Three consecutive wins notwithstanding, the San Francisco 49ers (4-2) do not have the luxury of taking a break to smell the roses. This week they will go back on the road to Nashville to face the Tennessee Titans. Not a star-studded roster, but definitely a group of tough guys with heavy hearts and something to prove.
And with the Niners being short-handed with injuries, it’ll be total team efforts by both sides.
Believe it or not, Tennessee’s biggest-name player is not the one San Francisco needs to sweat over. One-time rushing king Chris Johnson, also known as CJ2K, has not even surpassed the century mark once this season, rushing for 21, 17 and 33 yards in his past three games.
He has averaged 2.8 YPC or less in four of six games this season and has no rushing touchdowns this year. Needless to say, he has not had 100 yards rushing or 100 all-purpose yards in a single game this season. His performances have been abominable and not reflective of his true talent.
That being said, the 49ers run defense should be able to handle him. The set of All-Pro inside linebackers are playing more intuitive football than Johnson and should be able to track him in the open field, should he leave the backfield as a receiving option for the Titans quarterback.
This is just one of those weeks where the 49ers need to focus on playing their game and the rest will fall in place. However, as the season progresses, this is yet another game wherein San Francisco can build on the foundation they’ve established in 2013. They can improve by developing this week.
Here is how.
Enable Defensive Playmakers
Hats off to defensive coordinator Vic Fangio for enduring the loss of a top-10 corner, a starting nose tackle and arguably the best pass-rusher in the league, having been able to tip the scales in favor of San Francisco by getting creative with the calls and bringing an attacking style on game day.
After some trial and error in back-to-back losses in Weeks 2 and 3, the team is allowing just over 11 points per game in the past three wins. He is outfoxing rival offenses and putting his players in a position to succeed. They’ve gone on the offensive, creating pressure from all over and generating turnovers.
The 49ers have to keep that momentum going.
Though Patrick Willis is back in the lineup, he is not 100 percent, and the 49ers are still without Aldon Smith and Ian Williams and have Glenn Dorsey and Ray McDonald playing hurt in the trenches. Ergo, Fangio needs to stay the course, maintaining this aggressive mentality that has helped win games.
So, using what he has, it would be both wise and progressive to take the next step with rookie linebacker Corey Lemonier. The young buck from the Auburn University has supplemented the pass-rush productivity in the absence of Aldon Smith, bringing a blend of speed and brute force.
At 6’3”, 255 pounds and running a 4.6 40-yard dash, Lemonier is all there physically, but his growth will depend on what he has between his ears.
Lately, Lemonier has just been firing off the edge, bending low and trying to beat the protection outside with his athleticism. He has done this as an outside linebacker, as well as down in the nickel, which is very natural, seeing as how he has a background as a 4-3 defensive end.
From what we can tell, he is advanced—definitely ready for more responsibility in the form of slightly more challenging yet fruitful assignments. What we mean is, he can kick his game up a notch by doing what made Aldon Smith so successful, namely the Texas stunt.
The Titans have a very fresh, untested interior offensive line, whereas their tackles have a combined 18 seasons under their belt. Chance Warmack, Brian Schwenke and Andy Levitre may be susceptible to the stunt, and if you consider where Lemonier is at in his career, this will be the fairest competition he’ll see.
Since two of the three offensive linemen are rookies, like the 49ers outside linebacker, it seems like a picture-perfect opponent for Lemonier to begin adding this particular layer to his game.
Let’s see how it has worked for Aldon Smith:
In this rundown, lets go back to Week 15 of 2011, which was Aldon Smith’s rookie year when he functioned in a similar situational role behind then-starter Parys Haralson. He was stunting quite a bit and had even less time to become adjusted because he entered the league during a lockout.
So Lemonier is ready to start doing more of this.
On this play versus the Pittsburgh Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger and the offense line up out in the shotgun formation with three wideouts and one tailback on his hip. This draws out the 49ers’ nickel package. The strength of the play called by Fangio is what is happening on the right side of the defensive line.
Justin Smith (red circle) is assigned to crash down on the left guard and left tackle, while Aldon Smith is meant to come off the lineman’s backside. Essentially, the idea here is to clear out a space for the rush linebacker to hit the B gap.
Justin Smith engages and isolates the left side of the Pittsburgh line, using his broad body, strength and center of gravity to absorb them both. Tight end Heath Miller is going to run right by Aldon Smith, and No. 99 is going to let him, going untouched before working his way back inside.
In this frame, Big Ben is making his first read on the right side of the field, while Isaac Redman watches his backside.
As we can see here, the left tackle and left guard are being occupied by Justin Smith while his line mate, Ray McDonald, has arms buried in the chests of the center and right guard, providing No. 99 with a free lane at the quarterback.
It looks like Roethlisberger is going to fire on the slant route to Jerricho Cotchery.
The quarterback changes his mind, tucks it and resets to his left, surveying the other side of the field for options. He has his favorite target Miller wide open in the flat, but he also finds Smith two yards in front of him, fractions of a second away from blowing him up.
Big Ben can’t get the ball out and Aldon Smith tags him for yet another sack.
Seeing as how Lemonier will be in the lineup for an indefinite period of time, the 49ers need to treat him as the starter.
The 49ers need to utilize more of his quick twitch and initial burst—he was the third-fastest defensive lineman in the 2013 draft. With this kind of stunt, the defense can get that value out of Justin Smith again, while putting Lemonier in a position to make plays.
If you recall, when he was coming out of Mizzou, Aldon Smith was a full second and a half slower than San Francisco’s current rookie pass-rusher. Lemonier has just as much potential to excel in this renowned defensive wrinkle that the 49ers have relied on for two straight years under Fangio.
