From the looks of things, this Sunday’s matchup between the reigning NFC champion San Francisco 49ers (5-2) and the winless Jacksonville Jaguars (0-7) could turn out to be a little one-sided. Not to count this Jags team out before the first blow of the whistle, but the truth is they’ve had little to hang their hat on.
Culturally, they can’t seem to get away from losing, shamed by a record of 7-32 dating back to 2011.
Right now, the team is injured, they’ve got holes at a lot of key positions and they’ve lost by double digits each week they’ve taken the field. If there is a light at the end of the tunnel, they need to be wary that it’s not a train.
Meanwhile, this 'Niners club is 29-9-1 in the regular season under the direction of coach Jim Harbaugh (2011-2013), currently riding a four-game win streak, which is the longest they've put together in two years. Still chasing the Seattle Seahawks for first in the NFC West, the 49ers will be fighting as hard as ever.
There’s a lot of season left and San Francisco still isn’t content with its standing where it can afford to get complacent. Harbaugh and the staff—made up of Greg Roman and Vic Fangio, his offensive and defensive coordinators—will have to formulate a logical attack to thrash this Jaguars team.
They can't overlook their opponent. They’ve got to come out swinging. So, all told, they’ll want to emphasize their strengths while exploiting Jacksonville’s weaknesses, and if there is any overlap, all the better.
Here is how the 49ers will look to trounce the Jaguars, and how the team can optimize a game against a soft opponent before the bye week.
No. 1: Keep It On The Ground
When all else fails, run it. That seems to be San Francisco’s offensive motto.
They haven’t had much of a passing game to speak of outside tight end Vernon Davis and the occasional circus grab from Anquan Boldin, who has not consistently been thriving as the No. 1 wide receiver. Altogether, this alleged contender has the 31st-ranked aerial attack heading into the halfway point of the season.
As a result of this stagnant passing attack, the 49ers have unreservedly embraced their smash-mouth identity these past few weeks.
After only carrying it 11 and 16 times in losses to Seattle and Indianapolis, the running backs have since registered attempts of 37, 31, 28 and 25, while Colin Kaepernick has been getting involved as a runner more each week. This, along with killer performances by the defense, has resulted in four straight victories for the team.
So what do the 49ers have to do offensively? Well, the squad needs to continue to “grind some meat,” as Jim Harbaugh would say.
They are one of the best teams in the NFL at moving the ball on the ground, sporting the No. 3-ranked rushing attack with 143.3 yards per game. Running back Frank Gore is also the fourth-leading rusher, and has been in the top 10 for the majority of the season, even at age 30.
And where do the Jaguars stand against the run? Dead last at No. 32, and it’s ugly.
They’ve let up nine rushing touchdowns, which ties for the most in the league, while allowing 4.6 yards per carry and a league-high 1,073 yards (New England Patriots are second at 890). Even Ryan Mathews, the brittle running back of the San Diego Chargers, beat the Jags up for 110 yards and a score last week.
If Mathews can do that on 21 carries, Gore should be able to do it with 15; it's science.
In seven games this season, five featured backs either went over 100 yards or scored a touchdown against the Jaguars run defense, with notable performances from Oakland’s Darren McFadden (129 yards) and Denver’s Knowshon Moreno (three touchdowns).
Without picking apart the stats and degrading this unit further, clearly the game plan for the Niners is a heavy dose of Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and this rough-and-tumble power rushing attack. Being as weak against the run as they are, the Jags will be susceptible to the talent and blocking techniques by San Francisco.
One of the gambits that has been a staple in this tight end-friendly offense has been the ever-popular wham block, which this staff brought with them from Stanford. The first two years, it was Delanie Walker motioning in from the No. 2 TE spot, but this year it is rookie strongman Vance McDonald executing this tactic to spring the back loose.
Even through personnel changeover, it has been a mainstay in the run game. Here is one instance of it working against the St. Louis Rams, in a game where Gore piled up 153 yards on the ground. In fact, one of his longest runs of the day came off this 18-yarder up the gut, which was busted open by a wham from McDonald.
Personnel: Tank (1 WR-2 TE-2 RB)
This is a prototypical run play by the 49ers.
Prior to the snap, the offense comes out with two tight ends stacked to the strong side of the offensive formation. Vernon Davis is attached to the line with his backup Vance McDonald (orange circle), offset, shading his outside shoulder.
Before the ball is snapped, Kaepernick signals to McDonald by stomping his right foot, motioning him inside. The reasoning behind this is for McDonald to target defensive tackle Kendall Langford (green circle), who is covering up center Jonathan Goodwin.
They want Gore going north and south on this run, and the 49ers are going to challenge the Rams to stop it outright.
McDonald sidesteps inside with eyes on Langford, getting in position right before the snap.
The ball is snapped and all 267 pounds of McDonald slams into Langford, derailing the defensive tackle from his rush lane. As you can see, McDonald’ s block is what frees Goodwin up, allowing him to hustle to the next level and get a helmet on the weak side linebacker, Will Witherspoon.
