Colts vs. 49ers: Breaking Down San Francisco's Game Plan
Walking through the tunnel for a statement game at CenturyLink Field this past Sunday night, the San Francisco 49ers players and their fans weren’t expecting that 60 minutes later, they would’ve had their hearts ripped out.
Richard Sherman and the Seattle Seahawks took it to the Niners, winning their second consecutive game against their heated rival. Now that they’ve finally strung together some wins against this new-look 49ers team, the rivalry and ultimate battle for supremacy within the division can progress.
That said, the 49ers are down, but not out.
Last weekend, the noise level was cranked, the penalties were frequent, the injuries mounted and the game plan was out of whack. But this is a team that has habitually bounced back from tough losses, having never lost back-to-back games under coach Jim Harbaugh (39 games from 2011-12).
In Week 3, hopefully it’ll be a return to fundamentals, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Offensively, the 49ers need to re-invoke the traditional West Coast elements combined with the innovative run designs that Harbaugh and his staff brought with them from Stanford in 2011.
Speaking of Palo Alto and the Cardinal, the 49ers will be hoping to accomplish all of this against golden boy Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts, who are likely going to put up some points at Candlestick Park. Fortunately, who knows Luck’s game better than his former coach, Harbaugh? Nobody.
To combat this up-and-coming franchise and its incredibly talented quarterback, the 49ers will need a solid game plan. Don’t forget, the Colts finished 11-5 last season and have already been validated as a playoff contender. The S.F. coaching staff will need to bring its A-game, putting the players in a position to succeed.
For a game that must be won in all three phases, here is the official blueprint for the 49ers and how they can bounce back this weekend.
Pressure Andrew Luck
In the loss to the Miami Dolphins in Week 2, Andrew Luck had a passer rating of 100.5 when he had a clean pocket to throw from, via Pro Football Focus. When pressured? He had a 30.2 rating (three completions on 18 snaps).
For a good portion of the game, Luck was under duress as the Miami front four relentlessly forced him to get rid of the ball, resulting in several errant throws. By day’s end, the talented quarterback had completed less than 60 percent of his passes, which has happened in all six of his career losses.
This is what the 49ers want to focus on…
The more pressure they apply, the lower his completion rate will be—it’s a simple formula.
That being said, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio needs to know where to bring the pressure from. So, let's help him out. Considering Indy tackles Gosder Cherilus and Anthony Castonzo held up, but the interior O-line was mauled, it might be a good day for Justin Smith, Aldon Smith and the Texas stunt (See: full breakdown by Matt Miller).
In short, this is a defensive concept the 49ers rely on heavily to generate pressure week to week, and it stems from Nos. 94 and 99. J. Smith, the right defensive tackle, and A. Smith, the right outside linebacker, play off one another’s assignments, which is essentially a twist.
Justin Smith selflessly absorbs the protection, which includes the left tackle and left guard, which frees up Aldon Smith and allows him to crash the "B" gap.
Even though opposing offensive lines knows it’s coming, it is still incredibly hard to stop because there are two All-Pros running this assignment. They are both very good at what they do, and their physical ability enables them to execute this concept flawlessly and quite consistently.
Moreover, even if it doesn’t result in a sack, there are benefits—namely the consistent generation of pressure on the quarterback.
Let’s take a look at this example versus the Chicago Bears in 2012.
With his big, bloody mitts dug into the grass, Justin Smith (6’4”, 285 lbs), lines up in the 4-technique, shading the outside shoulder of the left guard and the inside shoulder of the left tackle. Using his broad body and herculean strength, he is going to drive right into both of them.
Behind him, linebacker Aldon Smith is in an upright position, leaning forward, showing blitz. He had come around the edge for a majority of the game, winning his battles outright with the backside protector. Having done that prior sets up this stunt on 3rd-and-3 at the end of the third quarter.
Off the snap, Justin Smith gets locked up with left tackle J’Marcus Webb and left guard Chilo Rachal, then proceeds to use his power and center of gravity to lure them away from the line of scrimmage, opening a hole to the left of the center (No. 63). By isolating those two, the play is already won.
