Analysis Notebook: Super Bowl Preview II
Yesterday we looked at the many ways San Francisco QB Colin Kaepernick can hurt the Baltimore defense, but this time we’re going to look at the other side of the ball, and the intriguing matchup between the Ravens’ deep ball and the 49ers’ unusual coverages.
The first thing to establish is that the Ravens have a potent deep ball which is one of the keys to the game. If they can strike over the top once or twice it can blow the Super Bowl open in an instant and swing momentum in their favor in a single play. Only Andrew Luck attempted more passes of 20+ air yards than Joe Flacco‘s 92 during the regular season, and no passer attempted deep shots with a greater frequency. Flacco has added another 24 so far in the postseason, and on those 116 attempts deep, he has yet to have a ball intercepted but has scored 15 touchdowns — that’s 15-0 in TD-INT ratio on deep passes in 2012.
On the other hand, the 49ers are among the better teams at defending the deep ball, but, more importantly, they run some of the more unusual and deceptive coverages. These coverages will invite deep targets from Flacco by appearing to be something they’re not.
The 49ers will often show two high safeties, but they put a lot of pressure on the quarterback to diagnose exactly what coverage they are running from that look. Instead of a standard Tampa-2 style of coverage from this formation, the 49ers play primarily 2-Man Under, where the two safeties divide the field in half and play over the top while everybody underneath is in man coverage as opposed to shallow zones.
From the formation presented in this image the shaded zones are what most teams expect to see after the snap — but not against the 49ers, who are more likely to have the underneath players in man coverage. However, San Francisco, as you would expect if you have been studying the team at any length this season, is far more complex and clever than simply running one type of coverage. They will also run several more coverages from the exact same look. This formation pre-snap could become Quarters coverage (where the corners and safeties divide the field in four and each take a deep quarter), an Inverted Cover-2 coverage (where the safeties jump shallower routes and the two corners bail to split the field in half over the top), or something even more complex where the coverage is different on each side of the defense – Quarters to one side, 2-Man to the other.
They also like to use a scheme that calls for the defensive backs to read the routes of the receivers and adjust their responsibilities accordingly. This scheme is often called 2-Read (explained here excellently by Chris Brown of Smartfootball/Grandland) and, like their Inverted Cover-2, results in corners playing almost over the top of vertical receivers rather than in a trail technique or with inside leverage as you would expect if they were in man coverage to the outside.
The bottom line of all that complexity is that it becomes extremely difficult for the quarterback to work out either before or after the snap exactly where the defensive backs are supposed to be in relation to the routes he wants to target.
Where this chess game gets interesting though, is in the last few schemes mentioned above. In the 49ers’ Inverted Cover-2, and in a 2-Read scheme, the corner will be playing over the top of the route while the safeties jump down on underneath patterns, essentially vacating the middle of the field. When teams take a shot deep down the field their first read, and the quarterback’s key on the play post-snap, is the safety or safeties in the middle. If a team is running a standard Cover-2 and the safety takes a false step toward the line of scrimmage, Flacco knows he can hit his deep receiver on a go or a post in behind him, because the corner will be in trail position expecting safety help over the top. As soon as he sees that safety jump down, then the ball will be in the air and he knows his receiver will be behind the defense.
The same thought process against these coverages could get him into trouble, however, because the corners won’t be trailing, they will be either matching the vertical route, or actually playing over the top of it entirely and so be in a good position to not only break up the pass, but to intercept it and force that elusive turnover teams have been unable to generate against Flacco so far this year on deep passes.
Against the Falcons with a safety jumping down on a route the deep ball to Julio Jones looked like a certain touchdown, and Ryan put the ball in the air, but RCB Tarell Brown was still playing over the top of the route and was able to comfortably come over to break up the pass.
There is no doubt that the deep ball is one of the keys to the game for both sides, because Flacco and the Ravens will be looking for it, and at any moment it could break the game open and present a huge momentum swing — but that swing could be toward either side. The Ravens have the opportunity to strike quickly with one play, but the 49ers will present Flacco with coverages he isn’t used to seeing, and which can be extremely difficult to diagnose even with the benefit of All-22 tape, a coffee and 10 minutes to think about it. Flacco doesn’t have that luxury. He needs to read and diagnose the coverage within split seconds, and so the ability of the San Francisco coverage to look like something familiar but actually be something completely different could be all they need to force a pass into an area where their corners can intercept it, changing the game in their favor just as quickly.
Will Flacco’s deep success continue, or will the 49ers be able to confuse him enough to put up an ill-advised pass at the worst possible moment?