Simplify Throws for Colin Kaepernick
Kaepernick was delivering strikes last week against the Arizona Cardinals, once again demonstrating that he can make all the throws. But as most know, it has never been that he can’t drop dimes all over the field; it has been about the trust factor inhibiting his ability to pull the trigger.
In an attempt to override this reticence—along with a banged-up receiving corps—the 49ers have to integrate more plays with defined reads and ones that are designed to get receivers in a space. Kap had a lot of success with bunch sets earlier in the season, which might be a way to go.
Often, there is a primary target written in that the quarterback is looking for, mainly because the other two receiving options lined up alongside him are working to clear defenders out. The 49ers have done this at times, and it’s worked, but they’ve had the same player as the primary: Anquan Boldin.
They have to mix it up against a top-10 Titans defense, which, according to NFL Team Rankings, is tied for fourth in takeaways per game (2.2). If this offense is too simple to read, they are going to key in on it and make plays.
By using the advantages of scheme, the 49ers can get other players involved, but the coaches must script different players as the first/primary read. Plays built on clear outs, picks and screens can all work their way in, improving ball distribution without having to worry about Kap’s mental block.
Play action, complete with roll outs, boots or sprints will also aid in his decision-making, as it gives him a half-field to read.
All of this pass-play creativity that we witnessed in 2011 and most of 2012—when Alex Smith was behind center—went to the wayside in favor of deeper patterns, playing to Kap’s big arm. The high-percentage underneath routes, which are a West Coast staple, have also been scarce.
This is undoubtedly why the offense has failed to find a rhythm at times and the reason Kaepernick has finished in the 40-percent completion range in three of six games this season. This downfield-or-bust approach is not healthy and is not providing the greener receivers a fair chance to get involved.
They need to walk before they run.
Moving on, this next example from 2011 is simple and perfect because it contains the passing elements we’ve discussed so far. It is a quick-hitter that uses other receivers to clear out room for the intended pass-catcher, while also allowing them to set picks the moment the ball is caught.
Personnel: 11 (3 WR-1 TE-1 RB)
Formation: Split Backs, Twins Right
Down-and-Distance: Two-Point Conversion
On this two-point conversion attempt, the 49ers are going to come out with sort of an unorthodox look, lining up top wideout Michael Crabtree in the backfield with running back Kendall Hunter.
Ted Ginn Jr. and Braylon Edwards are stacked right, while tight end Vernon Davis is flush with the line of scrimmage, set up on the weak side of the formation.
From the get-go, Crabtree is the intended target (red circle). His pattern is the only one that really matters. This play is entirely timing-based and it is either going to No. 15 or it is going out of bounds. But given the brilliant design, it is a high-percentage way to deliver the football to the receiver.
Prior to the snap, Crab is going to motion across the formation.
Crabtree begins his sprint, crossing in front of Hunter’s face.
The man intended to cover him, Corey Webster, jumps a second late, tailing the receiver as he runs across the formation. However, when you watch this play in full speed, it is clear that Webster cannot get over in time because he has more traffic on his side of the line with the Giants stacked up, protecting the goal.
The ball is snapped as soon as Crabtree gets around the outside shoulder of right tackle Anthony Davis.
The two other receivers, Ginn and Edwards, are set to run 10-yard fly routes into the end zone, driving the corners back. They also know to turn into blockers once the ball is in the air and Crabtree has possession. Ultimately, their goal is to create a barrier between the defenders and where the ball is going.
Meanwhile, Vernon Davis is on the backside of the formation holding the safety on the opposite side of the field.
At this point, Corey Webster has pretty much no shot to get there in time, and Crabtree has a lock on some green grass in the end zone.
Ginn is shielding one defensive back, effectively isolating him from the play, while Edwards continues vertically to intercept the second defender that has a chance to break on the route.
And as you can see, the quarterback is sprinting right, waiting for Crabtree to get in place and look back for the ball. Alex Smith was not considering any other receiver on this play, as there is no other designed to catch the football. It is a very simple read for the passer.
The play has fully developed.
All of the defenders are isolated, Crabtree has his head turned around and the ball is already in the air headed for the strike zone. The only thing that could have stopped this play from happening was a batted ball at the line of scrimmage. But Smith fires and gets it over the line, allowing Crab a chance to make the play.
These are easy points for the 49ers, having called a great play that was based on scheme, not talent.
These sort of designs in the passing game will get this unit going, which, subsequently, will open things up on the ground for running back Frank Gore and Co. It gets different receivers touches, helping to establish a rhythm and allowing these athletic playmakers a chance to do something after the catch.
Moreover, by reestablishing an underneath game, Kap will have more opportunities to hit the deep ball when they are driving the length of the field.
- Protect Colin Kaepernick: Joe Staley and this 49ers offensive line needs to keep Kap upright during this contest. Pressure is one thing that can lead to the collapse of a quarterback, and thus, the team. They cannot underestimate the tenacity from this Titans front.
- Relentless Power Rushing: This has been a theme over the past few weeks, as Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter have been pivotal figures in San Francisco’s offensive game plan. Making sure these two get their carries is pretty much a given, especially with how the passing game has lacked.
- Win Field Position: The Titans just played the Seahawks in a close one, so this match could be tighter than people think. The 49ers need to be prepared to win the battle of field position if they begin trading field goals. Andy Lee and the coverage unit need to remain steady and Kyle Williams needs to stop calling fair catches.
- Tackle and Block: Fundamentals are an imperative but seemingly long-lost art of the game. Again, with the 49ers being short-handed, they need to rely on playing a clean brand of football. It has to be mistake free: wrapping up the ball carrier, finishing blocks and avoiding penalties.