As you can see by the direction of Aldon Smith’s helmet, he’s identified the gap and is prepared to beeline toward the quarterback.
And just like that, in a matter of seconds, the pass protection from left tackle to center is completely neutralized. Justin Smith is suddenly free again (not like he needs to be) and you’ve got one of the fiercest pass-rush specialists in the league, Aldon Smith, playing the role of a bull charging after his antagonistic matador.
In his peripheral, quarterback Jason Campbell also has to worry about the other outside linebacker, second-team All-Pro Ahmad Brooks.
One way or another, he knows he needs to get rid of the ball, and there is nothing there.
Campbell gets walloped by Aldon Smith, tossing one up toward the sideline as not to get sacked for a sixth time.
Unfortunately, this impulse throw by the Chicago quarterback winds up soaring clear over the head of his receiver and into the arms of free safety Dashon Goldson. This play demonstrates the disruptiveness of the Texas stunt and its grand affect beyond the sack column.
The 49ers need to get in Andrew Luck’s face the same way.
Bracket Wide Receiver Reggie Wayne
Six-time Pro Bowl wideout Reggie Wayne is a premier weapon for the Colts, which will inevitably make him a focus for the 49ers coaches when formulating a game plan this week. In the Week 1 win over the Oakland Raiders, Luck had a 156.3 rating when throwing to Wayne, via PFF.
In the loss to the Dolphins, he only caught five of eight targets for 46 yards and no touchdowns.
There have been several matchups where this San Francisco defense, under coordinator Vic Fangio, has faced a top NFL receiver, or two.
Whether it was the Detroit Lions, Atlanta Falcons, Green Bay Packers, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers or Cincinnati Bengals, the Niners have devised ways to shut down or limit the opposing team’s workhorse receiver, which has resulted in wins.
Heading into this Sunday’s contest, the 49ers will want to tap into that same pregame philosophy, making it so the other receivers have to beat them in order to get a win. Last season, no QB had more dropped passes from his receiving corps than Luck did, with 50 grounded balls, via PFF.
Considering Wayne is far and away their best receiving option, it would do wonders if the 49ers were able to effectively take him out of the equation. The method that San Francisco might want to employ here is “bracketing.”
NFL defenses do this to 49ers tight end Vernon Davis all the time.
It is a proficient method theorized around containing a team’s No. 1 threat in the passing game, which the San Francisco 49ers are well equipped to do with their use of the Cover 2 Man defense.
Bracketing is essentially a double-team between the cornerback and safety that emphasizes contain of a particular receiver—in this case, Wayne—challenging the rest of the corps to step up around them. It is how the 49ers have beat Calvin Johnson and the Lions in back-to-back matchups from 2011-12.
It’ll force the quarterback to hold onto the ball longer, giving the pass rush even more time to get after the passer, which will force a sack, throwaway or dump down to an underneath receiver for a minimal gain.
So, if you can afford to do it because the opposing team does not have a top-tier No. 2 or filled-out receiving corps, vis-a-vis the Atlanta Falcons or Green Bay Packers, then it is an effective defensive methodology.
Reestablish the High-Volume Run Game
The 49ers have one of the most creative, voluminous rushing attacks in the National Football League—but for one reason or another, the staff has neglected the full scope of the ground-and-pound in two games so far in 2013 (resulting in a 1-1 record and a point differential of minus-20).
With home-field advantage and a chip on their shoulder, Week 3 versus Indianapolis is a perfect opportunity to re-invoke this facet of their offense.
In 2012, the 49ers finished No. 4 in rushing, while the Colts were No. 29 when it came to stopping the run. If this isn’t a key to the game on Sunday, it’ll be hard to imagine what is. Running is the ticket to controlling the game and doing everything they’d like to do offensively—namely ball security, clock control and play action.
Getting Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter going, and possibly LaMichael James (knee), will be critical to rebounding from last week’s loss.
