Analysis Notebook: SB XLVII’s Prettiest Play

PFF's Sam Monson takes a look at the Super Bowl's prettiest play, a masterpiece of deception from the Baltimore Ravens

| 4 years ago

Analysis Notebook: SB XLVII’s Prettiest Play

All of the focus of the Analysis Notebook heading up to the Super Bowl was the scheming and concepts that we would see from the 49ers, so it was perhaps inevitable that the best designed play run on Sunday came from the other side – the Ravens.

In a game in which John Harbaugh arguably outcoached his younger brother Jim, the Ravens broke out one of the best designed plays of the season, and it resulted in an easy touchdown down in the red zone to give them a 14-3 lead in the 2nd quarter.

The Super Bowl was not a display of the 49ers creativity and scheming at its best. They seemed to be trying to get too clever at times, breaking out a range of new wrinkles and plays, but going away from some of their tried and tested plays that were successful whenever they ran them.

The Ravens on the other hand seemed to make the right calls at the right times. From the deliberate safety at the end of the game to their defensive design against the read-option, the Ravens were on top of the game, and at no time more than when they ran this play for their second score of the game.

Dennis Pitta Touchdown – Super Bowl XLVII | 2nd Q, 7:15


On 2nd and goal from the 1-yard line the Ravens fake a goal line roll to the right and hit Dennis Pitta in the back of the end zone for an easy score.


All truly great play designs show a defense one thing and then hit them with something else. It’s that simple bait and switch that makes most plays work. Whether it be play action, counter runs, mis-direction, trap blocks, draw plays, or any of the countless other subtle deceptions the NFL breaks out, the bottom line is that your job becomes much easier if you can make your opponent think one thing is coming, when really something else entirely is.

The reason this play is so successful is that the Ravens show the 49ers defense a goal line play that every team in the league has in their playbook. This is a play they’re used to seeing week in and week out, and consequently are hardwired to defend it without thinking. As soon as the defense reads a few keys they all leap into action, sprinting to their landmarks to prevent a play that never comes.

The above picture is what the 49ers expect to see happen on this play. The Ravens run a play action fake, but as soon as the 49ers read pass they expect to see Joe Flacco roll out to his right and have the choice of two receivers running routes at different levels into the end zone. Quarterbacks on this play usually have a high-low read between the full-back, releasing out of the backfield along the goal line, and the tight end, running along the back of the end zone towards the pylon. This red zone play is in everybody’s playbook because the initial play action fake is usually enough to fool most defenses and open up one of those two options for the touchdown. In short, it’s so prevalent because it is successful more often than not.

The 49ers though are all over it. As soon as they read pass three different defenders tear off to specific landmarks to try and cover that high-low route combination. The only problem is the Ravens aren’t running that.

Instead of releasing to the flat to become the underneath read in the play, FB Vonta Leach fakes that release and then launches himself at the knees of LB Clark Haggans in a cut block as he and Ray Rice wall off that side of the field. Instead of rolling out to his right, Flacco settles in the newly formed pocket to deliver the football far earlier than the 49ers are expecting.

The last part of this play that differs from the one the 49ers are expecting is the route of Dennis Pitta, lined up as the TE to the right of the formation. Pitta gains depth into the end zone, but instead of breaking to the right and heading to the back pylon of the end zone as the high option, he simply turns that way before settling down in the back of the end zone.

The fake, and San Francisco’s recognition of the play they think is being run, causes the defense to simply run out of position and beat itself. The Ravens simply show them something they expect to see and then sit back while the 49ers take themselves out of the play and away from the intended target. It actually ends up being a one-man read, but the 49ers are fooled so completely that they can’t even come close to stopping it.

Three separate 49ers run themselves completely out of this play. C.J. Spillman playing LCB, NaVorro Bowman at LB and Donte Whitner at safety all turn and sprint to cover the high-low route combination, abandoning the middle of the field and allowing Pitta to just turn and wait for the football. On the backside of the play Patrick Willis has no chance to ever get across in time and influence the catch.

For all of the talk of the 49ers and their creativity on offense, much of that from myself, the most creative play design from Super Bowl Sunday came from the Baltimore Ravens, and it was pro-style NFL deception at its finest.

The option offense and college-inspired influences may be all over the NFL and here to stay, but the “pros” still have their own tricks to deploy, and this was one for the ages.


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| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN and NBCSports.

  • Jeremy Wong

    Great breakdown, Sam. They made it look like Spider 2 Y Banana on the frontside. Just like Jon Gruden and Andrew Luck, every NFL defense has seen this a thousand times. Great play design by Baltimore to prey on the defense’s tendency.

    This reminds me of those sprint out plays where the backside TE starts like he’s running a crossing route – again, just like every NFL defense has seen a thousand times on a sprint out – and then takes it up the seam. I remember Vernon Davis running it in the past (thrown by Alex Smith), and I believe Tebow threw one in the playoff game against the Steelers last year.
    NFL defenses are superbly prepared for the concepts they regularly see, but offenses can exploit this preparation by including wrinkles like this one.

    • @plainmilksfine

      Pitta gives a nice little shove in the back of the end zone to get open too.

      • ladbroke

        If you watch the play again, the incidental comtact between Pitta and Whitner doesn’t keep Whitner from biting on the PA fake.  He keeps going for a few yards until he doubles back to try to reach Pitta.  Spilled plain milk’s fine….

  • Byah

    I like the analysis, but one thing to note about the play: Leach appeared to be going out for that route in the flats that we normally see, but was tripped up because the 49er matched up on Oher went extremely low to gain intial penetration, giving himself up as a pass rusher to stop an off-tackle/outside run. If you look at how Leach gets up and continues with his route, rather than staying back to pass protect, I think it’s pretty clear that he was supposed to be a receiver on the play. 

    I actually like the play far better with Leach as a receiver, even if the throw is highly unlikely to go to him. The Ravens already have Dickson to help out as a blocker on the right side of the offense, and have 8 pass blockers to stop 5 pass rushers (2 of whom are interior linemen that probably don’t present a major pass rushing threat). I think we can all agree that Leach’s route was highly unlikely to come open on the play, so Flacco’s options were likely limited to 2 possibilities: Read #1- throw to Pitta. Read #2- run. The initial penetration by the aforementioned 49er left Dickson in an unusual situation without anything to do really. It might actually make sense for him to head out to the right a bit to potentially open up a running lane for Flacco. With Leach also headed in that direction, the Ravens would have 2 guys distracting the defense for a possible run to the right. Willis was damned close to breaking up the throw, and if he’d been just a bit closer to Pitta, Flacco would have had to run. No doubt that Willis or another defender would have had a chance to stop him, but the initial scramble also could have opened up space for Pitta (or maybe Leach). I guess my point is that if Leach hand’t been tripped up and had been able to run his route properly, it would have helped open up a better running lane for Flacco, giving the Ravens a better second option if the pass wasn’t open.

    • Jeremy Wong

      After watching the play again, I think you’re exactly right. Leach was certainly heading to the flat, and he was probably Flacco’s first read. The only remaining question is whether it’s a read for Pitta based on Whitner’s leverage. I doubt it; I think they’re banking on the 49ers overplaying the corner route.

      Given Whitner’s outside leverage on Pitta, the 49ers’ only chance of breaking up the play was Patrick Willis playing underneath Pitta’s route. I’m not sure what his assignment was on the play, but it looks like he freezes because, after Leach gets tripped, he gets up and releases near the middle of the field. If Leach had gotten a clean release to the flat, Willis would have taken his eyes off him and likely tried to buzz Pitta’s route.