Trends unequivocally show that Super Bowl losers rarely return the following year to win it all, which is a truth that places even more pressure on the San Francisco 49ers in 2013. Five yards separated them from their dream of hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy—imagine coming that close and walking away empty-handed.
Now the 49ers are more driven than ever. The fire in this team burns hot for a sixth franchise title, and this group will be satisfied by little else.
Nevertheless, challenges have mounted each week for the reigning NFC champs, coming in all different forms and nearly derailing this potential title run before it even began. But if the Niners are anything, they're resilient. Personifying their head coach, the 49ers have been able to make headway, one week at a time.
Now with a 6-2 record at the midpoint of the season, riding a five-game win streak and getting healthier, San Francisco is looking scary again. It seems that Jim Harbaugh has everything he needs to accomplish his ultimate goal in his third year as head coach, which is a championship.
But in the second half of the season, will he aggressively take advantage of all his resources and engineer a powering run to MetLife Stadium in January? Or will he take a conservative approach with the long-term future of this team in mind?
There are a lot of moving parts here, which means there is a lot to consider. But if Harbaugh and the Niners are to give themselves the best chance to win it all this season, here is a rundown of how they can play to their strengths and open up things after the bye week.
The X-Factor Behind Center
Arranging the changeover from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick, it seemed the football junkies in the personnel department and the new coaching staff understood exactly what they had to do to punch their ticket to a Super Bowl.
And this year it is no different; the quarterback is still the difference maker.
By drafting Kap and preparing him for the starting gig, Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke made a conscious effort to weaponize the quarterback position. What we found out in games versus the Miami Dolphins and the Green Bay Packers is that his intended use is not confined to that of a conventional NFL quarterback.
Clearly the staff appreciated his capacity as a player beyond the throwing.
In 2011, Harbaugh could’ve developed a man crush on someone like, say, Andy Dalton (TCU), who was a cookie-cutter dropback passer, but he nudged Baalke to target the dual-threat from Nevada-Reno instead. It is because he knew that with those tools, he is not just a quarterback; Kaepernick is one of the harder-to-defend offensive weapons in the entire league.
And they’ll use him that way.
Optimus Prime (as opposed to Megatron) was a nickname Kap had going back to his days in the NCAA, largely because of his super-freak nature, which has since been recognized in the pros, via Charles Davis of NFL Network. It’s his ability as a runner that makes him one of the more extraordinary players around.
At that position, where 99 percent of players aren’t built like him, defenses have to play Kaepernick differently because he’s got wheels. And opposing teams hate it because they can’t be overly aggressive for risk of being burned. The escape ability, long stride and pull-away speed on Kap’s behalf dictates caution.
Forging ahead, you can trust that the coaches will embrace the full gamut of his skill set, when the time is appropriate of course. To safeguard him from injury, the Niners chose not to run Kaepernick at all early on, but as the season has progressed, they have begun to open it up a little bit more.
After the first four weeks of the season, which included a 2-2 start, the 49ers were only averaging 1.1 yards per attempt out of the read-option, according to Pro Football Focus (h/t Matt Barrows). They did not emphasize that wrinkle and when it was run, it was unsuccessful.
Kap was even locked up the few times he tried to take off with it.
Though, activity has been brewing again on that front. Over the past two weeks, we’ve seen increased runs from the quarterback, and not just as a scrambler. There have been more read-option plays called, as well as more confidence on his behalf, specifically taking keepers.
As a matter of fact, it looks like the 49ers have been in control all along.
Pro Football Reference
Discounting kneel-downs, 10 of Kaepernick’s 21 runs have come in the last two weeks, which is a considerable amount, via Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus. Kap has also had long runs of 14, 17, 20 and 17 yards in the past four weeks with his only three rushing touchdowns of the season coming in the past two games.
As you can see, his true rushing production this season has come over the past two games when the 49ers actually made an effort to integrate that facet into the offensive game plan. So, the read-option isn’t dead in San Francisco; if anything, it was just hibernating.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman subtly corroborated the disciplined use of the read-option, via Brian Murphy of KNBR:
Good chat w/ #49ers OC Greg Roman. On whether injury prevented Kap from running earlier this year: "I will say this: Trust your eyes."— Brian Murphy (@knbrmurph) October 29, 2013
More Roman on Kap: "And, the plan never was to have him run a lot from Week 1 thru Week 16." #49ers— Brian Murphy (@knbrmurph) October 29, 2013
Frankly, it seems like they are saving it in an attempt to spring it on teams late in the season and perhaps into the playoffs. And who knows, maybe a few weeks down the line when they bring it back to its full extent, there will be new run designs and nuances that we haven’t seen before.
