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Falcons vs. 49ers: Breaking Down San Francisco's Game Plan

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Falcons vs. 49ers: Breaking Down San Francisco's Game Plan
Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said it himself—he’d love to give the “iconic” Candlestick Park a spectacular sendoff.

As it were, Monday night’s matchup versus the visiting Atlanta Falcons marks the very last game in the park’s history, barring a stunning end to the season of course.

Odds are this illustrious venue, which was home to one of the greatest dynasties in sports, will close its doors after this game and be demolished shortly after the season.

So no doubt Harbaugh not only wants to get a win over the 4-10 Falcons, but would also like to put on a fireworks show for the faithful and build this team’s confidence heading toward the postseason. But it can’t be a display of overconfidence, and it has to make sense with game plan.

Taking a look at where this team is now, it’s tough to say the 49ers defense needs to do anything different than what it has been doing.

And it’s not complicated.

They come downhill, rarely blitz and do a good job of winning their one-on-ones across the board. Playing outstanding football at every level of its infrastructure, this unit seems like a lock to put the hammer down on Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and a weapon-deprived offense.

That being said, the most notable thing the 49ers have been doing is growing the offense to catch up to the defense. 

With an influx of talent and new players finding a rhythm with each other in an evolving scheme, it's hard to argue that San Francisco doesn't need all the passing reps it can get in these final two games before a potential playoff contest. It’s the one aspect of their team that needs to improve.

So for this week's game plan, we’ll unveil a special edition for the final showdown at Candlestick Park, looking at three nostalgic offensive plays the 49ers should look to run versus this Falcons defense.

 

Sprint Right Option

Easily the most famous play in Candlestick’s history—and one that ignited a dynasty—was the enchanted throw and catch from Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana to his top receiver, Dwight Clark, in the NFC Championship over 30 years ago.

On this play, the quarterback takes the snap, immediately sprints outside the pocket (to the side of his throwing arm), looking for the tight end who is the option dragging across the back of the end zone. It’s a great red-zone play:

  • There’s an intended target, simplifying things for the passer.
  • With the quarterback charging outside the pocket of his own free will, the play is intimidating, making the offense look like the attacker and putting the defense back on its heels.
  • And there’s an exit strategy: the read is either there or the ball is to be thrown out of the back of the end zone.

By design, the quarterback and tight end want to get parallel and locate a throwing window before both run out of bounds.

That’s how Montana and Clark ran it under the direction of coach Bill Walsh. Of course, there are modifications that have since been made to this play. 

But that’s the basic concept.

Truth be told, there are no limits as to the routes one can diagram to free up the primary receiver and align him with the passer.

In the 2011 season, offensive coordinator Greg Roman and the new-look Niners formulated their own version, which was perfectly executed on a two-point attempt versus another NFC East foe in the New York Giants.

Here is a variation of the sprint right option:

Game Rewind

Personnel: “11” Posse (1 TE, 1 RB, 3 WR)

Formation: Split Backs, Twins Right

Quarter: 2nd

Down and Distance: 1st-and-10

Here, with the tight being the star on offense, Davis is actually used as a decoy to hold the safety on the opposite side of where the ball is actually going.

Instead of using him as a receiving option, he limits traffic and increases the probability of an available throwing window on that side.

This is how it differs from the original, but it's still a sprint right option with a hi-lo read on the strong side of the field.

The 49ers get creative here and actually design it so wide receiver Michael Crabtree starts off in the backfield on the quarterback's left hip. He's the option. The idea is for him to motion out prior to the snap and get a head start on his route while dragging Giants cornerback Corey Webster through a congested front seven.

That, in addition to the pick on the right side, creates a throwing lane from QB to WR.

Game Rewind

Crabtree is en route.

Game Rewind

The two flankers are going to clear out of there in a hi-lo combo, creating room for Crabtree, who intends to run an arrow route to the pylon.

Game Rewind

The snap is off and the quarterback immediately darts out of the pocket, getting his shoulders square with the primary receiver here. As you can see in the frame, the two wideouts that were originally slotted outside are acting as a barrier, impeding the defense's path to Crabtree.

Game Rewind

Everyone is isolated and Crabtree turns to the pylon, flipping his head around to see the ball is already in flight. Bang, bang. Touchdown. 

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The 49ers need to get better passing in the red zone? Well, here's their chance.

And if they want to more closely resemble the 1982 NFC Championship catch, then they can seamlessly have Vernon Davis leak out to the back of the end zone, line up with Colin Kaepernick and connect on a strike near the back right pylon.

This is a key goal-line route they’ve used with No. 85 during his tenure.

When there’s less field to work with, that delayed pattern to Davis might be one of their higher-percentage scoring plays.

 

Three Jets All-Go

Over these last two regular season games, the 49ers offense must stress the development of their vertical passing attack now that they have all of their receivers, particularly when it comes to deploying wide receiver Mario Manningham on the field at the same time as Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin.

One of the legendary plays the 49ers executed to a T was the “Three Jets All-Go,” which was made famous in the 1998 NFC Wild Card game.

