Alex Smith, the 49ers and the "spread offense"

Since Sunday, much has been made of Alex Smith's second half performance.  Smith was 15/22 for 206 yards, 3 TDs and 1 INT and looked quite comfortable in an offense that had been stuck in neutral (maybe even reverse?) for much of the first half.  For those who watched the Fox broadcast, you heard Brian Billick throwing out the term "spread offense" quite frequently.  The 49ers came into the season with an expressed intent of being a power running game, and I'd imagine when Billick was prepping for the game, he was not expecting to see an assortment of shotgun and 4-5 receiver formations.  Throw in Alex Smith's own productivity in the Urban Meyer spread offense and it became an easy talking point as Smith was impressing folks.

Since then, we've had an assortment of articles breaking down the 49ers play-calling when Hill and Smith were each in the game and questions have been raised as to what kind of offense we were witnessing in the second half.  Brian Billick described it as a spread offense, but the problem with the term "spread offense" is I think it gets thrown around a little too often.  Matt Maiocco went so far as to seemingly say that based on their personnel packages, the 49ers were not in the spread offense.  He never says, no it wasn't the spread offense, but he said he was dispelling that myth and then pointed to the personnel groupings, so I take that as his reasoning.

I bring this up now because last night we had a bit of a heated discussion over the use (or non-use) of the spread offense.  I agree that simple personnel groupings on the field don't necessarily mean a certain style of offense is being utilized.  I decided at that point to go back to the tape and review each of the 49ers second half offensive series and look at both the personnel AND the formations.  After the jump, I start with totals of each formation and go into some of my thoughts on that.  Then after that, for those that are curious, I've got the worksheet I used that includes a play-by-play breakdown, and then a series by series breakdown.

In looking at a potential "spread offense" a team like the 49ers has some interesting options for splitting guys out.  As we all know, Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker are incredible athletes, even though they play the tight end position.  Walker is a former wide receiver and Davis is just an absolute monster at tight end.  I don't know enough about the spread offense (or the many variations of it) to say for certain, but wouldn't it seem logical that one could split out a tight end and/or RB as one of your receivers and it still be a spread type of offense?

Just to clarify initially, if a TE or RB was split wide, I referred to them as a receiver, but then in parenthesis I'd break down what positions were split out.  In looking at the formations below, we've got 38 plays (including the final 8 plays of the final drive).  I included plays where a penalty resulted (even procedure penalties), since we had a formation in place and an idea of what they were trying to do.

In the second half, the 49ers lined up with a mix of between 1 and 5 receivers on a given play.  Here is the breakdown

1 or 2 receivers: 15 plays
3 receivers: 6 plays
4 receivers: 4 plays prior to final drive + 8 plays on last under 2-minute drive
5 receivers: 4 plays
Wildcat: 1 play

Of all those plays, they were in the shotgun 11 times, plus another 8 in the final drive.  I continue to separate them out because of the context, but if you want to consider it all together, you've got the numbers to do that.

So after all the breakdown, what can we tell?  I said above I'm no expert on the spread offense, so certainly take what I have to say with a grain of salt.  My general impression from all of this is that the 49ers did mix in some spread style offense, but not so much as to think there was a huge overhaul.  For example, when you run a 1 RB, 3 or 4 WR formation, does that automatically make it a spread offense?  I guess in the literal translation it might.  However, when I think of the spread offense I think more shotgun style.  Obviously it doesn't always have to be that, but that's just what I happen to notice.  Rather than call it a spread offense, I think I'll just call it "spreading out the offense."  Maybe it's a very small distinction, but it's a distinction I like nonetheless.

One thing I do like about it is that it shows that Jimmy Raye might in fact be able to make adjustments and not just pound it up the middle.  It will be especially interesting to see how that plays out this Sunday after Alex Smith has had a full week of first team practice, and Jimmy Raye has had a full week to game-plan around him.  The 49ers will need to find ways to get points on the board because the Colts offense will certainly get their fair share of points no matter how the 49ers defense plays.  Maybe a 49ers vertical attack is finally taking form (and if Sunday goes poorly, just ignore all this).

Below is a breakdown of the second half.

Second half formation totals
2 RB in I-formation, 1 TE on line, 2 WR lined up to left or right - 7

2 RB in I-formation, 2 TE on line, 1 WR split wide - 3

1 RB deep, 4 receivers (2 TE/2 WR) - 1

1 RB deep, 2 WR split, 2 TE on line - 4

1 RB deep, 3 WR, 1 TE on line - 2

1 RB deep, 3 TE, 1 WR - 1

Shotgun, 2 RB on each side of QB, 2 receivers split wide, 1 TE in slot - 2

Shotgun, empty backfield, 5 receivers (1 definitely a TE, 5th is RB/WR/TE) - 3

Shotgun, 5 WR (2 TE, 2 WR, 1 RB) - 1

Shotgun, 1 RB next to QB, 1 TE on line, 3 WR - 2

Shotgun, 1 RB next to QB, 4 WR (3 WR, 1 TE) - 3

Wildcat - 1

Final Series under 2 minutes

Shotgun, 1 RB next to QB, 4 WR (combination of WR/TE) - 8

 

