Has the NFL Finally Figured out San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick?

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Has the NFL Finally Figured out San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick?
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

It hasn't been 12 months that Colin Kaepernick has been the starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. Although it seems much longer because of his meteoric impact to the game last season as the read-option became the biggest fad since the forward pass, or so it seemed.

Motivational tweets Kaepernick was favoriting.

After back-to-back losses for the first time in the Jim Harbaugh era in San Francisco, much of the blame for these losses is being put squarely on Kaepernick. Some people are going as far as telling Kaepernick exactly what they think on Twitter, and Kaepernick seems to be using that as motivation. 

The NFL hasn't figured out Colin Kaepernick because he hasn't figured out what kind of quarterback he's going to be after just 13 starts. 

The read-option became the most talked about offensive set since the Wildcat formation just a couple of years ago. But unlike the Wildcat, the read-option had basic principles that weren't as easy to defend as simply bringing down an extra man.

The Wildcat was about numbers; the read-option isn't that simple and that's detailed later in this article. But if you give NFL coaches and players enough time to figure anything out, the game will evolve and the chess match coaches play will see a few more moves made. 

In less than a year, Kaepernick has gone from a young promising player with tools to "could be one of the greatest quarterbacks ever." And now, after a couple of poor games to start the 2013 season, people seem to be hopping off the Kaepernick bandwagon just as fast as they were hopping on just a few months ago.

It's a "what have you done for me lately?" society and Kaepernick is seeing that side of the NFL right now. It's a whirlwind for a player that technically hasn't even been a starter for an entire season with just 13 starts in his career thus far. 

Kaepernick's numbers through his first 13 starts
Com Att Com % Pass yds Tds Ints Rush Att Yards Rush avg TD's
First 11 starts (8-3) 196 311 63% 2818 17 5 74 524 7.08 5
Last 2 starts (0-2) 26 55 47% 277 0 4 16 107 6.6 0

NFL.com

In his first 11 starts, Kaepernick was able to take advantage of players trying to "read" him, just as he was attempting to "read" them. 

In this first play against the Green Bay Packers from last season, you'll see two defensive players attempting to "read" what Kaepernick does at the mesh point.

The black box is highlighting Packers linebacker Brad Jones, who is going to get sucked up into the dive and allow Kaepernick the outside lane and 56-yard touchdown run. 

Right here at the mesh point you can see where Kaepernick's eyes are focused, he's reading the defensive end. The defensive end is in a "read and react" position on the dive or the keeper. Jones initially starts to the outside and then sees the run action on the dive and gets sucked up inside, falling for the fake. 

Once Jones gets sucked up inside it's just a matter of a few key blocks from the wide receivers and it's a big gain, and in this case it was a touchdown run. All Kaepernick needed was a lane to the outside and he was going to make a big play. 

This also isn't an example of the defense attempting a "slow read", defined extremely well here by Matt Miller, because Jones isn't flowing behind the defensive end. 

This next play is also from last season against the Miami Dolphins, and this time it's linebacker Karlos Dansby falling for the dive. 

Right here at the mesh point Kaepernick is reading the defensive end, who, just like above, is in a "read and react" position. You can already see Dansby getting sucked into the middle of the field. 

Once Kaepernick gets a step to the edge he's going to beat a linebacker, and this was another long touchdown run for Kaepernick. 

These defensive players were playing defensively. They weren't trying to force the action, and based on what we've seen so far this season, coaches are no longer content with letting the offense dictate who is going to be carrying the ball.

In their victories over the 49ers this season, the Seattle Seahawks and Indianapolis Colts were content selling out the backside defensive end and having him crash on the ball-carrier exclusively during the read-option.

It's a defensive technique called "scrape exchange". The defensive end is responsible for the dive and the linebackers are to get out on the edge and cut off the angle to Kaepernick to get outside of the play. 

As you can see in this picture from SmartFootball.com, the linebacker isn't checking the dive at all. He knows the defensive end is crashing down and it's his responsibility to get after the quarterback.

Jones and Dansby weren't acting as if they were solely responsible for either the back or Kaepernick on those long runs, and the defensive ends weren't crashing hard as if that was their only responsibility. 

Here's a look from the Seahawks against Kaepernick this season displaying the "scrape exchange" technique. 

You'll see the highlighted defensive end crash down towards the ball-carrier as soon as the read-option play is displayed. He has to beat the running back to the spot to make the tackle coming down the line of scrimmage or force the ball-carrier to cut back. 

You can see at the mesh point that the defensive end has already taken the dive away. He "forces" Kaepernick to make the play they want. He wasn't sitting back and reacting to what Kaepernick was going to do like we saw last year.

He forced the action and you can see the two Seahawks linebackers in perfect balanced position to chase down Kaepernick to the outside or take the running back on a cut back behind the defensive end crashing if the ball is handed off. 

Here's an example of the Colts doing the same thing. 

The defensive end crashes and forces Kaepernick to make a quick decision, and there's the linebacker and safety coming down to cut off the outside run for Kaepernick. It's assignment football and something that was obviously discussed during the offseason as the best way to slow down Kaepernick as a running threat. 

The other thing the "scrape exchange" technique does as it takes away the dive for the running back is it forces your quarterback to take more hits. If you're taking away the dive and forcing that read to a quarterback keeper, then he's going to get hit more often because he's carrying the ball more often. This could affect the play-calling for an offense.

Over the last two games it's been Kaepernick's passing that has really stood out in a negative way. Especially after his performance Week 1 against the Green Bay Packers.

Kaepernick finished the game against the Packers 27-of-39 for 412 yards and three touchdowns. The Packers seemed content sitting in a zone defense all day long in order to let their defensive backs keep their eyes on Kaepernick in the backfield.

This helped them hold Kaepernick to just 22 yards rushing on seven carries, but it also allowed Anquan Boldin to find soft spots in the zone coverage all day long and finish with 208 yards receiving on 13 receptions. 

If you're trying to make a determination on whether or not Kaepernick has been "figured out" by the NFL, you probably wouldn't use the Seahawks loss this year as evidence. Simply because he struggled in his one start against them last year as well. 

The 49ers lost 42-13 and Kaepernick completed just 19-of-36 passes for 244 yards with one touchdown and an interception. He was held to 31 yards rushing on seven carries and his longest run went for just eight yards. 

The Seahawks and Colts did a lot more man coverage on the 49ers than they saw against the Packers, and besides Boldin, there isn't a whole lot of established talent for the 49ers on the outside.

Kyle Williams and Quinton Patton struggled to get separation for much of those games and didn't give Kaepernick many open targets down the field. Not to mention missing tight end Vernon Davis, who was out with a hamstring injury. 

Kaepernick is a dynamic athlete that needs to develop parts of his game just as any other young quarterback in the NFL does. It was too premature to sing the praises being sung about him after the 49ers' Super Bowl appearance, and it's too premature now to write him off. 

The NFL may have found a way to slow down the read-option but just like the NFL, Kaepernick can evolve and adapt. Don't expect him to be slowed for very long. There's just too much talent and he's with too good of a coach for there not to be improvement over the next couple of games. 

 

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