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Washington Redskins vs. San Francisco 49ers: Creating Washington's Game Plan

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistNovember 20, 2014

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 25:  Running back Frank Gore #21 of the San Francisco 49ers runs the ball against inside linebacker London Fletcher #59 of the Washington Redskins in the first quarter at FedExField on November 25, 2013 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

For a 3-7 team crippled by uncertainty at its most important position, a trip to San Francisco to battle a suddenly resurgent 49ers team couldn't come at a worse time.

But that's the reality facing the Washington Redskins with their disgruntled head coach Jay Gruden and lame-duck quarterback Robert Griffin III, or perhaps that should be the other way around.

To produce what would be a quite staggering upset, the Redskins must do two vital things. Fortunately, only one of them relies on Griffin.

Attack the 49ers' Power Sweeps

The power sweep is the signature play of the San Francisco offense. When it works, the vaunted Frank Gore-led ground game is clicking and San Fran just looks like a better team.

Stopping Gore remains the key to beating the 49ers.
Stopping Gore remains the key to beating the 49ers.Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Unfortunately, the sweep has been working very well during the last two weeks. The 49ers have adopted a back-to-basics approach to beat the New Orleans Saints and New York Giants. Their signature play has been central to the team's revival.

The San Fran sweep usually involves a convoy of three blockers leading the way for Gore to either run off tackle or exploit a crease inside. The beauty of the play is how the 49ers disguise it from various personnel groups and mix up their lead blockers.

Take a look at this example from the first quarter of their 27-24 win over the New Orleans Saints in Week 10. The 49ers aligned in a standard I-formation look with pro personnel (two wide receivers, two running backs and one tight end).

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Prior to the snap, wideout Anquan Boldin came across the formation in motion:

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Boldin, a 6'1", 220-pound flanker who's a terrific blocker, was now positioned to be one of the three-pronged convoy for Gore. The other two members would be right guard Alex Boone and tight end Vance McDonald:

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Boone and Boldin secured blocks on the edge defenders to allow McDonald to work inside and absorb a linebacker. Gore simply followed behind to power his way for 11 yards:

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Notice also how the rest of the Niners line, away from the pulling blockers, fanned to the other side. This is a trap principle that helps split defensive fronts.

So the 49ers played pure power football from a pro set, using a wide receiver as a lead blocker. But coordinator Greg Roman is just as likely to show a defense a heavy set on early downs.

He did exactly that during San Fran's 16-10 win over the New York Giants in Week 11. On 2nd-and-2, Roman presented Big Blue with an overloaded front featuring seven linemen and two tight ends:

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Left guard Mike Iupati and McDonald would pull to lead Gore on a sweep off the overloaded right side.

Iupati charged around the corner to absorb middle linebacker Mark Herzlich. Meanwhile, McDonald stayed in front of Gore as a de facto fullback:

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McDonald got Gore to the edge by taking out safety Antrel Rolle, the force player against an outside run:

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Gore scampered around the exposed corner to complete a 16-yard gain.

Roman will run this play, along with variations on the theme, all game if he's allowed to. That usually sets up play-action opportunities for rocket-armed, dual-threat quarterback Colin Kaepernick to exploit.

The Redskins simply cannot let that happen. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett has to adopt an aggressive, attack-first approach to corralling the sweep.

A lone stop by the Saints offers a guide on how to do it. The stop came one play after Gore had bulldozed his way for 11 yards.

The 49ers set up another sweep. This one had Boone, McDonald and fullback Bruce Miller as the lead blockers:

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The Saints decided to blitz this run. Cornerback Corey White came off the edge, while linebacker Ramon Humber quickly charged through his inside gap:

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Rather than waiting to be absorbed by the pulling blockers, White and Humber's downhill attacks positioned them to box Gore in:

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Humber took away the inside crease, while White and rush end Junior Galette, who stood up tight end Vernon Davis on the edge, prevented him from running off tackle and breaking to the outside:

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It was Humber who made the tackle for no gain:

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This kind of attacking mentality is crucial against the power sweep. It helps a defense gain quick penetration and pressure the gaps behind the pulling blockers.

Playing passive and waiting for mobile lead blockers to get to you is just what the 49ers want. Haslett needs to call plenty of corner and safety blitzes to wreck this key play at its source.

That will put pressure on young cornerbacks David Amerson and rookie Bashaud Breeland to be force players. However, both are stout and aggressive enough for the task.

Breeland will have an important role to play vs. the run.
Breeland will have an important role to play vs. the run.USA TODAY Sports

As the power sweep goes, so goes the 49ers offense. If Washington's run D can shut it down, an upset will start to look possible.

That possibility could turn into a reality if the Griffin-led passing game can exploit an obvious weakness in San Fran's coverage.

Target San Francisco's Inside Linebackers in Coverage

The Niners defense has been close to its rampaging best at times during the last two games. However, there's still one obvious weakness Washington can expose. Namely, young inside linebackers in coverage.

