Not to spoil Week 12 for fans, but the truth is, the upcoming matchup between Colin Kaepernick’s San Francisco 49ers and Robert Griffin III’s Washington squad would’ve been a far better showdown in 2012, when both were playoff teams winning games with strong quarterback play.
Undoubtedly, the ostensible regression of both franchise passers, coupled with their teams under-performing, has made this less of a blockbuster matchup than the schedule-maker anticipated it would be when it was penciled in for Monday Night Football. No longer does it have that same moxie about it.
Heading into this one, both teams are a combined 0-4 in their last two games (9-10 in 2013). Though, this doesn’t mean the game is insignificant.
Given the circumstances, each club has been under the microscope all week, catching the third degree, and are now desperate for a win. The Niners, hoping to remain in playoff contention, 100 percent cannot afford to drop this game. They just can't, especially with three more divisional matchups remaining.
Meanwhile, under intense media scrutiny, Washington is looking to break its dry spell and perhaps provide a silver lining for next season.
Any way you slice it, there’s going to be 92 frustrated players on the field Monday night, looking to take a piece out of each other. With that being the stage and the setting, it’s really anyone’s game. In a must-win, let’s take a look at what San Francisco can do to best position itself to rebound off a two-game losing streak.
Take Away the Tight Ends and Running Backs
There are two players in particular that can really gash, score and demoralize the 49ers defensive unit this week. So, even though the team is 3-7, Washington has a chance to pull the upset at FedEx Field, simply because the team is strong at running back and tight end—two positions that have hurt S.F. at times.
For that reason, the 49ers must circle Alfred Morris and Jordan Reed.
(Note: Reed sustained a concussion during the game versus the Philadelphia Eagles and is going through the league-mandated protocol. If he can’t go, Fred Davis will take his place, according to the team’s head coach Mike Shanahan).
Jordan Reed, TE
Rookie TE Jordan Reed is Washington’s second-leading receiver in catches (45) and yards (499) and is tied for a team-high with three touchdowns. He is as sure handed as any of the pass-catchers out there, too, leading all NFL tight ends with grabs on 76.3 percent of his targets.
Between his talent, fit within the system and RGIII’s comfort level with him, it didn’t take very long for Reed to become one of the most productive tight ends on a per-route-run basis:
San Francisco’s linebackers must be physical with Reed and stick him within the first five yards, while being prepared to open their hips and run down field. He’s athletic, versatile and playing very confidently for a rookie. If he can’t go, it’ll be a blow to their offense.
Nevertheless, it doesn’t mean they’ll veer from the tight end position with sleepers in Fred Davis and Logan Paulsen ready to step in. They’ll continue to work the middle of the field, and do so with the running backs as well.
*Eric Reid and Donte Whitner will also have to be on high alert, particularly in red-zone situations.
Alfred Morris and Roy Helu, RB
Star tailback Alfred Morris is the NFL’s third-leading rusher, only behind LeSean McCoy and Marshawn Lynch, as one of only three players with 900 or more yards entering the 12th week of the season. His 5.1 YPC is also first in the league for backs (min. 100 attempts).
The guy is a bruiser with good vision, cut ability and effort after contact. This is exactly the kind of runner that has given San Francisco problems, whether it’s been Ahmad Bradshaw, Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, Eddie Lacy or Steven Jackson. They must beware the bullish feature back.
Like the Niners, Shannahan's unit is going to utilize a power rushing attack and come downhill at this front.
But here’s where it can get a little tricky, and there could be a residual effect if the 49ers are not ready. This Washington team is also known to run out of the shotgun/pistol formation at times, even with a spread look, which can be challenging for the defense and fruitful for the offense over the course of a game.
So what do you do?
Well, the 49ers have to be prepared to contain a pair of physical runners with their nickel and dime packages that feature more defensive backs and fewer linebackers. Washington has adequate depth at wide receiver and would prefer to lighten the box for Morris when it can.
And even if San Francisco is using its base defense, which they tend to do, the alignments may remove one of the linebackers from the box.
That being said, the 49ers have to be prepared to control the line of scrimmage and flood gaps with Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman (Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith won’t always be on the field). And, ideally, they can even kill the play with the defensive line alone.
The Tennessee Titans, which are a similarly built team as Shanahan’s unit, challenged the 49ers the same way in Week 7:
On this play a few weeks back, the Titans came out of the shotgun formation on 2nd-and-5 (the Niners can expect this from Washington). It could’ve been a run or a pass, either of which could’ve challenged the 49ers beyond the sticks or set the offense up for an easy third-down conversion to extend the drive.
And as you can see, by using two tight ends, putting one in the slot and coming out of the shotgun, the 49ers only have six in the box here (Brooks outside). So they can run at a lighter front, try to pick on the linebacker in coverage or look down field.
Tennessee had a lot of options.
Naturally, this puts strain on a defense because they have to defend the entire field, trying not only to win this down and not get burnt but also trying to best position themselves for the next potential down.
It’s a run to Chris Johnson.
Titans’ tight end Delanie Walker comes across the formation to pick up the free rusher, which is outside linebacker Dan Skuta. He’s way back, waiting to engage Walker, rather than attacking the mesh point, which is the smart play and the way Vic Fangio coaches his players.
He’s going to willingly take on the block.
Everyone in the front seven is engaged, still set with their eyes down waiting for the play to develop.