This fold in the offense makes Kaepernick and the 49ers a daunting unit to play, which is just the kind of aura they want for the rest of the season. It’ll change the way teams prepare for San Francisco and how confident defensive players are when committing to that first step.
Subsequently, it will have a profound ripple effect, improving the overall functionality of the rest of the offense. The run, the pass and play action in particular, all work better when Kap is rolling. In fact, Kaepernick is 5-1 as a starter when he scores a rushing touchdown, including the postseason.
Bottom line, the 49ers can’t keep him caged in. They’ve got to let him play his game because if he unleashes it, everyone else will. And any smart team knows that to win a Super Bowl, you’ve got to leave it all on the field.
Misdirection and Kaepernick’s running ability are signature elements that will take them far in 2013.
#Filmstudy Niners: Most pistol zone read plays by Niners have defenders spinning like tops or unsure where the ball is going.— Trent Dilfer (@TDESPN) January 18, 2013
No Holds Barred, Defensively
As sure a thing as the sun rising, the 49ers showed up in 2013 with a defense that is second to none. No real surprises there.
But with they way they tackled the draft and free agency, S.F. has a rare opportunity to get better midseason, and no doubt, they plan to. It’ll require a few roster transactions here and there, and fine-tuning the personnel groupings, but there is an opportunity to field an absolute hurricane of a defense.
Championship-winning defense and arguably the best under Harbaugh’s watch.
It’ll be tough for teams to line up against a fully healthy 49ers unit, which is looking to both develop the back end and the front seven starting right now. Eyeballing the roster and the ongoing events, let’s take a look at what the Niners can do to position their defense for a prevailing run.
No. 1: Cornerback Depth
Who knew the 49ers would be pitching the NFL’s eighth-best pass defense despite losing their top cornerback in Chris Culliver before the season? They’re still one of the best units in passing yards allowed per attempt and have nine interceptions, which is right on par with the rest of the league.
Again, this is a proficient bunch for San Francisco, but an area where they can get better.
One of their free-agent signees whom they were counting on to be the No. 3 cornerback, Nnamdi Asomugha, has officially bombed out. The former All-Pro defender didn’t tackle well, if at all, and was exposed in coverage more than a couple times. Once he sustained a knee injury, that was that.
He missed a couple games and the depth rose up in his place.
Nevertheless, he is still on the 53-man roster, wasting space.
Releasing Asomugha and activating cornerback Eric Wright from the non-football injury list would be prudent in their attempt to strengthen the 53-man roster heading into the winter months ahead. The former Browns, Lions and Buccaneers corner has been practicing and could be ready to go sooner rather than later.
With this move, the Niners can finally wipe their hands of the failed experiment with Asomugha and take a look at Wright, who has played better football more recently. Not to mention, Baalke was once ready to cough up a compensatory pick for Wright to get him from Tampa Bay, whereas they almost passed on Asomugha completely.
It is clear which player the organization believes in more.
A 5’10”, 200-pound veteran, Wright has six years of starting experience, including 14 interceptions in 85 games played. Getting him in the lineup would essentially provide the 49ers with a No. 2 CB as a fifth option on game day, behind the starters and Tramaine Brock and Perrish Cox.
That is incredible depth—and they’ll need it.
Super Bowl aspirations in the NFC can diminish pretty quickly if you don’t have a competent back end. They’ll see the finest quarterbacks, from Drew Brees to Russell Wilson, and if they get to the postseason, perhaps Aaron Rodgers. There is no hiding. Thus, sublime corner depth to go with this hot-handed duo at safety is a recipe for success.
No. 2: The NASCAR Package
Don’t look now, but one of the NFL’s best defensive fronts is about to get a whole lot nastier.
So far this season, the 49ers have been emphasizing attacking teams with technique and disciplined play within the scheme. Honestly, they’ve had to with the losses of Chris Culliver and Aldon Smith. But in the second half of 2013, they’ll be able to come at teams with a dynamic combination of a potent system and a surplus of talent.
The first domino leading to this evolution fell early in San Francisco’s bye week.
