Drawing Up a Game Plan for the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII
You wake up.
There's no answer. The defense is too fast. Colin Kaepernick's too versatile.
The 49ers are just too good.
You've been staring at the film room monitor, clicker in hand, for hours on end. Even though everyone else left the facility hours ago, your boss—head coach John Harbaugh—told you to present him with a sure-fire game plan to shut down the NFC champs in Super Bowl XLVII.
In just a few more hours, he'll be here, and you've got nothing.
Don't worry: Your friends at Bleacher Report have you covered.
Run Past, Not at, the 49ers Defensive Line
The 49ers have one of the best run defenses in the NFL. If you try a conventional running game, your backs struggle to get past the beefy defensive line; if they do, linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman will be waiting for them.
There is a way to beat the 49ers on the ground, though: Get that defensive line up and moving.
Nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga is strong, even by NFL standards; his 42 bench press reps of 225 pounds is one of the best NFL combine performances ever.
But Sopoaga can't anchor at the point of attack when the point of attack is moving. The Seahawks had lots of success against the 49ers in both their meetings. Watch what they did back in October:
The Seahawks are in an I-formation here, a set your Ravens commonly run. Sopoaga is pointed out with a red arrow, lined up in his zero-technique across from the center, No. 60.
The Seahawks have called a zone run to the right, meaning all the offensive linemen flow to the right and tailback Marshawn Lynch will look for a lane to either surge forward through or cut back through. Sopoaga is flowing along with the center:
Now, Lynch plants and cuts. Sopoaga tries to reverse course and collapse the lane, but he can't push back the center far enough or fast enough. This leaves the left guard, No. 77, one-on-one with Willis:
The guard crushes his assignment, blowing open a huge hole. Your left guard, Marshal Yanda, is one of the best second-level blockers in the game.
Lynch ran 19 times for 103 yards against the 49ers in the first meeting, many of them coming on these zone runs away from end Justin Smith. In the second matchup in December, Lynch had 111 of Seattle's 176 yards on the ground, more than anyone else has managed against the 49ers this year.
Seattle also won the second matchup 42-13, but it must be noted that Smith did not play in that game.
Attack the Secondary From the Slot
The 49ers have an excellent pass defense, too, but their secondary does have one weakness. Nickel corner Carlos Rogers, a solid veteran, struggles against receivers with elite change-of-direction and acceleration.
The Minnesota Vikings' Percy Harvin, the Seahawks' Sidney Rice and the St. Louis Rams' Danny Amendola have all given Rogers fits, especially when it comes to inside-to-outside routes and double-moves.
Check out what Harvin did to Rogers when they met in Week 3:
It's 2nd-and-10, and the Vikings are in a single-back, three-receiver set. Harvin is lined up in the slot, and Rogers is in tight man coverage on him, part of the 49ers' 2-4-5 nickel.
In the sequence of four pictures below, Rogers' lack of lateral agility gets exploited:
First, Harvin sells the inside route, driving his shoulders low. Rogers reacts by opening his hips to the inside. In (2), we see Harvin planted to cut and Rogers trying to slow his momentum. In (3), Rogers is falling backward and trying to cross his inside foot over his outside foot, as Harvin explodes for the sideline.
Finally, in (4), Rogers stumbles as Harvin flies by. The pass was a little too close to the sideline, and Harvin couldn't bring it in and walk the tightrope all the way to the end zone. This play was a couple of inches from going to the house.
You have a receiver who can get in and out of cuts like this and flick on the deep speed: Torrey Smith. If you keep Smith in the slot on third down and have him run out, corner and drag routes, he will get open—and get yards after the catch.
Slow the Bleeding with a Soft 3-3-5 Nickel
The Green Bay Packers attacked San Francisco's Pistol-based zone reads by attacking tailback Frank Gore. They got shredded on the backside by quarterback Colin Kaepernick's 16 keepers to the tune of 181 yards and two touchdowns.
The Atlanta Falcons were terrified of Kaepernick, so they kept defenders at home on the backside and let Gore truck them for 90 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries.
There may be a way to slow down both options, though; just take a page from the man who replaced 49ers defensive coordinator at Stanford, Derek Mason. Mason still runs a one-gap 3-4 defense, just as Fangio did (and does).
As Grantland.com's Chris Brown explained, Mason slowed down Oregon's zone read three ways. First, the Cardinal set their linebackers up deeper, giving them more time and space to diagnose the "mesh" handoff/fake and go tackle the real ball-carrier.
Second, they brought an outside linebacker up to the line to help negate the play-side numbers advantage the offense has with a zone run.
Third, the Cardinal had the schematic trump card: They won their one-on-ones.
Setting up Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe deeper than usual will negate their ability to blitz. But you don't want to be overaggressive here; you want to slow the bleeding.
Instead of bringing an outside linebacker up to the line, trade him for a slot cornerback; playing tight man-to-man with safeties Bernard Pollard and Ed Reed will force the receivers to get open—and force Kaepernick to beat you with throws in very tight windows.
Against a soft six-man front, Kaepernick and Gore will be able to run, but they won't be able to flay you alive. Better yet, if the 49ers running game is working, it may keep Kaepernick from testing you deep.
You're in a tough spot. On paper, you're outgunned in almost every phase of the game.
But if you reduce the number of plays and possessions both teams have by grinding out clock—and entice the 49ers to grind out clock—you might keep the score close long enough for Joe Flacco to work his fourth-quarter magic again.
Now, catch some shut-eye at your desk before you tell Coach Harbaugh your plan.
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