Losing All-Pro pair NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis to injury was always going to stunt this defense. They are central to what coordinator Vic Fangio loves to do.

Without Bowman and Willis, there's an obvious weakness at the heart of the San Francisco defense.
Without Bowman and Willis, there's an obvious weakness at the heart of the San Francisco defense.Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

He knows he can trust them both to match up with inside receivers in coverage and not leave the D vulnerable. That's a tremendous advantage. It allows the 49ers to disguise blitzes and also play nickel and still remain stout against the run.

Fangio recently acknowledged how important Willis is to his schemes, per Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle:

It’s extremely difficult. Patrick’s got tremendous talent in all phases of defensive football, both versus the run and versus the pass. You don’t find many complete players like he is. We would always take advantage of that and put him in some tough cover situations because of his ability. You just don’t replace a guy like that.

But as good as Willis is, Bowman has been just as big a loss. His recovery from offseason knee surgery is still ongoing, and he still hasn't been cleared for practice, per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.

That means rookie Chris Borland and third-year pro Michael Wilhoite will continue at the heart of the 49ers defense. That's good news for the Redskins, because both are vulnerable against the pass.

That vulnerability routinely showed up against the Giants. In particular, inside patterns from wide receiver Rueben Randle tormented the pair.

On this first-quarter play, Randle ran a slant behind the linebacker level. He began split out wide, with rookie receiver Odell Beckham Jr. next to him in the slot:

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That meant Wilhoite (circled) would be drawn into coverage against a wideout.

He moved down quickly to zero in on Beckham. This was a an obvious mistake. Wilhoite wrecked the integrity of San Francisco's zone coverage:

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Because Randle initially went vertical, the cornerback let him go and passed him to the safety. That's what he's supposed to do in a Cover 2 look.

However, the inside linebacker is supposed to stay shallow and cover the hook and curl zones in the inside seam. Because Wilhoite charged down at Beckham, who would've become the responsibility of the outside corner, Randle was wide-open in the middle.

By the time Wilhoite attempted to correct his mistake and adjust, it was too late. Randle was already behind him:

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He made the grab over a badly positioned Wilhoite for 20 yards:

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Randle and the Giants were able to repeatedly terrorize the Niners with in-breaking routes because Fangio is still asking Borland and Wilhoite to do many of the same things Willis and Bowman did.

This 26-yard catch-and-run by Randle in the fourth quarter serves as a prime example. The 49ers planned to run a blitz off the edge, while Borland bailed into the middle to cover any inside releases:

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This created an obvious matchup win for the Giants, because Randle would be the hot read behind the blitz. That meant a wide receiver was again isolated against a middle linebacker.

Borland attempted to disrupt Randle's route by making early contact:

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However, the wideout was just too quick for him. Borland was too far inside and didn't have good enough leverage to spy the throw and break on the ball:

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Once Randle left Borland trailing, he made the catch and completed a big gain:

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This problem was evident all game against Big Blue. Randle helped himself to 112 yards on seven receptions. Tight end Larry Donnell also proved a matchup nightmare for Niners linebackers.

The good news for Gruden and Griffin is that they have the weapons to replicate this success. Both Pierre Garcon and Andre Roberts could create havoc inside, particularly with Fangio likely to leave safeties deep for the vertical threat posed by DeSean Jackson.

Meanwhile, athletic, roving tight end Jordan Reed would be a matchup nightmare in this game. But the Redskins may have to shelve plans to unleash Reed due to a recurrence of his already lengthy injury woes.

The dynamic yet brittle second-year ace is suffering from a hamstring problem according to Gruden, per CSN Washington reporter JP Finaly:

Redskins coach Jay Gruden revealed Reed did not practice Wednesday while the tight end is dealing with a hamstring injury. Asked if it was the same hamstring injury that caused Reed to miss four games earlier this year, Gruden replied, 'No, it’s a different one.' Considering humans only have two hamstrings, that means Reed has now hurt both this season. 

However, even without Reed, Washington can use another tight end to challenge Borland and Wilhoite. Converted wide receiver Niles Paul has similar skills. He could pose plenty of problems if Gruden is creative enough to move him around formations and isolate him against the Niners inside 'backers.

Paul could be a matchup nightmare against the 49ers.
Paul could be a matchup nightmare against the 49ers.Jim Mone/Associated Press

Borland snatched two interceptions against the Giants, as Eli Manning's five picks prevented the points Big Blue's overall passing success merited. But Borland's improvements as a pass defender are only surface deep, while Wilhoite remains an obvious weakness.

Washington's pass attack has to make the most of this advantage.

Taking away the key concept of San Francisco's offense, while ruthlessly targeting the one major flaw in its defense, is the Redskins' best route to a shock road win.

All statistics via NFL.com.

All screen shots courtesy of Fox Sports and NFL.com Game Pass.

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