Evolving at a rate that can only be classified as "constant," the San Francisco 49ers have recently garnered a lot of attention by installing the read-option. A lot of players, coaches and analysts are enamored with the improvisational play and its place within a college-style package, coined the "Pistol."
But what coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff have done goes way beyond what is only really a small fraction of the offense. In fact, as a whole, this is one of the highest volume attacks in the National Football League today. The innovative and throwback layers in the ground game alone are mind-boggling.
Week to week, the 49ers make the opposition prepare for so much, if they can even get to it all.
Yet this offseason, Harbaugh and Co. got busy thickening the playbook even further.
There were significant changes to the roster, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, which indicates new roles for a lot of fresh faces. Also, as San Francisco’s brain trust tends to do, it likely acquired these players with the intention of designing the playbook around their strengths.
So, while you’ve been focused on the read-option, here is what you’ve been missing.
Part I: Two Tight End Dynamic
When head coach Jim Harbaugh first signed on with the 49ers from Stanford University, also known as “Tight End U,” there was the notion that this would be beneficial for all parties involved. At the time, San Francisco had not had a proven 1,000-yard wide receiver since the days of Terrell Owens (2003), instead touting a marquee player in TE Vernon Davis.
Then there was his partner in crime, Delanie Walker, who was also an above average player for a lowly No. 2 option. On paper, this was clearly the strength of the 49ers passing attack, and philosophically, it provided the new coaching staff with the necessary tools to make this a strong, long-term marriage.
However, from 2011-2012, the 49ers were knee-deep in acute structural changes—both to the personnel and the system—so the true embodiment of the offense has yet to reveal itself. For a while there, it was a work in progress, which revealed itself in Davis' statistical dip. But in 2013, the full gamut of the tight end position will be on full display.
Upgrading to a monstrous two-TE tandem this year, closer to what the coaches originally envisioned, it is a group that projects to be more effective than ever before.
With Walker’s departure—who is now starting for the Tennessee Titans—general manager Trent Baalke went ahead and took advantage of the loss, turning it into an opportunity to become more dynamic at a position of strength.
In the draft, the 49ers targeted and acquired Harbaugh’s handpicked guy, and no, it wasn’t Cardinal tight end Zach Ertz.
A starting-caliber tight end out of Rice University, 6’4”, 267-pound rookie Vance McDonald will take over the two-spot and push this TE duo toward the forefront of the league. At his size, he is a load. And with his long arms, big hands and broad physique, he fits the mold of a Kyle Rudolph or Rob Gronkowski.
Legendary personnel guru Gil Brandt, formerly of the Dallas Cowboys (1960-1988), wrote McDonald in as the No. 2 available tight end in the draft, only behind Notre Dame stud Tyler Eifert who was taken in the middle of the first round, per Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle.
The pro-readiness, elite physical talent and relevance with today’s NFL gave him that type of value.
All told, the 49ers finally have the personnel in place to become truly dominant with both of their tight ends.
Important Bullet Points of Weaponizing Two-TE Sets
- Must have two starting-caliber tight ends: a true No. 1 and a “joker”
- It is essential for the player’s athleticism to allow for scheme versatility
- Ideally, both are able to adequately pass-block and run-block
- Vertical ability is a plus
The New England Patriots have led the NFL the past two seasons in two-TE sets, sending out two or more 81 percent of the time in 2012, up from 57 percent the year before, via NFL.com writer Chris Wesseling on Twitter.
Combine that with its profound effectiveness, and coach Bill Belichick has set the standard with this pioneering attack.
For the purpose of projecting the possibilities within the 49ers' new-look set, let’s take a look at how the Pats utilize multiple tight ends throughout the course of a drive in this Week 6 game at the Seattle Seahawks in 2012.
In this first shot, we can see tight end Rob Gronkowski (No. 87—red) off the line of scrimmage toward the bottom of the screen, lined up in the slot. On the same side, Aaron Hernandez (No. 81—green) lines up in the sidecar position in the backfield next to quarterback Tom Brady.
This is not a typical line up and play situation—the Pats are actively looking for mismatches and soft spots in the defense.
With all three wide receivers overloading the right side, the Seahawks cornerbacks are forced to focus their attention on the opposite side of the formation. While they’re in zone and don’t flinch, their eyes are directed away from the tight ends.
This also gives New England options:
- By streaking, Gronk can clear out the remaining defenders on the left side, leaving room for Hernandez to run underneath to pick up the first down and possibly more.
- With the big-bodied Gronkowski in front, he is in a position to set a pick to free up the No. 2 TE.
- Gronk is in a position to run through the zone and score himself.
All that, and Seattle still has the wideouts to worry about.
This is one of bonuses of having two top-tier tight ends. With scheme versatility and dictating matchups, the play can be won before it starts.
Love the idea of using Vernon Davis at WR, but it hinges on rookie Vance McDonald being ready to go.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) June 19, 2013
As we can see in this screen grab, Gronkowski is flush with the offensive line at the tight end spot, which affords the Pats the luxury of having Hernandez at the split-end position. The Seahawks are going to treat No. 81 like a wide receiver and stick cornerback Brandon Browner on him.
