback keepers and passing the ball out of play-action.
Will the Ravens have an answer for Kaepernick and the read-option offense?
This offense wears defenses down, and the team's offensive line seems to get better the longer the game wears on.
Follow me on Twitter @JesseReed78
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