Meanwhile, Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Alex Boone, Anthony Davis and Vernon Davis (gray dotted squares) have isolated the rest of the front seven.
This makes it so it is fullback Bruce Miller versus linebacker James Laurinaitis, with Gore left to do the rest. By getting this matchup, this already puts San Francisco’s all-time leading rusher in a favorable situation. In this frame, he is still in the process of receiving the handoff.
Gore sees the opening and doesn’t bother dancing behind the line—he cuts up field in a hurry as the rest of his teammates are setting blocks all over the field.
He’s got plenty of room.
This one goes for nearly 20 yards because the play call and execution were flawless. This angle blocking technique by the 49ers is so effective, it gets positive yardage on almost every down. And, again, with how poor Jacksonville is against the run, they are vulnerable to being mauled by such a sophisticated attack.
No. 2: What Can Jon Baldwin and Vance McDonald Do?
As Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle revealed, “one of the toughest questions” posed to Jim Harbaugh had to do with what challenges the Jaguars actually present to the 49ers. It does not take an expert to see that these teams are on opposite ends of the NFL spectrum.
Of course, an NFL coach will never speak ill of an opponent, always identifying their strengths and never their weaknesses. However, not every team is good, and that’s the truth.
Knowing that in the back of their mind, the 49ers may be viewing this game as an opening to address a perpetual issue on offense, which is the lack of a third receiving option outside Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin. Can they get other players involved, beat the Jags and go into the bye with a more filled-out offense? That'd be ideal.
While the Niners are expecting the cavalry after the bye week, it is unclear how effective they’ll be, especially right away.
After all, Mario Manningham (ACL, PCL) and Michael Crabtree (Achilles) are both returning from severe injuries—even more so as it pertains to their position. Each needs to be able to run and cut, and do so without hesitation, or else the timing of the entire offense is off kilter.
Moreover, Week 10 versus Carolina is far too early for them to return, while New Orleans and Washington present issues with their respective fields. Between the slippery turf at the Superdome and soggy death pit at FedEx Field, it’d be illogical to expect full-fledged returns from Manningham and/or Crabtree until December 1.
That leaves Colin Kaepernick with roughly another month of games to battle it out with a dearth of weapons.
Now, we’re not saying this is a practice game, per se, but the 49ers can afford to script more plays this week against the Jaguars with their lesser-known receivers as the primaries. Coach Harbaugh himself did say this week was “an opportunity for more positives,” via CSN Bay Area.
Other than a win, the biggest positive this week could yield would be a coming out party by a third receiving option. Seeing as how Kyle Williams has had the most opportunities and has come out flat until now, it is unlikely to think he will finally break through all of sudden.
Instead the 49ers will be looking to two relative newcomers.
Tight end Vance McDonald and wideout Jon Baldwin are players that can get involved and really challenge the depth of the Jaguars defense, which will no doubt be weaker than the NFL standard. The 49ers need at least one other player in a rhythm, as to alleviate some of the pressure from Manningham once he returns to the 53-man roster.
He might not be able to go hard early, even once he’s active on game day. And the same goes for Crabtree.
McDonald and Baldwin are also viable options right now—because unlike Williams who is reliant on speed to separate—they are big targets that are equipped to make contested catches. They’re guys that just need to get more looks. Together, they have only amassed 16 targets in over 212 minutes of play this season (114 cumulative yards).
Offensive play caller Greg Roman would do well to call their numbers, particularly on third down and in the red zone. The advantage they have to use their imposing frames to shield defenders from the ball will be valuable to a 49ers team that has struggled to convert first downs and score passing touchdowns in goal situations.
As big-bodied players, they've showed in a short period of time that they won't shy away from the ball, so they can handle more targets as long as Greg Roman is willing to dish them out. Here is an example of a play schemed specifically for second-string tight end Vance McDonald, who takes advantage of his opportunity in a big way.
Personnel: Tank (1 WR-2 TE-2 RB)
First off, this is a masterful play design by the 49ers in an otherwise rough game that ended up with an uneven pass-to-run ratio. But on this pass play, 49ers OC Greg Roman was able to get the better of the Seattle Seahawks, concocting a way to get the intended receiver in space.
Still 30 yards away from the end zone, the 49ers go to their heavy personnel with an unbalanced line.
You’ll see that left tackle Joe Staley is actually lined up out of position (red arrow), perched on the right side between right tackle Anthony Davis and tight end Vance McDonald. This leaves tight end Vernon Davis on the backside of the formation next to left guard Mike Iupati, throwing their opponent a fairly untraditional look.
The ball is snapped and the only wide receiver, Anquan Boldin, runs a go route to clear out the right side of the field. With All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman in press man coverage against Boldin, he is going to fulfill his duties by running stride for stride with the 49ers wideout, which is the first thing that makes this play work.