To ensure this happens—since the run blocking has not been quite up to par—the 49ers need to get extra creative. Their inventive blocking schemes and run designs have truly been cutting-edge, challenging the players mentally as much as physically.
A lot of the times, San Francisco’s blockers don’t even need to get a helmet on a guy; they can remove him from the play by getting him to make the wrong decision. This comes with their bulk of unique formations, including add-ons like misdirection, options, unbalanced lines, shifts and more.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman, along with running backs coach Tom Rathman and O-line coaches Mike Solari and Tim Drevno, have done an exceptional job of positioning their blockers to spring the backs loose. Crack blocks, wham blocks and extravagant pulls from both the guards and tackles have all contributed to this distinct-looking rushing attack.
Not to mention the work from fullback Bruce Miller and tight end Davis.
Let’s take a look at this offensive approach in that same game versus the Bears, in what happened to be Colin Kaepernick’s first-ever start as a pro.
Personnel: 22 (2 RB-2 TE-0 WR)
Down and Distance: 1st-and-10
Threatening the Chicago goal, the 49ers come out on first down with their jumbo package and not a single wideout on the field. There are six eligible offensive linemen with San Francisco showing a full-house backfield that features tight end Davis as the tailback.
Fullback Miller is offset left and running back Kendall Hunter is offset right, operating as the sidecar options/blockers in front of Davis.
This brings the Bears defense out, ready to charge the line with nine defenders crowding the box. And with tight end Delanie Walker in the slot, not out wide at the split end or flanker, it has physical cornerback Charles Tillman playing close to the line.
All in all, Chicago essentially has 10 defensive players ready to get after the run, going with a single-high safety.
Prior to the snap, the 49ers are going to set off a merry-go-round of motion in the backfield, as Miller, Davis and Hunter all shift.
Davis moves out to the split-end position, taking one of the nine men out of the box, setting up Hunter and Miller in the split-back formation.
Even with eight in the box, and a corner playing down near the line, the 49ers are committed to the run. The ball is snapped and handed off to running back Hunter. Three offensive linemen block left, while two more get to the second level, putting helmets on the linebackers.
Then with Miller, Walker and Alex Boone, you are going to see a crack block, down block and a guard pull, as the speedy Hunter looks to stretch this play outside.
As you can see, most of the Bears defense is left in the dust, distracted by the heavy action between the hashes, while also having to worry about Davis potentially getting downfield with the one-on-one on the boundary.
Meanwhile, Hunter has a convoy of blockers that are able to help him pick up six yards on first down.
The creativity here is evident, and more than that, this seemingly doomed run against a heavy box actually proves fruitful with the misdirection and block integration. Combined with their mauling guards and versatile tackles, it is the reason the 49ers have been able to move the ball at will on the ground.
Furthermore, this sets the play up nicely for both the quarterback and coaching staff, who can run again, spread out the defense or present a challenge with play action.
- Let It Rip on Play Action: Kaepernick’s quarterback rating after two weeks when using play action is 133.8, and without it, it is 62.5, via Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus.
- Beware the Fourth-Quarter Comeback: Andrew Luck has led the Colts to a score on 11 of his 18 fourth-quarter comebacks/game-winning drives, per Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders. It’s never over with him, so the Niners have to finish and can’t let them crawl back into the game.
- WR-CB Matchups: San Francisco has had some difficulty on the back end of its defense to start the 2013 season. Not as bad as a lot of the teams we’ve seen around the league, but maybe not up to 49ers standards. Two matchups to caution would be Carlos Rogers on T.Y. Hilton and Nnamdi Asomugha on anyone.
- Opportunity to Get WR Depth Going: Still rebuilding under general manager Ryan Grigson, the Colts don’t have exceptional depth, particularly in their secondary. We know their corners and safeties will be susceptible to plays from Boldin and Davis, but this might be a great chance to get Kyle Williams and Quinton Patton rolling, building their confidence and chemistry with the quarterback.
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