With three games left in the regular season, Bill Williamson of ESPN confirms that the San Francisco 49ers are in fact tied for the third-easiest remaining schedule, set to face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-9) in Week 15.
While Tampa Bay is not a great team, it is a better team than what it was. If we were to grade the Buccaneers on just the past few weeks, it’d be a different story. After starting at a putrid 0-8, the Bucs have won four of the past five, losing only to the NFC juggernaut Carolina Panthers.
On the arm of new quarterback Mike Glennon, the upsurge of tailback Bobby Rainey and a defensive effort led by a few young NFL stars in the front seven, they’ve played team football, posting a plus-38 point differential in those contests.
They’re also averaging 28.5 points per game in those wins, so San Francisco might have to score some this weekend.
Since we know All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis and this 49ers defense can dismantle the most brutish run games and the higher-octane passing attacks around, we’re going to make this week’s column strictly an offensive edition.
How are the Niners going to find the end zone?
Bolstered at wide receiver, San Francisco now has a fairly promising matchup versus the questionable pass defense and also bear an effective wrinkle that could give the team some success on the ground against this kind of front. The 49ers certainly have the tools and match up well, so let's take a deeper look at how they can take advantage.
Target Anquan Boldin, Work the Slot
According to Pro Football Focus, Bucs shutdown corner Darrelle Revis has covered the No. 1 wide receiver on 56 percent of plays in 2013, which is the third most in the league at his position. It’s likely that he’ll be handcuffed to 49ers wideout Michael Crabtree for a good duration of the game.
Knowing that, the offense can plan accordingly. That’s the 49ers’ window and what they’ll look to exploit.
With Revis being an A+ in a secondary surrounded by Cs, there is a very clear way to attack this newly-improved-but-not-solid Bucs defense. Matching up Revis on Crabtree creates opportunities for players around No. 15 to touch the football, mostly because the drop-off from Tampa Bay’s first cornerback to its second is so substantial.
So this week’s game could become matchup heaven.
More often than not, Anquan Boldin, the team’s heavyweight rebounder, is going to have Banks in front of him. The 49ers’ vet is light years ahead of Banks in every conceivable way, so it could be a clinic for Boldin on Sunday. Even if Tampa adjusts and puts Revis on Boldin, then it’s Crabtree versus the rookie.
If the 49ers play it right, this looks like a no-win situation for the Bucs.
But two things need to happen: (1) Quarterback Colin Kaepernick must be cognizant of the matchups and give his receivers a chance to compete for the ball versus cornerbacks not named Revis. (2) Offensive coordinator Greg Roman can do his part by calling plays with route combos that favor the No. 2 wideout.
Furthermore, two- and three-WR sets with Crabtree outside and Boldin in the slot may be a way to go (obviously tight end Vernon Davis can line up all over, too).
It doubly ensures that Revis stays outside since he typically shadows the No. 1 receiver and rarely follows to the slot, via Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus. By doing this, the 49ers essentially play keep away, tire out Revis by making him run around the field and keep the sticks moving against lesser players.
Aside from Banks, this No. 17-ranked pass defense finds itself vulnerable with Leonard Johnson, who comes on when offenses go three-wide. Even better? Boldin is one of the NFL’s top weapons inside, ranked third in production from the slot. So this is not just a gimmick or some sort of charade—this is his hot zone.
The Niners should be able to ride this throughout the game.
By putting stress on the safeties and allowing Kaepernick to pick his matchups against these Bucs corners, the 49ers can get this passing game going:
Judging by the snap count, it also seems the 49ers have a good understanding of just how productive Boldin is in that role and have been particularly eager to utilize him there with Crabtree back hogging coverage:
Given the Bucs’ defensive weakness, Boldin has a great opportunity to shoulder the workload. But don’t rule out the team’s most prolific wideout, Crabtree, who is inching closer to his big game back.
Last season, Crab was the single-most productive player from the slot, but he has been coming back from an injury. So even if the Bucs surprise and tie Revis to Boldin—who’s been the hot-handed receiver closing in on 1,000 yards—they’re still in trouble because Crabtree can fire out of the slot just the same, if not better.