2nd Half Offensive plays
Series 1

1st and 10 - 2 RB in I-formation, two receivers to the right, 1 TE on line

  • Gore rush

2nd and 12 - same formation

  • Pass to Crabtree

1st and 10 - same personnel, receivers switched to the left side

  • Encroachment penalty

1st and 5 - same formation

  • Gore rush

2nd and 5 - same personnel, FB offset, WRs to left side Bruce sent in motion to right side

  • Gore rush

1st and 10 - same personnel, receivers lined up to right side

  • Smith scramble up middle after offsides

1st and 5 - 2 RB in I-formation (FB quickly went in motion wide), 2 TEs on line, 1 WR lined up left

  • TD pass to Vernon Davis

Series 2

1st and 10 - 2 RB in I-formation, 2 TEs on line, 1 WR lined up left

  • Gore rush

2nd and 7 - 2 RB in I-formation, 2 TEs on line, 1 WR lined up right

  • Gore run

3rd and 6 - Shotgun - 2 RB (one on each side of QB), 2 receivers split wide each side, 1 TE in slot

  • Penalty

3rd and 11 - Shotgun - Empty backfield, 5 receiver set (1 TE and either an RB/TE/WR for the 5th receiver position)

  • Pass to Davis

Series 3

1st and 10 - 1 RB deep, 4 receivers (2 TEs , 2 WRs)

  • Smith scramble

1st and 10 - 1 RB deep, 2 WRs to the left, 2 TEs on line

  • Gore rush

2nd and 3 - Wildcat formation - 1 RB, 2 TE on line, 2 WR

  • Gore rush

1st and 10 - 1 RB deep, 2 TE on line, 2 WR to left (1 goes in motion to the right)

  • Pass to Crabtree - illegal motion penalty

1st and 15 - 1 RB deep, 3 WR, 1 TE on line

  • Pass to Davis

2nd and 7 - 1 RB deep, 3 WR, 1 TE on line

  • Pass to Bruce

3rd and 6 - Shotgun - 2 RB on each side of QB, 3 receivers split wide (might be TE in there

  • Pass to Crabtree

1st and 10 - 1 RB deep, 2 TE on line, 2 WR to right

  • Gore rush

2nd and 6 - Shotgun - 5 WR set (1 TE, 1 RB, 3 WR)

  • Incomplete pass

3rd and 6 - Shotgun - 1 RB next to QB, 1 TE on line, 3 WR split

  • Timeout before botched snap

3rd and 6 - Same formation (Davis went in motion, came back and split out a little bit to become a 4th split WR

  • Pass to Morgan

1st and 10 - 1 RB deep, 2 WR to left, 2 TE

  • TD pass to Davis

Series 4

1st and 10 - 2 RB (FB offset), 1 TE on line, 2 WR

  • Incomplete pass

1st and 10 - Shotgun - 5 receiver set, 1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR

  • Pass to Morgan

1st and 15 after delay of game - 3 TE, 1 RB, 1 WR

  • Incomplete pass

2nd and 15 - Shotgun - 1 RB next to QB, 4 receiver set (1 TE)

  • Pass to Davis

3rd and 6 - Same formation/personnel

  • Pass to Crabtree

1st and 10 - Same formation/personnel (originally lined up as offset I but switched before any kind of audible)

  • Pass to Morgan

1st and 10 - Shotgun - 5 receiver set (2 TE, 2 WR, 1 RB)

  • TD pass to Davis

Series 5 (final drive under 2 minutes)

1st and 10 - 1 RB next to QB, 4 WR

  • Pass to Morgan

1st and 10 - Same formation

  • Incomplete

2nd and 10 - Same formation

  • Pass to Bruce

1st and 10 - Spike play

  • Spike

2nd and 10 - Same formation

  • Incomplete

3rd and 5 - Same formation

  • Smith scramble out of bounds

4th and 5 - Same formation

  • Delay of game

4th and 10 - Same formation

  • Interception

Formations by Series
Series 1

Formation #s

2 RB in I-formation or FB off-tackle, 1 TE on line, 2 WR split wide - 6 plays

2 RB in I-formation or FB off-tackle, 2 TE on line, 1 WR split wide - 1 plays

Series 2

2 RB in I-formation, 2 TEs on line, 1 WR split wide - 2 plays

Shotgun, 2 RB on each side of QB, 2 receivers split wide, 1 TE in slot - 1 play

Shotgun, empty backfield, 5 receivers (1 definitely a TE, 5th is RB/WR/TE) - 1 play

Series 3

1 RB deep, 4 receivers (2 TE/2 WR) - 1

1 RB deep, 2 WR split, 2 TE on line - 4

1 RB deep, 3 WR, 1 TE on line - 2

Shotgun, 2 RB next to QB, 2WR/1 TE split wide - 1

Shotgun, 5 WR (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB) - 1

Shotgun, 1 RB next to QB, 1 TE on line, 3 WR - 2

Wildcat - 1

Series 4

2 RB, 1 TE on line, 2 WR - 1

1 RB deep, 3 TE, 1 WR - 1

Shotgun, 5 WR (3 WR, 1 RB, 1 TE) - 1

Shotgun, 5 WR (2 TE, 2 WR, 1 RB) - 1

Shotgun, 1 RB next to QB, 4 WR (3 WR, 1 TE) - 3

Series 5

Shotgun, 1 RB next to QB, 4 WR (combination of WR/TE) - 8

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