Analysis Notebook: Super Bowl Preview
The San Francisco 49ers roll into the Super Bowl with one of the league’s most multiple and difficult to contain offenses. They may not be as high-octane and superficially explosive as the Packers or Patriots, but they can be just as overwhelming to a defense, if not more, and just as dominant.
The Ravens are no strangers to imposing offenses, and this playoff run has seen them take down two of them already on their way to the big dance, but the 49ers present a completely different challenge, and will hit them with some looks they haven’t seen before, certainly not from Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
The key to Baltimore’s success or failure in this game will be containing Colin Kaepernick, and limiting the damage he does. On the 49ers’ side of the ball, their job is to use the various looks and schemes they have to make that impossible to do, ensuring that Kaepernick can make plays one way if not the other.
Let’s take a look at a few of the ways that Kaepernick has already been able to hurt teams this postseason.
Defending the Option: Basics – Green Bay @ San Francisco | 1st Q, 6:49
On 3rd-and-2 Colin Kaepernick keeps the ball and breaks off a 13-yard run as the Packers fail to defend the option entirely.
The first thing the Ravens need to do if they’re going to be able to live with the option and pistol offense the 49ers will break out is get their assignments right. At its heart the option is all about assignment football: getting people in the right place and trusting their teammates to do their job without taking themselves out of the play to help, exposing another gap. San Francisco complicate this simple ethos with the various schematic wrinkles they throw at teams, but none of that matters if you don’t know what you’re doing from the outset. Fundamentally, you need to make sure you have every gap accounted for.
Despite preparing for some option plays and containing a mobile quarterback the week before, the Packers seemed utterly clueless in this game, and this is a great example:
Green Bay has defenders in the right position to at least attempt to cover this option play. San Francisco’s pistol formation has allowed them to shoehorn a lead blocker into the play in the form of TE/H-Back Delanie Walker (No. 46), so they may have been off to the races anyway, but they didn’t need it because of how the Packers blew their assignments.
At the mesh point with the running back the defense needs to plug multiple gaps. As the O-line doubles down inside and opens up a hole one of the two free Packers defenders needs to play the dive from Frank Gore and the other has to maintain edge contain in case Kaepernick decides to keep the ball and take off. Instead, both safety Morgan Burnett and outside linebacker Erik Walden crash down on the dive and blow contain on that side of the field. Kaepernick reads it correctly, pulls the ball back and has open field to run into. With Walker coming around in front as a lead blocker he gets even more room to open up and is ten yards down field before he even has to think about any Packers defenders. People talk about the danger to a running quarterback, but this is an example of how they can make big gains completely untouched if the defense isn’t set up right and prepared to be disciplined. The Packers blew their assignments, and Kaepernick had an easy first down without taking anything more forceful than a light push out of bounds at the end.
Job No. 1 for the Ravens in their preparation for the Super Bowl will be making sure they know their assignments and don’t do the 49ers’ work for them, because they’re too good to allow them free plays.
Affecting Coverages – Green Bay @ San Francisco | 2nd Q, 6:25
On 3rd-and-9 Colin Kaepernick takes off scrambling to pick up the first down with ease.
The threat of a quarterback like Kaepernick isn’t just what the 49ers have schemed with their pistol and option looks. Before anybody was running option plays teams hated defending quarterbacks like Michael Vick and Daunte Culpepper because at any given time they could take off and pick up the first down even when you had everybody covered. Even when the play called is something they’re used to defending, a player with this kind of athleticism can force you to change the way you normally defend it or get burned by not doing so.
At this point in the game the score was tied at 14 and the Packers had forced a 3rd-and-9 from their own 25-yard line. A stop here would have been critical and the difference between three points (or none if Akers got twitchy again) and the seven that ultimately resulted.
San Francisco is a running team when they can be, but 3rd-and-9 is a passing down for everybody in the NFL, so they spread the field and went from the shotgun like anybody else. Green Bay went into man-free coverage, with a free safety over the top and everybody underneath playing man. They rushed just three.