Now, nine out of 10 times, this is a mismatch in favor of New England. Most defenders struggled with his combo of size, speed and quickness.
However, Browner just happens to be a 6’4”, 221-pound Pro Bowl corner, which levels the playing field (there aren’t many of those). And while we don’t know for sure, the Patriots probably would’ve preferred a shorter, more slender Earl Thomas or a stocky linebacker guarding him on this play.
Nevertheless, this does illustrate an ability to scheme favorable matchups on the boundary by having two starting caliber tight ends. Both players need to have complete games because it allows them to line up like the Pats have above and draw favorable coverages.
This is largely what makes them so effective. They play off one another.
As far as play-calling goes, this adds sleight of hand to what otherwise appears to be a standard shotgun look with a single back. If it were San Francisco, they might want to write in McDonald as the in-line blocker/receiver with Davis as the eligible receiver outside. In that regard, the size/speed combo between them is comparable to the duo that New England touted from 2010-12.
This was just one drive by the Patriots that exemplified heavy use of the two-TE set. In the end, this one was capped off by a touchdown, which we will take a look at here.
All in all, the pre-snap motion and various alignments of the tight ends is one of the more prevalent facets of its use, especially when schemed properly. On this play, we’re going to see coach Belichick call his third different look on this drive, again, trying to get the matchup on the boundary. In the goal line package, Gronk is offset with the line of scrimmage, acting as a decoy.
No. 81 goes in motion and only one player, backup safety Jeron Johnson, follows.
This should’ve been setting off bells on the Seattle sideline.
Prior to the snap, the Seahawks have 10 defenders either committed to the run or the quick pass underneath. In hindsight, they would’ve been wise to give Johnson help outside, knowing they could feasibly stop the run with nine. But instead, they stick to the call and trust him to win the one-on-one.
Meanwhile, Seattle has three 'backers and Earl Thomas lined up two-and-a-half yards into the end zone. Thomas, the free safety, has responsibility for Gronkowski, playing close to the line to safeguard the quick release underneath.
At this point, all of the attention for the impending play is focused between the hashes, when it's really going outside.
The play is snapped!
Rob Gronkowski follows through on his route, taking All-Pro safety Earl Thomas out of the play, while the linebackers are frozen with their eyes down toward the line of scrimmage. It’s the point of no return—the Seahawks are counting on Johnson to win a one-on-one that is clearly out of his depth.
From the flanker position (top of the screen), Hernandez puts a move on Johnson and runs a fade toward the back pylon.
With no help behind Johnson, the tight end has unlimited open space to give his quarterback a chance to find him in the end zone. All Hernandez needs to do here is get behind the defender and Brady will put it there.
It's a jump ball!
Before the snap, the Patriots knew they got the one-on-one they were looking for. Rob Gronkowski ran a route, as did the tailback, but Brady was going to throw that fade come hell or high water. He was looking there the whole way and not a moment before Hernandez shook Johnson; the ball was in the air.
The Seattle corner had his back to the quarterback, not playing the ball, which made it an easy pitch and catch from No. 12 to No. 81. With Thomas and Johnson being the key cover guys, it demonstrates New England’s ability to manipulate the safeties. Seattle had to pick its poison, which will be the case when facing Vernon Davis and Vance McDonald this year.
Very diligently, the Pats kept chipping away with the two tight ends, inching closer until they eventually got the matchup they were looking for to seal the drive. This entire red-zone series was predicated on matchups, giving the team’s top athletes a chance to make a play on the ball against a lesser opponent.
New England has shown that it pays to have two top-tier players at the position, especially if you can master the chess-match side of it. It is about patience and taking what the defense gives you.
Taking away from what Belichick and Co. have done, it would be wise to anticipate the 49ers utilizing Vernon Davis and Vance McDonald in a similar fashion. San Francisco will move its guys around quite a bit, lining them up in an assortment of complementary spots and depending on them in all sorts of game situations.
And, like the Patriots have, the ‘Niners will be able to lean on them for entire drives, especially when it comes to finishing them off in the red zone.
Part II: The Darren Sproles Effect
For a long time, running back Darren Sproles was one of a kind.
A compact player with a low center of gravity, game-breaking top speed and uncanny change of direction, No. 43 went on to create a class of his own. No player with his micro-measurements has survived in the NFL, much less had the level of success that Sproles has had.
For years, this half-pint has wreaked havoc on the league.
In 2011, his career reached another plateau as Sproles settled down into a unique role under coach Sean Payton and his high-octane offense with the New Orleans Saints. His impact was instant. As a rusher, returner and, most notably, a receiver, he flourished as one of the best all-purpose threats in the history of the game.
Sproles set the bar for pass-catching tailbacks:
- In 2011, he was the team’s third leading receiver (86-710-7), behind TE Jimmy Graham and WR Marques Colston.
- In 2011, Sproles was No. 2 on the team in targets (111).
- In 2011, 97 percent of his receiving yards came after the catch (690 of 710).
