Disproving That a Screen Game Doesn't Fit the San Francisco 49ers
Mothballing options doesn’t seem like the M.O. of a team vying for a Super Bowl, but the San Francisco 49ers have done just that, going against the grain by depriving their offense of a screen game. It’s not killing their chances, but with what they have, why neglect it?
Variables like the personnel and their way that opponents have decided to attack them have made it seem like a no-brainer.
Moreover, the reason why fans and analysts alike are still harping on the topic is because this offensive line is one of the best in football. Also, the Niners have untapped resources at running back that won’t see the field otherwise—namely since they don’t fit the power ideology of this offense.
Whether or not popular belief was that running backs Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James would expand San Francisco’s passing game has been irrelevant. Two years into their tenure and the 49ers have had zero urgency to get them involved or develop the offense around their unique skill sets.
It just hasn’t happened.
According to the stat keepers at Pro Football Focus, the 49ers have only run five screen plays to halfbacks the entire season, which is the second fewest in the NFL. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman says the few that they’ve run “have been snuffed out,” per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
While four of five have been completed, they’ve only gone for 22 yards (5.5 YPA).
Maiocco says, “What’s clear is that the 49ers’ offensive line—one of the best offensive lines in the game—is a power offensive line. They are not setup for the finesse plays that screen plays have to have their offensive lineman perform.”
That seems to be the core argument as to why this team is not capable. But it’s not everything.
This ongoing perplexity is one that needs salvation once and for all. The following piece will ask some questions and progressively myth-bust the notion that the 49ers offense cannot effectively run screens.
Myth No. 1: They Can’t Execute Finesse Plays
Adding onto the main point in our intro, Niners beat reporter Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News relayed a similar message, using the same verbiage even. His reasoning was that “the 49ers are a power offense, [while] screens tend to be finesse-style.”
Fair enough. It's nothing we haven’t heard.
The swift, out-in-space plays—particularly on the perimeter—are the “finesse” plays that this team allegedly struggles with. If that’s true, it’s a setback because that is what the NFL is about nowadays. Often, that’s how points are scored, and with acuity, this front office drafted multiple players to help that in that regard.
But is it true? Do they really struggle with finesse?
LMJ is a screen, mis-direction, open-space running back... & 49ers are a power run/play-action team. Also, their RBs need to pass-protect.— Tim Kawakami (@timkawakami) October 27, 2013
The 49ers being incapable of moving the football that way is an interesting theory and one that carries some weight. However, they’ve flashed the ability. Those spurts on the boundary—whether it was a 15-plus yarder from LaMichael James or Kendall Hunter, or a designed QB run—prove that they’re capable.
It’s just not something they do a lot.
When they’ve used their speed and creativity (finesse), this unit has been able to get its offensive linemen outside the hash marks, charging with a full head of steam down the field. And San Francisco has been able to get its quarterbacks and running backs behind them.
So, let’s talk finesse runs outside: Running back LaMichael James, for instance, has had runs of 11, 13, 14, 15, 17, 21 and 26 yards in just 15 career games where he has played very sparingly.
Alex Smith’s big TD dash versus the New Orleans Saints in the 2011 Divisional Round was the most prominent finesse run, but earlier that year, the 49ers ran the exact same play versus the Cleveland Browns. In the red zone, Smith took it behind tackle Joe Staley for a seamless nine-yard pickup to set up a touchdown.
This year, Colin Kaepernick ran an identical sweep, also taking it around the left end behind Staley for a 12-yard touchdown.
The three times that they’ve run that weak-side QB sweep, there’s only been a total of two yards left between them and the end zone (averaging 16.3 YPC). All drives resulted in touchdowns. So, we’re seeing success when San Francisco demands its offensive line to mobilize, get outside and block down the field.
The misconception comes in because the 49ers are better at shoe-to-shoe football and reps outside are few and far between.
You can’t exactly say the read-option is a powering type of play either—that’s more about finesse and execution than anything. Here, the offensive linemen have to keep their heads on a swivel and hustle to where the ball is going, which is a decision that comes on the fly.
So don’t be fooled: The 49ers can finesse their way into the end zone.
Myth No. 2: They Aren't Good at Screens
After pointing out the schematic incongruities, Kawakami still believes the 49ers would like to run more screens, but he isn’t sure how good they are at them.
In fact, many experts have been quick to say that the team just isn’t good at screens, which is intertwined with the type of talent the O-line has been founded on.
But on the other hand, the 49ers have hardly tried it. They have just five screen attempts in 848 offensive snaps from scrimmage this season (in 14 games). How do we know that they can't do it? It seems a bit dismissive to say a team cannot do something when there is no proof one way or the other.
And as we’ve said before, this is built to be a home-run play.
NFL teams that are really good at it work on it and make it part of their offense. Take the New Orleans Saints, for instance. They practice it repeatedly, and when it’s blown up on game day, they don’t bail on it. The offense sticks to it, knowing something will shake loose.
But when it comes to San Francisco, it seems there is a disinclination or even a childlike temperament: “I don’t want to play this game anymore because I’m not good at it.”
The 49ers may be working on it in practice still, keeping it under wraps, but on game day, they’ve completely tabled the idea. And sadly for the offense, it seems coordinator Greg Roman only gave it one good shot. Nearly all of their attempts were isolated to one week versus Washington.
After the game where the offense tried three of its five attempts on the season, Joe Staley said he believed they’re boom or bust, via Kyle McLorg of Bay Area Sports Guy: “There’s either good screens or bad screens. No five-yard screens. They either go for 40 yards or negative five."
But Staley is a realist and an optimist.