Johnson is frozen for a split-second because he’s got eyes on Patrick Willis, who is in position to make a play if he goes inside or outside.
With Justin Smith crossing over the face of the tackle and guard—and Dan Skuta picking up the blocking back—it allows Glenn Dorsey to rip and twist inside to the one open gap they created for CJ2K. What Smith essentially does here is controls where the run goes—holding his ground and allowing his other guys to fill in.
Versus the run, the 49ers defense is so good at turning the offense’s play against itself by dictating running lanes. They diagnose it quick and essentially blow up the focus of the play with minimal players. Here they do it with just two, being Smith and Skuta. This enables the rest of their attackers, which are Willis, Dorsey and NaVorro Bowman if necessary.
Altogether, they clog lanes, fill gaps with linebackers and swarm the ball carrier.
The design is read well, the 49ers defenders react and execute their assignments, and as a result, Dorsey’s got him dead to rights. NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis don’t even have to make the play here, as Johnson gets dropped at the line of scrimmage in a head-on collision with San Francisco’s nose tackle.
This is an example of the 49ers defense winning the line of scrimmage and stopping the run with solid gap control from their defensive line.
It starts and ends with Justin Smith, but as a whole, the concept is dependent on clean assignment-based football from the guys around him. They can’t allow Washington to chip away at them or allow them an advantage by running out of certain personnel groupings.
So, stopping the tight ends and backs will be key on Monday.
They also effectively contained Darren Sproles, limiting the all-purpose dynamo to 35 yards on seven touches. By removing these two star players at the same positions, the defense did enough to win the ballgame. So they’re capable. They just have to do it again and hope the offense comes through this time around.
High-Percentage Passing Game
For a struggling 49ers offense that lacks explosiveness, their biggest advantage this weekend is that Washington is not a fundamentally sound football team.
They’re not overly physical and don’t tackle well in the open field. For a good duration of the season, and on into November, Frank Gore has been one of the NFL’s leaders in rushing after contact. He has to have 20 touches, whether they come in the form of carries or receptions.
Gore is as slippery as any and finishes runs exceptionally well. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman might even want to get the other two running backs involved as well, seeing as how the team is using 22 personnel more than ever in 2013 to make up for a lack of wide receivers.
Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James each have a low center of gravity and are naturally tough to bring down in open space. These two could really exploit the defense. And moreover, the 49ers could make the most of their opportunities by utilizing the split-back and wing formations, while using a little less of Bruce Miller.
This will enable them to use combinations of Gore, Hunter and James, in twos, who are players defenses have to account for before the snap. Miller, the fullback, is not one of those players.
Nevertheless, it still makes defenses respect the run with their personnel but gives San Francisco a dangerous element, seeing as how they can throw against those heavy fronts they've been seeing. If you can create space or get Hunter or James on a linebacker—especially a Washington linebacker—that’s an opportunity the 49ers want to have.
(This is an example of a split-back look by San Francisco).
They can create space in the flat for the running back, hurting Washington with wheel routes with their scat backs.
The Niners also don’t use the Texas route enough anymore, which is a West Coast staple that was used by Bill Walsh when he had Tom Rathman and Roger Craig.
Philosophically speaking, it affords the quarterback an easy check-down with potential to turn the play up field, or at least sets themselves up for the next play. It is the football equivalent of a layup, which the 49ers passing offense needs to be doing.
They should feel obligated to play this style of ball because they don’t have the big-play explosiveness outside. But enough tries versus Washington and either Hunter or James are bound to break loose for chunk yardage.
And ultimately, that will open things up outside and down the field.
This should be the foundation of the high-percentage passing game Roman must employ versus San Francisco's upcoming opponent. Slants, screens and bunch sets with predetermined reads—these are all things that make sense, since they cater to the quarterback and come with yards-after-catch potential against a defense that can’t tackle.
This is a great week to simplify things and discover news way to be productive as a passing unit.
- Emphasize Stopping the Run: Relief back Roy Helu also has a 4.9 yards-per-carry average and four rushing touchdowns on the season. This team can pound the rock, which is why they’re a threat to put together long drives, score points and get this defense down on itself.
- Win the Turnover Margin: The 49ers are plus-five in the turnover margin, while Washington is minus-three. So, with these two teams scoring a near-identical amount of points, possessions are really going to count. If the Niners do not win the turnover ratio, they put themselves at more risk of losing.
- Limit Penalties: Delay of game and false start penalties have been a nuisance for San Francisco this year. They need to play a cleaner game, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. On defense, the secondary has been getting called for holding penalties way too much and need to be wary of those.
- Next Man Up: The 49ers may have to proceed without Mike Iupati and Tarell Brown this week, which means backup offensive lineman Adam Snyder and cornerbacks Eric Wright and Tramaine Brock will have to step up.
- Pressure RGIII: Let’s face it. Robert Griffin III isn’t have the best year, either. The Niners need to make an effort to get in his face, which means using Aldon Smith, Corey Lemonier and Ahmad Brooks more, especially on obvious passing downs. Even when they’re not sacking him, pressures and hits will be key.
- Target No. 85: 49ers tight end Vernon Davis has a chance to run roughshod on this Washington secondary on prime time. He is the team's single-most productive pass-catcher and Colin Kaepernick has his best days when they're clicking. This year, the 49ers QB has a 122.9 rating when targeting Davis.