Mike Johnson: the new face of 49ers offensive game planning
Mike Johnson, Alex Smith, and the rest of the San Francisco 49ers offense will again try to find themselves once again Sunday, this time against a pretty good Falcons team at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
Will they do it? If so, how?
With the Jimmy Raye era officially ended, the monotonous play calling will hopefully be buried. The predictability and flatness of their offensive game planning needs an upgrade for the next 13 games.
If you want to beat the 49ers offense that showed up for the first three games, it's really quite simple: crowd the line for a couple quarters to take Gore out of the equation until they put themselves in an obvious passing situation, then guard against the pass.
Eventually the 49er's offense will make a mistake and give you the ball with good field position.
By the second half, you'll probably have a big enough lead that Frank Gore and the running game are no longer threats. Using a ground attack at this point would chew up more time than it would score points, so defend the air and keep pressure on Smith.
Throw in a dink-and-dunk passing game with plenty swings and screens against their over-aggressive defense, and you've got a win coming your way, baby.
Yes, it has been that predictable.
Now lets step into a time machine that takes us back to a simpler — no, more complex time in 49ers history: the Bill Walsh 80's. What I'm getting at here specifically, is what do the Mike Singletary 49ers of 2010 need to do to start resembling Walsh's champions of old?
Pass To Set Up The Run
Running to set up the pass works in theory, but ask any 49er fan how it's worked out for them so far this year. Exactly. This needs to be a two way street. Punching an opponent in the mouth doesn't work if the opponent knows what's coming and puts his guard up to parry you. Next thing you know you're getting hit with a combination of counter punches.
There is no running without passing.
Bill Walsh would prepare his teams for tough fights. They would be able to posses, and move the ball with both a high-percentage passing game, and a reasonably strong run attack.
The balance didn't allow defenses to focus on one aspect alone.
Oh yes, there was a gritty running attack to fall back on should teams get aggressive against the pass. Once a lead had been established, the ground would be tested especially hard to grind out the clock.
If a defense came out in the second half and stacked the box to stop the run, the air strikes would continue. If the game ended up being a 42-10 49ers blowout victory because the other team wouldn't let Walsh erode the remaining minutes, so be it.
Passing to set up a run has become fundamental. Sure, running the ball is very important, but the ability to do both on any down, in any quarter, is indispensable in modern football.
Pass To Set Up The Pass
Alex Smith has a decent arm, and good mobility. We've seen his talent in streaks, but he has been as consistent as the offensive coordinator situation that has surrounded him through his career.
Short passes give receivers a chance to make somebody miss and break a big play, but they also set up longer completions. Conversely, those long completions back up corners and safeties, which gives space to skill players underneath.
The 49ers need rhythm. Good passing teams can fire off not only one big pass, but several in succession to keep a defense moving backwards. This is good momentum for the offense.
Keeping the passes firing also breeds passer-receiver chemistry. This is the chemistry fans keep saying is missing from the Smith-to-Crabtree connection. Doing it to the point of second nature is how this chemistry is cultivated.
Can more attempts also translate into fewer interceptions? If it means quarterback and pass catchers are on the same page, then yes.
Run To Set Up The Run
The 49ers have three fairly talented running backs, but only Frank Gore has gotten more than one carry so far this year.
Brian Westbrook has one attempt for no gain. Is that what the 49ers are paying him for? It seems absurd when you consider how good he has been in the past.
Anthony Dixon has one rush as well — for a two-yard touchdown.
Gore is a stud, and should a miracle take place that gets the 49ers back in playoff contention, they'll want a healthy Gore in December, and hopefully January.
All three of these guys could be capable of moving the ball inside and out. Gore has been used almost exclusively, however, and mostly between the tackles.
They need to run, but they must be creative in doing so. Sweeps, draws, dives, guts and slashes need to be used unpredictably.
Run To Set Up The pass, To Set Up The Pass, To Set Up The Run, To Set Up The Run
There's a lot of space on a football field, and only 22 players. Eleven of those players are trying to move a ball one way. This leaves eleven men in their way, and a lot of space around each of them.
Lining those men together in a jagged wall and not letting anybody through is extremely effective, until the wall is flanked by outside runs and deep passes.
Brian O'Flaherty spells out the success the 49ers had opening up their offense late last season in his article San Francisco 49ers: Giant Myths, and Forgotten Gold. The article does well summing up how the team fell behind early and often in 2009, but then typically rallied in the second half — too little, too late.
When they came out firing and grabbed a lead, they could then use elements of the power run game to put it away. This was very much congruent with the Bill Walsh philosophy of beating teams to the punch.
There is a great conundrum with one-dimensional teams. Would you rather be a passing team trying to run out the clock, or a running team trying to come from behind? Hint: do you really need a hint?
It's always preferable to be in the lead, and there are other ways to maintain possession beyond running an off-tackle over, and over. They all start with picking up first downs though.
Spreading the field and maintaining control are by no means mutually exclusive.
Another area where the offense has lacked creativity has been in their fakes. Run fakes only take you so far, until you make them more complex. Think of Peyton Manning, who often takes the snap, pump-fakes a short pass, fakes a draw, then fires a shot down field. Or, think of Brett Favre, who takes a snap, gives to a back, then runs a bootleg and still fakes a jump pass.
All these things distract a defense, and can give skill players like Gore and Vernon Davis the micro-second advantage they need to make a play. These are things elite quarterbacks can do that make their offenses better.
Stubbornly, I'm still waiting to see these things from Smith.
Walsh's genius lives on, and although the game never stops changing, the fundamentals of his West Coast ideologies manifests themselves in even the most smash-mouth of today's NFL offenses. Coaches need players to execute, execute, execute; players need coaches to provide a game plan that gives them an edge, no matter how slight.
Jimmy Raye's departure opens up the offense to the creative energy of Mike Johnson. There are many unused skill players that need more repetition. The proper arena for these reps will be in the passing game — to set up the running game.
It took quite a few games for the coach-player communication lines to go to a spread offense last season. How long will Johnson wait to get creative with the dirty canvas he just inherited? We'll have an idea — by halftime on Sunday.