Wide receiver Michael Crabtree sliding back into the lineup for the San Francisco 49ers projects to be a real shot in the arm for this offense, not only because he is a prolific player in his own right but more so due to the outward ripple effect it will have on the team overall.
By having him back in a featured role, the unit suddenly becomes whole again, and the coaches now have a truckload of options in regard to what they can do offensively.
A player of Crabtree’s caliber alleviates pressure from a lot of other areas and provides that kind of systematic flexibility. That's what he does as a true No. 1 wide receiver. Most notably, a team’s vertical prowess tends to open up options underneath, whether it is for the running game or short-to-intermediate throws with potential for yards after the catch.
In the sport of football, everything is interconnected that way.
So, at long last, the 49ers have what could be the final tumbler that unlocks the full gamut of this team's three-headed backfield—particularly how they use two of their recent investments in speed-star running backs Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James.
With a full corps of flankers now on standby, these complementary scat backs suddenly become very, very dangerous underneath weapons. The Niners have not yet attempted to use the tailbacks to aid the passing game, but as they get healthier at wide receiver, they may find that there are a lot more opportunities to.
At the post-game presser in Week 12 where the 49ers had their best passing day of the 2013-14 season over Washington, coach Jim Harbaugh was able to talk about a recent philosophical expansion of the offense, which included throwing to the backs:
We had some shots called. [Colin Kaepernick] got to some check downs a few times. Didn’t hit any big ones checking the ball down to the backs, but we’re trying to get the ball to backs a little more in the passing game.
Throwing to the running backs seemed like San Francisco’s ticket to getting Hunter and James involved, not only because of their high-powered skill sets but also because it’s hard to justify taking carries away from Frank Gore.
This was rumored to happen in the beginning of the season, and after the offense was drowning, but it had not materialized until last week. In a dozen games this season, Hunter and James have combined for just three catches for 17 yards (Hunter had 16 grabs for 195 yards in his rookie year alone).
So, if anything, Harbaugh's Niners had regressed in that regard.
Fortunately, it is now a wing of the offense that is getting some long overdue attention from the coaching staff, and it is an unheralded wrinkle that could make this a far more dangerous offense come playoff time. Let's take a look at how Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman can utilize two of their untapped role players and what could potentially be in the works.
Develop a Functional Screen Game
Understandably, the 49ers are a power offense, whereas screens tend to be deployed by more finesse-style teams like the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots, for instance. Philosophical walls averted any efforts by the staff until now, even though their personnel had been screaming for them to try it, ever since drafting Hunter in 2011 and James in 2012.
These two were lauded space runners, so it seemed the system would evolve around them, but crickets were heard for about two years.
Though it went fairly under the radar, one of the recent breaking developments happened when the offense threw a few screens in Week 12. With Greg Roman feeling heat after back-to-back losses, he made it a point to finally tweak the approach, trying new tactics to see what pops.
It’s a totally new concept, so they shouldn’t beat themselves up for a lack of success early on, or feel a need to abandon it after only three play calls. And as 49ers Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley notes, there is a lot of upside to doing this, like going half the length of the football field at a time.
Besides, coach Harbaugh’s post-game comments seemed to imply the Niners are working to forge this wrinkle into their offense, and it would be an experiment that would extend beyond just one week. Teams that are productive throwing to the backs, namely the Saints, practice it and practice it, until it becomes second nature.
For them, it is designed to be a home run play.
So, they need to continue to chip away just the same, taking the good with the bad. The good news is, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. They do have the personnel to make this a part of the offense for years to come. And for one of the league's more spectacularly high-volume offenses, there is still quite a bit they can add.
Taking a look at the 49ers options, it seems endless.
Outside your rudimentary dump-off screen to the halfback, the 49ers can infuse double screens that provide quarterback Colin Kaepernick with not one but two options. San Francisco is also strong on both sides of its offensive line where it can run it either way, and this type of play lets the QB pick and choose which alley he feels better about on a given play.
Options for an offense always make it harder for a defense, too.
It places strain on opposing linebackers and safeties because not only do they have to diagnose which side of the field the ball is going—and get there through quite a bit of congestion—but they also have to make an open-field tackle on an elusive runner with a low center of gravity.
That’s tough sledding if you’ve got to do that periodically for four quarters. At some point, somebody is going to miss.
Middle screens and shovel passes are two more ways to take advantage of a stocked aerial unit and swift runners that are low to the ground. With teams having to respect the drop-back by Kaepernick, that delay is enough to get the defense back on its heels, right before pitching it to one of the backs underneath.
Getting low between Mike Iupati and Alex Boone, a 5’7” Hunter and a 5’9” James can flat-out disappear, and good luck penetrating that wedge of blockers if you can't even locate the back in the first place. This is a new tactic the 49ers can use to chew up field between the hashes. It would be a great complement to their dive, off-tackle and lead plays.