I say they rushed three and not four because they understood the danger of Kaepernick breaking the pocket and picking up yardage, so they left Walden behind the rush to spy the quarterback. The problem is that Walden isn’t half the athlete Kaepernick is, so it made very little difference. After a little move to his left, the 49ers’ passer sees the defense part in front of him like the Red Sea and takes off for the first down. Walden took himself too far out of the middle of the field and is run right past as if he wasn’t there. At this point Green Bay is sunk, because their man coverage means every defender before the free safety is running with their receiver, backs to the quarterback – they have no idea he has started running until it is way too late.
This is the problem with athletic quarterbacks, even when the offense is running conventional plays. At any given time they can break the pocket and if you aren’t in the right defense you have major, major problems. In this instance, Kaepernick made 15 yards before he was eventually taken down by the free safety. Playing man coverage against a quarterback like this can be a death sentence for a defense. If you run that on the back end you have to keep him in the pocket and force him to pass the ball. If he breaks loose you need to be in zone, where coverage defenders will have their eyes to the quarterback and be able to come up quickly to help out. Baltimore likes to run a lot of man coverage, but will they take that risk against Kaepernick?
Death by Another Means – San Francisco @ Atlanta | 3rd Q, 13:45
On 2nd-and-4 the 49ers hand the ball off to Frank Gore from the read-option out of the pistol formation and it picks up 11 yards and a first down.
Containing Kaepernick only does you so much good, because it allows the 49ers to kill you with a thousand paper cuts, running the dive over and over again up the middle. In this game the Falcons had seen the damage that the QB keeper can do to opposing defenses and set their stall out early — they would keep edge contain aggressively and force them to make the tougher yards up the middle.
It’s a sound strategy, but the 49ers have the league’s most dominant offensive line and the Falcons couldn’t stand up to the double team that resulted, meaning when the optioned defender played the keeper every play they could just hand it off to Gore and be guaranteed of an easy run up the middle for positive, chain-moving, yardage.
Again the 49ers from their pistol formation have been able to scheme a power-run play with a lead blocker coming from the left of the quarterback to either lead the dive up the middle or cut off pursuit on the keeper. The Falcons have John Abraham as the stand-up edge defender to that side of the formation, and he sticks to his assignment, forcing Kaepernick to hand the ball off as he was content to do time and time again. The reason he was happy to do this is because of what the blocking could do for the dive.
The double team of RT Anthony Davis and RG Alex Boone simply destroys DLT Corey Peters, folding him into a heap and tossing him aside before Davis can peel off and get through to the second level to pancake MLB Akeem Dent. The additional blocker the 49ers generate from their pistol allows them to break this past the linebackers as FB Bruce Miller comes around and seals Sean Weatherspoon out of the play, letting Gore get 10 yards up field before he gets touched. Gore actually ends up running into his own man, falling to the ground as he piles into Davis, or he could have broken this run for even more yardage.
The bottom line for Baltimore is that they need to be able to do what the Falcons couldn’t — funnel the option inside and then hold up against one of the league’s most powerful double teams.
There was a time when people would swear to you that no dual-threat running quarterback can win the Super Bowl. Baltimore knows by now all too well that the threat Colin Kaepernick poses to them is not only very real, but very varied. They need to marshal several aspects of their defense if they hope to neutralize that threat and keep the danger under control. If they blow assignments, lose the handle on him in the pocket, or simply can’t hold up against a potent double team, the 49ers can lean on that area of their offense until Baltimore crumbles.
This is so much for a defense to worry about that it opens up another area of danger entirely: the play action possibilities from these option fakes. Even if the Ravens can work out all of the above problems, they still need to avoid getting sucked in to play-action fakes and being beaten over the top by a very real passing threat.
Defending Colin Kaepernick will be no picnic in the Super Bowl.