- In 2011, he averaged 82.1 all-purpose yards per game, which was among the league’s best.
- In 2011, his 86 receptions were good enough for No. 7 in the league, making him the only running back in the top-15 in said category.
- In two seasons with New Orleans (29 games played), Sproles has 2,224 yards from scrimmage and 17 touchdowns.
- In 2012, Sproles topped All-Pro WR Larry Fitzgerald (Cardinals) in receptions and receiving touchdowns.
- His career all-purpose yards (14,231) are fourth among active players, ranking only behind Steve Smith, Wes Welker and Tony Gonzalez.
- Sproles holds the NFL single-season record for all-purpose yards with 2,696 (2011).
Remarkable production for a player that, more often than not, is referred to as a scat back that can’t carry the load.
For the most part, he stays in Drew Brees’ pocket, never really leaving the quarterback’s vicinity. In that high-wire offense, Sproles operates an outlet, bringing tantalizing upside when it comes to yards after the catch. As the quarterback’s best friend, his job is to find space that has been recently vacated, fill in and turn up field.
He is the ultimate bail out. If the play isn’t there downfield, Brees and Sproles cut up the defense underneath.
And while he is tough for linebackers and safeties to get hands on when he has the ball, he might be even tougher to cover without the ball. At 5’6”, he is so low to the ground and shifty with his movements, he eliminates defenders from the play just by pivoting and spinning in and out of his breaks.
Combine that with the crisp timing he has with Brees and it’s an awfully hard dimension to contain on any given week.
Furthermore, the reason we tell you this and the reason we’re breaking down the following play is because after seven years of Sproles being in the league—with no one coming close to him in style or caliber—there may finally be a clone that is capable of similar production.
In Round 2 of the 2012 NFL draft, the 49ers selected LaMichael James, a prolific tailback out of the University of Oregon. He is an absolute dynamo with untamed speed and incredible stop-and-start ability, combined with lateral quickness that makes it look like he is in The Matrix.
Altogether, this kind of talent is hard to come by.
Fitting the mold of Darren Sproles—and with San Francisco’s handicapped receiving corps and crowded backfield—the staff may take a page out of Sean Payton’s playbook and incorporate James as an X-factor in the passing game.
He can be Colin Kaepernick’s primary check down, especially in a new year where defenders will be looking to take a piece out of the 49ers quarterback. At the same time, he can turn these seemingly monotonous dump offs into a fireworks display with his run after catch.
Sproles has shown this ability time and time again, to the point of adding an entire dimension to what New Orleans does offensively. The swing passes, screens, delayed gos, Texas routes and more, all take on new meaning with Sproles at the helm.
To see what sort of wrinkle James can potentially add to the 49ers offense this season, let's take an up-close look at a routine play by the Saints that wound up gashing the Denver Broncos defense in Week 8 of 2012:
On the first play to start the second quarter, the Saints come out of the shotgun on second-and-short.
Denver comes out with their four-man front, which includes linebackers Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil playing down in the dirt. Brees recognizes the potential pressure that is about to be coming his way, so if the throw isn’t deep, he might not have time to camp out in the pocket.
Fortunately for No. 9, he has a safety net in Sproles.
Off the snap, the Saints O-line takes a thump, getting knocked back quite a bit. Sproles bounces around Dumervil, who is engaged with tackle Jermon Bushrod, while Brees examines his options down the field.
After close but brief examination, he sees tight end Jimmy Graham is bracketed and wide receiver Marques Colston is well covered, while wideout Devery Henderson is a read on the opposite side of the field that Brees did not have enough time to get over to.
Seconds later, the window of opportunity opens wide.
On the Texas route, Sproles is a moment away from cutting back in toward the middle of the field, where you will see an unimpeded space that leads right down the field. If Bushrod can hold Dumervil back for just a second longer, this play may be salvageable yet.
At this point, Brees is committed to the throw.
The QB has identified the lane, Sproles knows it's coming and also knows there is a play to be made after the catch. With the corners and safeties essentially removed from the play at this point, Sproles shakes the linebacker guarding him, putting the onus on the one remaining linebacker in the middle of the field to either break up the throw or tackle the receiver at the point of the catch.
The inside ‘backers whiff on the coverage, letting Sproles get behind them and the ball is already there, as Brees marvelously anticipates the throw.
He reels it in, turns on the jets and no one can catch him. Touchdown, Saints.
As the 49ers forge ahead into Week 1 of the regular season, they won't have to rely on so-called gimmicks to run the table this year. The bottom line is, after being puzzled over and studied this offseason for their influence with the read-option, San Francisco may hit the league with two new overpowering elements in this rapidly developing offense.
Except this time around, the staff will have adopted the wrinkles from two of the top-ranked offenses in the NFL.
The tight ends in New England and Darren Sproles in New Orleans are prominent dimensions, so to be added to what the 'Niners already have in place could be like dumping 100,000 gallons of rocket fuel on an out-of-control forest fire. Yeah, explosive.
Look for tight ends Vernon Davis, Vance McDonald and running back LaMichael James to be big-time role players in 2013.