Then, when both players are on the boundary, the 49ers can do what they did versus Richard Sherman and the Seattle Seahawks in last week’s win, which was to simply avoid the top corner whenever possible. Having two skilled receivers increases the efficiency of the play designs and allows Kap to pick and choose his matchups now.
That’s what it should come down to.
And when Revis least expects it—once he thinks they're not throwing his way anymore—let one of these two aggressive starting receivers make a contested catch. A grab like this on a caliber-corner like Sherman or Revis not only moves the sticks, it captures the tempo.
Pound the Ball Inside
Stay away from Gerald McCoy? No, the 49ers are going run right at him. San Francisco has never shied away from the premier 4-3 defensive tackles.
In fact, it seems the 49ers often look to it at as an opportunity to target said player and clear out running lanes for their tailbacks. Versus the Bucs, they’ll want to play it the same way they have in past games against Detroit, Seattle, St. Louis and other teams with aggressive four-man fronts.
Draws and an assortment of wham plays will all be on the table. Let’s take a look at how the 49ers have used their precise angle blocking from the fullbacks and tight ends to run the ball down the throat of 4-3 defenses.
Personnel: "22" (1 WR-2 TE-2 RB)
This is in Week 4 versus the division rival St. Louis Rams.
The 49ers come out of their tank personnel with Boldin as the one wide receiver isolated outside. This look screams run, and the 49ers are not hiding from it. The key player here is No. 2 tight end Vance McDonald (yellow circle) who is offset Davis, attached to the closed side of the formation.
As the arrow indicates, McDonald is going to motion back inside on Kap’s signal prior to the snap.
A moment before the quarterback-center exchange, McDonald takes a hop step inside with his eyes down on Rams defensive tackle Michael Brockers. The idea here is for McDonald to pick up Brockers before he can get off the ball, knocking him clear out of his rush lane.
The head start on the hop step, coupled with the right angle, is what gives McDonald (6'4", 267 lbs.) a physical advantage against Brockers (6'5", 326 lbs).
McDonald is already shoulder down, ready to dislodge Brockers, who is still getting to his feet. This timing block not only picks up the defensive tackle, allowing the center and fullback to get to the second level, but it opens up a gaping hole in the middle of the line.
By play design and execution of this block, Frank Gore is able to squirt through and get behind the linebackers for a gain of 18.
They've done this versus Ndamukong Suh, Brandon Mebane and Vince Wilfork, even, so the 49ers will likely give McCoy the same respect. If McDonald is going to continue to be a non-presence in the passing game, they need to dedicate his services to isolating McCoy for the duration of the game. If the 49ers get Gore going, it's all over.
- Start Fast: According to Christian Gin of the Examiner, the 49ers have the NFL’s best first-half scoring differential at plus-88. They’ve outscored their opponents 181-93 in the first two quarters of play of games this year. In three of the four games they've lost, they only scored in the single digits, so most of those points are coming in wins, demonstrating that they either start hot or tend to lose.
- Stay Away from Lavonte David: Strong-side linebacker Lavonte David is fifth in the league in tackles (117), parked right behind NaVorro Bowman. Surprisingly, he is also second in the NFL in interceptions this season with five. They’ve got to get helmets on him in the running game, and Kaepernick needs to be cautious when throwing in his vicinity (or anywhere across the middle).
- Run, Colin, Run: This is an aggressive four-man front and a defense that’ll line up and play man with their corners. What the 49ers have to do is communicate to Kaepernick that today is one of those days where he can feel free to take off. If that rush overpursues and those corners are downfield with the receivers, Kap has to take what the defense is giving him.
- Whack Mike Glennon: While Glennon has positioned the Bucs to win games, he has been mistake-prone and will give the 49ers defense chances to make plays. For the San Francisco 49ers to ensure those opportunities are provided to them, they have to generate pressure on the quarterback. Hurries and hits will get the rookie passer rattled.