Secondly, Vance McDonald (orange circle) initially engages Seattle linebacker, Malcolm Smith (No. 53, cyan circle), who is firing off that edge, while 49ers fullback Bruce Miller rushes up behind the tight end.
Colin Kaepernick turns his back to the line to hand off to Frank Gore (or to complete the play fake). At this point in the play, from the defense’s perspective, this still looks very much like a run, so the Seahawks are still on their guard.
It turns out to be a fake.
This is the first frame where it becomes clear. The focus of the play is to the strong side, making it easier on the quarterback by giving him a half-field read. As we can see in this frame, Kap pulled the ball from Gore, as he prepares to turn back around and assess the field.
While Kap is buying time on play action, the play is developing.
McDonald, who is still engaged with Smith, is about to leak out from his block and pass the linebacker to Miller who is coming up behind him. This allows McDonald to fill in the open space outside the numbers that was created when Boldin and Sherman vacated that area.
As you can see in this frame, we now know the reason for the unbalanced line.
Having Staley on the strong side of the formation allowed the 49ers the flexibility to do that exchange from McDonald to Miller. Had the extra tackle not been there, Miller and Gore would’ve been overwhelmed with rushers and Kaepernick probably wouldn’t have a cushy pocket like the one he has here.
Now out in the open and totally uncovered, McDonald is going to glide to the patch of green turf.
In a superb play design by the San Francisco staff, the formation, line play, route by the receiver and the play fake are all interconnected, which deliberately creates an opportunity for Vance McDonald to get the ball in space.
Not to mention, this particular personnel grouping drew a heavy box by Seattle and Kaepernick was able to exploit the man coverage since the play was conceptualized around a clear out. In that light, the 49ers basically won the down before the ball was even snapped.
The 49ers need to call more like this because it is based around outsmarting the defense, not necessarily beating them with talent.
No. 3: Watch Out for Justin Blackmon
In Justin Blackmon’s first two games back from suspension, he made a whopping 19 receptions off 29 targets for 326 yards and a touchdown (17.1 YPC). The Jaguars also scored 39 points over that two-game span, whereas the team averaged just 7.75 points per game in the first four weeks without Blackmon.
The 49ers have faced a number of talented wide receivers already this year and have done their part to lock them up, currently strutting a top-rated pass defense. Guys like Reggie Wayne, Andre Johnson and Kenny Britt are just a few of the names that were stifled by this secondary.
So, even though Blackmon has been known to make plays in the air for Jacksonville, the young pass catcher has not played a defense as good as this one in 2013. This will be a real test for him, going up against savvy cornerbacks in Tarell Brown, Carlos Rogers and perhaps Tramaine Brock at times.
Having taken 39 percent of his snaps from the slot, there is actually a strong chance that Blackmon will see Rogers and Brock a good deal, per Mike Clay of NBC Sports. From the 49ers’ standpoint, they might want to take into consideration how Brock is in the zone right now and stick him on Jacksonville’s No. 1 wide receiver.
Through the first seven weeks, Brock has emerged as Pro Football Focus’ fourth-best corner in terms of coverage, via Adam Levitan. It just goes to show the depth of this defensive backfield for San Francisco, as well as the proficient nature of Vic Fangio’s scheme.
So, the 49ers have the tactical advantage that their top-three featured corners can all be relied on to take Blackmon one-on-one.
Added to which, Donte Whitner has picked up his Pro Bowl form from last year and Eric Reid has had a lights out debut as the team’s top overall draft pick. If Blackmon wiggles through this secondary for yardage, and it does not come in garbage time in the fourth quarter, he will have achieved something great.
- Be Smart With Personnel: The 49ers want to get out of this one healthy, so if they managed to run away with it early, it would be wise to start pulling starters. This would also demonstrate their situational awareness, as well as their stick-to-it-ness when it comes to integrating more offensive players.
- Bring Pressure: Defensively, this San Francisco unit simply needs to show up and play its game and all will be well. The 49ers defense is far more advanced than the Jaguars offense, so they should be able to beat their guys to the punch and make plays pretty consistently. But the team can’t be complacent and let off the gas pedal. If anything, Vic Fangio should dial up a more aggressive approach with a lack of offensive threats in Jacksonville, coupled with it's terrible offensive line.
- Stop the Run: It’s a household ideology for this team. No matter which team the 49ers line up against on Sunday, the initial goal is always to stop the run and put a choke hold on the offense. If Patrick Willis and Co. can make the Jaguars one-dimensional early on, it may be smooth sailing for the rest of the game.
- Watch the Penalties: The 49ers and Jaguars are facing off at Wembley Stadium in the UK this week, and they’ve been doing quite a bit of sightseeing in the week leading up to the game, via Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle. The hope is that this team isn’t too jet-lagged or out of its element, which could lead to an uncharacteristic game. San Francisco has to have its guys focused, playing smart football down to down, and even in between plays, not letting emotion leak into the game as it has a couple times this season.