On Tuesday, October 29, the 49ers finally activated rookie defensive tackle Cornellius “Tank” Carradine from the non-football injury list and waived linebacker Jermaine Cunningham, per the team’s official website. This is big news for the team, considering his pedigree.
People forget, the Florida State dynamo was the No. 40 overall pick in the 2013 draft, and that was preceded by a significant fall. Carradine was a unanimous first-round talent and a top-five prospect of Bleacher Report’s own draft guru Matt Miller. This is a huge get in the middle of the season.
My ranking of Tank Carradine (DE-FSU) may surprise people, but once healthy I see a dominant pass rusher. He's top 5 for me.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) April 5, 2013
Prior to the bye week, an unsolicited Jim Harbaugh went ahead and informed the local Bay Area media that he expected outside linebacker Aldon Smith back in “a couple weeks,” per Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee.
This was surprising, yet upbeat, news for the team, and a sign that things are going positively for Smith during his leave of absence.
Voluntarily checking into an inpatient facility and having been placed on the NFI list, Smith is technically eligible to return at any time. There are no restrictions, other than potential punishment from the league, but commissioner Roger Goodell did credit the 24-year-old All-Pro for taking it upon himself to get help.
“Certainly,” Goodell said on whether or not the 49ers' handling of the situation affects the decision for further discipline. “The issue here is not to discipline players. The issue is to stop the behavior. So, yes, it will be a factor, for sure,” via Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle.
That being said, it has all been optimistic for Smith as of late, which could mean a return not long after the bye week. While nothing is written in stone, games to watch might be Week 10 versus the Carolina Panthers or Week 11 at the New Orleans Saints—two games where Smith could certainly provide a boost on defense.
Top ranked 3-4 outside linebacker after 2 games? Dwight Freeney (+8.1) still got something left. 2nd Aldon Smith & 3rd Elvis Dumervil.— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) September 17, 2013
Mingled with what San Francisco already has in place, these two players could put this defense over the top heading into the second half of the season. Clearly, it has potential to give the 49ers the single best pass rush in the playoffs, only to go along with the best run game and the explosive variables settled around it.
But activating these guys isn’t enough—they need to set things in motion.
Here is how:
According to Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, the 49ers utilized their nickel defense, which features a four-man line, roughly 60 percent of the time. This is when the scheme stipulates four men with their hands in the dirt on the line of scrimmage, with two inside backers and five defensive backs.
The Niners love this because they can rush four, drop seven and still pressure the quarterback. It has been their philosophy. They run the Texas stunt out of the base and work downhill out of the nickel on obvious passing downs. It is fairly simple, but it has worked well because they have such talent.
This year, however, that four-man front may be the best and deepest it has ever been.
Honestly, when you really look at it, it appears as if the 49ers are formulating their own version of the NASCAR package, which is a speed-rush set that was first popularized by the Super Bowl-winning New York Giants team. Essentially, three to four of the lineman are long-bodied speed rushers that use their athleticism to challenge opposing offensive lines.
What the Giants found out during this experimental period was that with all of their talented pass rushers, there was always someone that had a chance to get through the protection. Offensive lines just couldn’t match up.
And most guards and centers aren’t equipped to deal with speed—they’re used to power as interior linemen.
To maximize the productivity of their most frequently used defensive grouping, San Francisco’s new-look pass rush must feature linebackers Aldon Smith and Corey Lemonier on the ends of the formation, with Tank Carradine and Justin Smith inside at defensive tackle.
Smith, Lemonier and Carradine will likely be the three arriving at the quarterback.
You’ve got three pure pass rushers that are large, bendy and fast. They each bring quick get-offs and are all capable of getting in the backfield with some frequency. After cycling them in on various spots on the line, the key is then to have Justin Smith anchoring the middle and absorbing 20 percent of the protection at any given time.
This leaves three offensive linemen to pick up three man-sized blitz specialists.
The 49ers will take one-on-ones all day with Aldon Smith, Corey Lemonier and Tank Carradine—it's not even fair. Now don’t forget, altogether, these are only four of 11 players the 49ers have on the field. The other seven will be blanketing the field with red jerseys, providing time for the rush to get home.
Second-team All-Pro linebacker Ahmad Brooks will also be able to rotate in, so everybody has fresh legs on a given rush.
