For a club with Super Bowl aspirations, and nothing less, this star-studded San Francisco 49ers team has fallen flat on its face and seems to be at a serious loss when it comes to generating the big plays we are all accustomed to seeing.
Apart from winning in the trenches—which they haven’t—splash plays appear to be a thing of the past.
Patrick Willis hasn’t blown up any screens, Frank Gore isn’t getting enough carries to run roughshod on opposing defenses and young Colin Kaepernick has been dismantled by poor offensive play calling and an adaptation by 31 other NFL coordinators. Overall, it has been out of character and self-destructive.
Now entering a prime time grudge match on Thursday Night Football, this Week 4 contest versus the NFC West rival St. Louis Rams is setting up to be a must-win game for the 'Niners:
How do they right the ship?
How do they find themselves in the midst of an identity crisis?
Moreover, can they do enough in other areas to overcome this onslaught of injuries?
Factoring in all the pitfalls and setbacks San Francisco has faced thus far in 2013, we will draw up an executable game plan to defeat Jeff Fisher’s Rams in Week 4, which will ideally restore confidence and reinforce the philosophy that made this team successful from the start.
No. 1: Run the Football
There is no need to beat around the bush or pretend that the 49ers are the second coming of the 2007 New England Patriots. It is that case of mistaken identity, perpetuated by offensive coordinator Greg Roman, that has this team struggling early, and now very much behind the eight ball.
Fortunately, the 49ers don’t have to look far for a solution to their offensive woes—the answer has been sitting on the bench waiting for his number to be called. Running back Frank Gore is the key to it all. For this offense to work, he needs to be spinning his wheels, and then everything else will open up.
Since he is not a slash-and-dash runner like LeSean McCoy or a powerful truck like Adrian Peterson, it is easy to overlook his plain-looking style and forget how good he really is. In reality, No. 21 is one of pro football’s most productive workhorses and has been for the better part of a decade.
According to the NFL, Gore has the second most cumulative yards from scrimmage dating back to 2006, with 10,929 rushing/receiving.
Between 2006-2012, Gore was a shot of life for an otherwise abysmal offense, racking up 32 career games with 100-plus yards on the ground.
Taking from that sample, the 49ers have a win-loss record of 25-7 when he passes the century mark, which is extraordinary since it largely dips into the morose years when San Francisco had five-straight seasons of .500 or worse. This is because, philosophically, nothing has a more profound domino effect on the rest of the offense than establishing the run.
Outside of instituting balance, it is the key to setting up play action and winning time of possession, generally aiding in a calculated ball-control style of football. The 49ers can be proficient, wear down a defense, and then let their dynamic quarterback go to work.
But let it be known, the first ones at the dinner table must be the offensive linemen—the 49ers have to let them eat. They’re built to grind it out, rather than sit back in a stance and pass-block 50 times a game. This group much rather be on the attacking side of things.
Gore will then follow suit.
So, above all, the amount of carries must be there. And when Greg Roman is rattling off plays into Kaepernick’s helmet, the OC needs to pick from the colored section that includes the most inspired run designs and blocking schemes.
It is not exactly subtle, but nevertheless, the Niners are built to do this. In 2012, starting right guard Alex Boone said, “They know exactly where it’s going,” per Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle.
“Wherever (the extra O-lineman is) going is pretty much where it’s going,” Boone pointed out. “We see that. They overload it all the time, but it’s like ‘Hey, let’s see if you can stop it.’”
On this play versus the Green Bay Packers in Week 1 of 2012, when Alex Smith was the starting quarterback, they couldn’t stop it. Utilizing their jumbo formations, featuring multiple backs, tight ends and 2,260 pounds of O-linemen, with no wide receivers, the 49ers ran it right down their throats.
A lot of the extra weight came from backups Leonard Davis and Daniel Kilgore, who reported eligible before the play (this year S.F. has Adam Snyder over Leonard Davis).