The Niners can also get the backs outside on the perimeter or in the slot, running bubble and tunnel screens.
Above is an example of a double screen that features an option to dump it off to the tailback on the weak side and or hit the tunnel to the strong side.
This is a classic shotgun look by the 49ers on a third-and-long, which the 49ers could easily run this out of. You'll see this multiple times per game. It features two wide receivers and Vernon Davis all spread out, as well as Vance McDonald as the in-line tight end.
Theoretically, the 49ers could post James out wide at the Z position and Hunter in the backfield, or vice versa (blue arrows).
Clearly, what the 49ers would be trying to do here is create alleys with their athletic offensive line, as well as with their physical receivers and tight ends. What this play does is provide a simplified read for the quarterback, while allowing these runners to secure a quick pass and get behind a titanic convoy.
These lanes essentially funnel the runners downfield, where cornerbacks and safeties have a lower rate of success making tackles.
Embrace the Check Down
The 49ers have the option of doing this without retooling their scheme or trying new plays that have a low efficiency rate. It is a matter of the quarterback being able to scan the entire field and have the confidence in his running backs to make the catch and turn up field.
He has to be aware that there are guys sitting nearby that are that wide open.
Every critic and fan knows Kaepernick is a bit partial to keeping his eyes downfield, and rarely will you see him check it down willingly. That being said, the onus is on the coaches to communicate to him what they are trying to do with the backs. And on game day, they can emphasize that message on certain downs, so Kap remembers they're there.
Ignoring the check down has gotten them into trouble, as they’ve had to face a lot of third-and-long situations.
The 49ers have to take what the defense gives them, even if they are looking deep on first and second down. Not to mention, with this revamped receiving corps, you have to anticipate that they’ll be doing that even more, and as a result, Hunter, James and even Frank Gore are going to be all alone at times.
In all likelihood, the 49ers are going to continue to spread it out, but they’re still poised to utilize a lot of their “22” personnel, which they have put to use as much, if not more than, any team in the league this season.
The relevance here is that personnel grouping stipulates two running backs at a time.
Most commonly, the 49ers use the Power I and the new regime has also proven to be quite fond of the diamond formation, which includes up to three backs. Along with the split-back and T-formations, there are a litany of multi-back looks that the Niners could design outlets for.
This presents openings to dial up different combinations of Gore, Hunter and James, while providing them with all different assignments, some of which may be used to confuse the defense. And if they’re using the No. 2 and No. 3 backs, San Francisco has two chances to make a linebacker miss on any given play.
For the most part, it is about mismatches and creating space.
Like we mentioned, now that the 49ers have the receivers to challenge secondary units down the field, it opens a whole world of opportunities underneath. Safeties will be less focused on their backfield now, and it’ll be on opposing linebackers to win one-on-ones with abnormally quick runners. These aren't your normal feature backs.
It would show a lot of moxie and veteran savvy if Kaepernick began picking on stockier defensive players with Hunter and James, knowing he doesn’t have to put it all on his arm to win games.
Challenging teams vertically is great, but what’s even better is if the defense has taken that away, the 49ers offense can still dunk it down to the back for 3-7 yards at a time with the possibility of ripping big gainers since their tailbacks have upside after the catch.
That helps Kaepernick look like the total package at quarterback and makes the offense more complete. It places strain on a defense because they have to protect the entire gridiron and can’t over-commit to the deep or shallow parts of the field.
Check downs have all kinds of potential, especially for teams that have the receiving corps to sweep up all the traffic between the first five to 10 yards and bring it downfield with them. Once Crabtree and Co. clear that area out, it’s on James and Hunter to get free with delayed routes, arrows routes, digs to the sideline and even the famed Texas and wheel routes, which are a West Coast staple.
Quick hitters and yards after the catch are the name of the game.
At the end of the day, this is West Coast football, where high-percentage passes to the backs are key to engineering drives and opening things up on the deep part of the field. Outlet receivers are just as important to look at as any. If the 49ers really wish to unchain their offense where it's operating at 100 percent efficiency, this is the way to do it.
Originally, the argument opposing this theory was that the New Orleans Saints get so much pass production out of Darren Sproles because they have the dynamic threat of Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston down the field, and that’s why the 49ers could not expect to run it with the same type of success.
That, and the fact that they’re inherently a power offense.
That was a valid argument.
But now, with a receiving unit built of Mario Manningham, Vernon Davis, Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree, the 49ers have plenty to run clear-outs and work the ball to the backs in space. And with Harbaugh’s comments, we now have confirmation that the coaches are willing to adjust their scheme to suit the players and the evolving state of the offense.
All in all, roles for Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James should begin to develop, and if they do with some success, it could be a very dangerous part of how the 49ers offense operates for the next half-decade.