He did acknowledge that there is chunk yardage to be picked up. But inherently, there’s a risk/reward factor. Nevertheless, the way to increase one's odds of winning is to roll the dice more often.
The takeaway here is the 49ers aren’t bad at screens—they just need to try them.
Myth No. 3: The Offensive Line Is Not Built for It
Three first-round picks and they can’t run screens? Please.
These guys have been running screens going back to peewee football. They're just out of practice.
One of the reasons why the 49ers get so much productivity out of the running backs on the ground is because of this offensive line’s ability to get to the second level and finish blocks downfield. Sounds an awful lot like what one needs to run a successful screen game, no?
So, the next lesson is: Don’t mistake their overbearing power for a lack of agility.
Looking back at where these guys came from, Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley was once a tight end at Central Michigan before being molded into a first-round prospect on the offensive line. At 6’6”, 306 pounds, he ran a 4.78 prior to being drafted in 2007.
At the OT position, that’s the fourth fastest in the history of the combine, dating back to 1999, via NFL Combine Results.
The three other tackles ahead of him were part of the new wave of freaky bodies from 2010-2013—none of which are on Staley’s current playing level. He’s really a skinny guy in a big man’s body, and over the years, he’s gotten leaner.
And remember, we’re talking about Staley, the tackle with a career receiving average of 17.0 YPC.
Right now, Pro Bowl guard Mike Iupati is one of the better interior linemen in the league. At the level that he plays, he’s as nimble as it gets.
Given what he is, you can’t have that much torque and expect him to be any sprier. While pulls and G-leads have him operating in tighter quadrants, it’s silly to presume he can’t take three extra steps to get outside the tackle box and proceed to block as he normally does.
Moving on down the line, where does center Jonathan Goodwin come from? Oh, right, the New Orleans Saints. Well, what do they do well offensively? Goodwin made a living in a finesse offense, was recognized as a Pro Bowler and came away with the hardware.
He has the physical attributes, experience and intel to help San Francisco here.
On the right side of the line, tackle Anthony Davis and guard Alex Boone both have an outstanding combination of size and athleticism. While they're both mountainous specimens, their natural grit and willingness to put a beat on someone give them value as downfield blockers.
Again, these are two guys who hammer defenders at the next level, which is fundamental in a screen package.
Myth No. 4: The 49ers Don't Need to Run Them
The 49ers offensive line has allowed 34 sacks and 50 quarterback hits this year, which isn't the worst in the league, but that's in large part due to Colin Kaepernick's escape ability.
According to Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus, the unit has been hemorrhaging in the middle, as left guard Mike Iupati, center Jonathan Goodwin and right guard Alex Boone are on par to allow the most sacks and QB pressures during their tenure in San Francisco.
With the way that defenses are dead set on attacking Kaepernick, it's puzzling that the 49ers haven't employed screens to neutralize the blitz.
49ers guards getting killed. Time for a screen package.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 20, 2013
Myth No. 5: Colin Kaepernick Isn’t Suited for It
From Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area:
Two former NFL quarterbacks recently suggested – neither wanted to be quoted –Kaepernick might spend too much time in the weight room bulking up his upper body. Being too muscular could make a quarterback tight and mechanical, which would have a negative impact on touch passes.
If any of these theories hold any water, it might be this one.
There’s no refuting that Colin Kaepernick rarely looks underneath, appears more comfortable with the deep shot and lacks the ideal touch to float the ball to backs on screens. This is a signal-caller known for his fastball.
But it doesn’t mean he can’t do it—its just part of his game that he needs to build up.
Maiocco reported that Kaepernick had vastly improved his short-to-intermediate range throws in the offseason, demonstrating a “feathery touch.” It was a point of emphasis, and Maiocco believes it was an improved facet of Kap's game that made him look like a complete passer.
This year, it shined through to a degree, as Kap also became comfortable with fullback Bruce Miller, who emerged as the team's third leading receiver in catches and yards.
Frankly, if the 49ers were able to successfully develop a screen game around the quarterback, not only would it give Kaepernick more options and help him develop as an overall quarterback, but it would also alleviate a lot of the pressure he faces as this boom-or-bust passer with a low completion rate.
Good job by Roman/Harbaugh here to give Kaepernick some short, quick throws to get in a rhythm and build confidence— Sigmund Bloom (@SigmundBloom) January 20, 2013
The reason for refocusing on this idea is because of the recent loss of fullback Bruce Miller, who not only was a top receiver underneath but a snap hog in "22" personnel.
Seeing as how it is a mainstay in the offense, San Francisco isn't going to veer from that grouping and will continue to put the best two backs on the field, which will presumably start to include Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James.
While the 49ers will want Anthony Dixon in on Power I formations and such to run block, sets like the T formation, inverted wishbone, pistol and split backs will allow for Hunter and James to get on the field more as checkdown options.
And again, with this type of talent on the field more often, the coaches would love to get them out in open space. It all comes back to screens.
Of course, for the conspiracy theorists, another way to look at this is that the 49ers have been practicing screens all season and haven't used any during games in order to spring it on opponents in the postseason. Coach Jim Harbaugh is known to play the entire season like a hand of poker that way.
And while they may have improved at it, they obviously can't re-release the zone read on teams and expect it to have the same impact.
By deploying a full-fledged screen game to complement this evolving spread attack in the playoffs, San Francisco poses the threat of becoming the most balanced and dangerous offense left standing. And from what we can tell, they have all the pieces to do it.
I had no idea someone would think the 49ers are incapable of screens.— Ryan Riddle (@Ryan_Riddle) December 20, 2013