As we can see here, Dom Capers has his defense stack the line of scrimmage, favoring the side with Davis and Kilgore. The Packers are 99 percent sure a throw is not coming here, and if it is, they know there is not a single player on the field that can get behind the defense before that rush gets to the QB.
Green Bay basically has all 11 defenders in the box playing the run.
As it turns out, the 49ers are pulling no punches.
Once the play begins, it is indeed a run play that is directed toward that heaping right side. The Packers defensive front crashes down, but is completely absorbed by six of San Francisco’s offensive linemen and arguably the league’s best blocking tight end, Vernon Davis.
With Daniel Kilgore, Leonard Davis and Anthony Davis setting the right side, this frees up San Francisco’s best pulling guard, Mike Iupati (No. 77), allowing the big 6’5”, 331-pound mauler to get outside and lead a convoy for Gore along with fullback Bruce Miller.
Since 90 percent of the Packers defense is occupied between the hashes, collapsing on a run that’s going outside, the potential yardage gained by Gore here is already looking promising (and he’s still in the backfield).
In this frame, Iupati breaks off to intercept the two free-running linebackers that may have had a chance to leak through and whack Gore. With his size and forward thrust, the 49ers guard is able to pick up both with some authority.
That leaves safety Charles Woodson (yellow circle) to take on Miller (No. 49), shed him, and hopefully make a sure tackle on Gore (No. 21). This is asking a lot from a fragile veteran defensive back.
Miller gets underneath Woodson, who swan dives at Gore, barely gripping his jersey. At this point, the 49ers running back sees the end zone, has a free lane down the sideline and won’t be denied. This resulted in a game-sealing score for San Francisco on the road at Lambeau Field.
In this shot, you’ll see left tackle Joe Staley and left guard Mike Iupati double team the Falcons end and remove him from the play, pushing him clean out of the box while the rest of the O-line slides the defensive front away from the focus of the run, which is going left.
The LB/DE, John Abraham (No. 55)—who has outside contain on the play—is frozen by the read-option (hence his footing). The 49ers are able to focus their blocking scheme to one side, blow open a big hole, give their quarterback and running back multiple alleys to attack.
With Bruce Miller filling in and Frank Gore taking the handoff right behind up, this run goes for a seven-yard gain.
One of the enticing things that San Francisco has been able to accomplish as a running team is to remove defensive players from a play with misdirection. Employing sleight of hand can pull a defender out of position with one false step, rendering him useless for the rest of the down without even having to block him.
That has given the 49ers a numbers advantage when it comes to matching up and getting helmets on guys, often allowing them to get blockers hustling down the field, knocking potential tacklers off at the second and third level.
But it starts up front, right off the snap.
If the tailback can take a misdirection or counter step, or the O-line can successfully fool the defensive linemen and linebackers into thinking they’re doing something they are not (with pulls, unbalanced lines, down blocks, etc.)—or even if Kaepernick can sell the read-option—the opposing defense will be a player or two down before the play even really takes off.
By taking advantage of over-aggressiveness, particularly that hard first step by outside linebackers and defensive ends, this is largely how they’ve had their big offensive days on the ground. Just ask Clay Matthews.
Traps, Pulls, Crack Blocks, Wham Blocks, Down Blocks…
The wham block from the tight end, combined with Frank Gore’s patience and vision as a runner, is such a fruitful play for the 49ers. Talk about talent and scheme complementing one another—this is a money play for the offense.
Look at how this precision technique springs the back loose by targeting the defensive line’s premier talent.
It is a fairly simple idea. The tight end—in this case, Delanie Walker, the team’s then-No. 2 option—lines up off the line of scrimmage and comes in motion a moment prior to the snap, which provides him with a head start going into the play.
His goal: Rattle the big defensive tackle.
Already sliding toward his assignment, which is the defense’s star lineman, Ndamukong Suh, the 49ers tight end has an advantage engaging a player that is twice his size. The coaching staff enables Walker to use his quickness to beat Suh to the punch, knocking him off the ball and out of his rush lane.