All in all, this revamped nickel package that the 49ers possibly have cooking could be key to a Super Bowl run.
Power rushing is a staple for San Francisco. This is how the team consistently wins games.
Over the years, the rushing game has been so dominant that the 49ers have proven that they can survive without much productivity in the air. Alex Smith won 18 games from 2011-2012 completing 20 or fewer passes. Kaepernick even won a game this season with only six completions.
So, for all the attention the quarterback receives, this is still very much a run-first team.
It starts up front with the blocking and the designs that Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman brought with them from Stanford. As most things are from Palo Alto, Calif., this stuff is cutting edge. The combination blocks they’ve scripted alone always seem to put the offense a step ahead of the opponent.
In a recent chat with Bleacher Report’s National Lead Writer Matt Bowen, he was able to share his thoughts on the 49ers’ ground attack.
“With [Jim] Harbaugh, with their blocking, everything is done by angles,” said Bowen. “You talk about angles with your secondary play—it’s the same thing with offensive line. They create angles in their blocking scheme.”
Alluding to the importance of timing and angles, Bowen was able to highlight how the 49ers systematically win matchups in the trenches.
Essentially, they make it very hard on defenses with how they target linebackers and linemen, while also beating them to the punch. Also, the team benefits greatly from a vicious trifecta in tight end Vernon Davis, left guard Mike Iupati and fullback Bruce Miller, who are arguably the three most important players in the run game.
In this power scheme, the 49ers block down with the tight end and kick out Miller, then pull the backside guard in Iupati, which allows Frank Gore to lead up through the hole. Defenses are powerless to stop it because San Francisco executes it so well.
The 49ers utilize angles to create big holes, and it’s a very diverse scheme they run out of. They do a little bit of everything and it makes them impossible to prepare for:
- Trap Plays
- Bizarre Toss Plays
- Zone Schemes
- Wham Blocks
- Gap Schemes
- Unbalanced Lines
- Diamond Formation
- Vintage West Coast Runs
- Counters and Leads
- Inverted Power Veer
- Dummy Snap Count
- Multiple TE Sets
- Jumbo Packages
- Double Power Leads
- Crack Tosses
It is a perfect blend of the golden and post-modern ages of smashmouth football.
After breaking down the nuts and bolts of it, Bowen was able to talk about how it all comes down to execution, saying, “There is some window dressing to create angles, but this is big boy football.”
“They’re not hiding. They’re coming right downhill.”
The reason they’re able to do that is because of the offensive line that they’ve invested in.
In 2012, this was the No. 1 rated offensive line in all the NFL, according to the stat-crunchers at Pro Football Focus—and not much has changed. If anything, the unit has improved in its second full year together. Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley, in particular, is having perhaps the best season of his career to date.
But from Staley on out, this unit is immaculate, via Khaled Elsayed of PFF:
Phenomenal. A near flawless collection of linemen. Most teams would kill for any one of the guys the 49ers put out, yet they have five of them. The introduction of Alex Boone provided a huge boost, with Anthony Davis upping his game with better play next to them. They’re a young unit by offensive line standards and look set to dominate for a long time.
They dictate the tempo in the trenches.
So, you’ve got the ingenuity in the run game that has a college-esque flair to it, and that’s partnered up with the most bruising and technically sound five-man unit in the entire NFL. But then you’ve got one of the last remaining feature backs in the league and he is having a heck of a season.
Believe it or not, 30-year-old Frank Gore is the third-leading rusher in the NFL, having stumbled for 618 yards and a whopping seven touchdowns already. Has also led the league for a good part of the season in runs for 20 yards or more, via NFL.com. The 49ers will be able to ride him deep into the playoffs.
Right now, nobody looks hungrier for a Super Bowl than Gore. Putting the finishing touches on a Hall of Fame caliber career, he only has one thing left to prove. He also knows that with every stride, Father Time is working against him, so he is in win-now mode.
Until defenses prove they can stop it, the 49ers will want to continue to get the runner behind the defensive line, get blockers at the second level and challenge the safeties to tackle Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter.
With two rushing TDs today Frank Gore has had back to back 2 rushing TD games for the first time in his career.— Bob Lange (@49ersPR) October 27, 2013
Special thanks to Jeff Deeney at Pro Football Focus, as well as Bleacher Report National Columnist Matt Bowen for insight on the 49ers run offense. All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference, unless specified otherwise.