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.