This is a play that sort of disappeared from 2003-2011 as San Francisco experienced a drought at wide receiver after having two of the best to ever play the game. Restocked at the position, this type of downfield attack is fitting to the personnel they have now, where they can execute it with some success.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport
Can the 49ers get all three wide receivers rolling at the same time?

It’s about matchups, baiting the defense and taking advantage of the part of the field that’s left exposed.

It seems all the pundits have been waiting for this team to finally let it rip with this arsenal on standby.

If the 49ers were to run this particular “all-go,” they could spread it out with Michael Crabtree and a tight end/running back in the left slot with Anquan Boldin split out at the Z position, and the money man, Mario Manningham, in the right slot.

This is a great way to pick on the safety by making him choose and hit the open man (the 49ers have plenty of sure-handed options now).

And it comes down to arithmetic: one guy cannot guard two guys. When the 49ers stack one side, cut the read in half for the quarterback and let him play keep away from the safety, there’s big yardage to be gained. These fly patterns are dangerous, especially with Kap’s deep ball.

Last year on the road at Gillette Stadium, the 49ers ran a similar play versus the New England Patriots, using their personnel to dictate the matchups.

Game Rewind

Personnel: “22” Regular (2 TE, 2 RB, 1 WR)

Formation: Singleback

Quarter: 2nd

Down-and-Distance: 1st-and-10

On this play, the 49ers had three go routes.

But the difference between this play and the one in January 1999 is that San Francisco put two tight ends on the field, drawing Cover 1 (single high safety) and a loaded box. Since the offense only had one wideout, the Pats were ready to stop the run or short pass.

Right off the bat, the matchup was focused on the right side of the field, where Kap was able to choose to target the deep middle or throw outside.

Kaepernick is going to do one better by starting the play with his eyes on the left side of the field, holding coverage and buying time before looking right and making the quick decision.

Game Rewind

49ers tight end Delanie Walker wheels up the boundary while Vernon Davis takes the seam inside, running right through the zone. By now, the linebackers and deep safety are all frozen, burnt or out of position, leaving one player, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who gets caught in the middle of a no-win situation for the defense.

It’s a busted coverage. 

By now, if not before the play, Kaepernick sees it, as well as all the unguarded green grass 30 yards down the field. At this point, Davis is behind the linebacker, Walker is behind the corner and Dennard (yellow ) has to choose one knowing he has no help behind him.

Game Rewind

This is a piece of cake for Kap, who with his mighty arm strength, powers the ball to the outside shoulder of Walker, giving nobody else but his receiver a chance to make the catch. Alfonzo Dennard is dead to rights as Walker reels it in for a 34-yard touchdown. 

 

Vernon Post

Well, we know this one is already in their playbook.

It’s the single most famous play of the new-era team and top five in the franchise’s history—arguably top three. It becomes relevant again on Monday night against another NFC South defense that is soft in the middle.

Against the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC title, Vernon Davis had five catches for 106 yards and a touchdown (21.0 YPC).

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

With the same back end made of safeties William Moore and Thomas Decoud, this is Davis’ kind of matchup.

These linebackers are simply not equipped to track him down and he is far too fast and physical for these safeties. This is a total mismatch and the Falcons know it.

While he’s been having luck on the boundary this season, Vernon Davis may be able to grind it out between the hashes.

Moreover, the “Vernon Post” is another play that’s a Cover 2 beater, which is a coverage the Falcons run a lot.

Rather than challenge the deep safety to make a decision by running two guys at him, they send the tight end to the hot zone versus that defense, which is in the middle of the field, behind those linebackers and right in front of the safeties.

It’s a tight throw, but one that Alex Smith made and one that Colin Kaepernick can make.

This past week, leading up to the last game at the ‘Stick, coach Jim Harbaugh was able to diagram the “Vernon Post” for the local Bay Area media (via Cam Inman's Instagram of the San Jose Mercury News):

h/t Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News

Might the San Francisco 49ers run plays for the Catch I, II and III at the final game at Candlestick Park? We’ll see.

 

Miscellaneous 

  • Blanket Coverage: The Falcons have one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL this season, as several of their starters have earned among the lowest grades there are from Pro Football Focus. The Niners can make quarterback Matt Ryan hold onto the ball with high-density coverage looks and trust that their base personnel gets home without heavy blitzes.
  • Stop the Run: Falcons running back Steven Jackson has been having an absolutely lousy season, but he is still a big dense runner with a physical prowess. Not only is he familiar with the 49ers, but this is the type of runner that breaks the will of this defense. San Francisco will need to focus on containing Jackson this week. 
  • Use Backup Tailbacks: Versus a 4-10 Falcons team with a porous defense, the 49ers should not have to run Frank Gore into the ground. Looking at this game, he shouldn't need more than 15 touches to be an effective piece of the puzzle. The Niners should look to rest Gore if they can while getting Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James some much-needed reps. 

 

Statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference, unless specified otherwise. Special thanks to Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus for advanced statistics. Screen Grabs are provided by NFL.com Game Rewind (subscription required).  

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