If they went toe-to-toe at the line, Suh would win 10 out of 10 times.
This ultimately derails the anchor of Detroit’s line, and allows Frank Gore to get behind that front four, which is when the serious drop-off in the Lions defensive talent begins (linebackers and into the secondary). He is able to get loose and rumble for 46 yards on this one.
Watch it happen:
Crack tosses also need to work their way into the play-calling on Thursday because it gets San Francisco’s athletic guards outside, running with Gore and Miller, squashing defensive backs like bugs. The goal should be to get those offensive linemen like Iupati and Boone running down field.
It also allows Gore to use his incredible vision and decision-making to choose his alley before cutting up field.
On top of that, Greg Roman needs to integrate those innovative combinations of down blocks, crack blocks and pulls to create cushy lanes for their committee of backs. The designs they have in their playbook are tough to decipher and hard to beat, so the 49ers need to put them to good use.
No. 2: Make An Effort to Supplement the Pass Rush
Following Aldon Smith’s placement on the reserve/non-football injury list on Monday, September 23, the 49ers went ahead and listed linebacker Dan Skuta—a 2013 free-agent signee and special teams ace—as the starter opposite Ahmad Brooks, per the team’s official website.
The Faithful might ask, “Well, why him and not Corey Lemonier?”
Well, Skuta is in his fifth season as a pro and since this team has been under the direction of Jim Harbaugh and his staff, San Francisco has been ultra-conservative when it comes to playing their rookies, no matter how talented.
Now, it is not necessarily condemning of their effort to replenish the production left by Smith; it is just their team philosophy. Besides, the fact is—Skuta or Lemonier—no one man is going to do what Smith is capable of. The 49ers are going to have to eat this loss and do their best in other areas to recover.
That being the case, we may witness a rotation similar to the one in 2011 when veteran outside linebacker Parys Haralson functioned as the primary and then-rookie Aldon Smith was utilized as a situational pass-rush specialist.
In this instance, Skuta will be playing the role of Haralson and Lemonier will take on the role of Smith.
So, as far as pressure goes, the 49ers will want to closely monitor the productivity level of rookie edge-rusher, Lemonier, especially in four-man fronts and on third down. Last season, this defense came out of the nickel roughly 60-plus percent of the time, via Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
Oftentimes they like to go with that wide front, bringing pressure off the edge with four guys, while dropping seven into coverage.
Truth be told, this is an ideal situation for Lemonier, who is right at home in a four-man front, having played in it his entire career at the University of Auburn. He will be able to pin his ears back and work downhill, making his presence felt in the opponent’s backfield.
Tackle-end stunts out of the four-man alignment, as well as Texas stunts from the base package would be a smart way to challenge the Rams offensive line with scheme, since they will be lacking talent. Lemonier is also bullish enough to take an O-lineman head on.
- Bunch Formations: Anquan Boldin has seen his best productivity in the slot, functioning as a chain-mover and being physical across the middle. The 'Niners need to use route combinations to free him up—as well as others—allowing he and Kap to get in a rhythm. Boldin also does great work after the catch.
- Don’t Allow the Big Play: Essentially, the 49ers need to get in touch with that flex defense of theirs, performing in a bend-but-don’t-break manner. They can’t allow themselves to get gashed by any one of the Rams' explosive weapons. Those backbreaking plays and de-motivators could really hurt in San Francisco’s fragile state.
- Play Fundamental Ball: No penalties, no turnovers, no missed tackles or blocks and no blown coverages. The 49ers absolutely cannot afford any self-inflicted wounds in a must-win game. This will be a challenge since they are on the road, but one the team has to be cognizant of.
- Involve an Unknown: It would really pay off for the 49ers offense if it could get one of the new faces, either Vance McDonald or Quinton Patton, rolling in the passing game. Without more contributors, this offense is too easy for defenses to solve. The time has come for one of these two players to step up and be a factor.