Questions Facing The 2011 49ers: What Will Jim Harbaugh's "Hybrid" West Coast Offense Look Like?

I know that we were all excited to learn that Jim Harbaugh was going to go back to the 49ers roots with Bill Walsh's west coast offense. Over the last couple years I have despised the success that both Green Bay and Philadelphia have had with that scheme; it should be our San Francisco 49ers.

Today, I am going to focus on the west coast offense and what to expect it to look like once the seasons kicks off against New Orleans in a pre-season game, less than a month away. 

The origins of the west coast offense can be found with the 1970s Cincinnati Bengals in which Bill Walsh, then an assistant coach theorized a different approach to the offensive game.

The goal of the west coast offense is to utilize a short passing game in order to stretch the defense. Instead of utilizing the run early and setting up defenses for play action passes, the WCO uses these short routes to keep the defense off balance. In essence, it is all about using the passing game to set up the run. 

Well, this is going to work great with Frank Gore in the backfield. You will not see nine men boxes that have seen in the past. Gore will have more room to operate and should see a nice amount of screens. My prediction is that he will catch somewhere between 80-100 passes this season.

There is a major focus in pass protection from the running backs as well. You could see a lot of two back formations with one player staying back to block. However, San Francisco has two inexperienced blocking backs in Anthony Dixon and Kendall Hunter; there could be a major issue with that. The idea of using an uneven formation and two back set is to keep the defense off balance. This might not work as many defenses will focus on Gore staying back to block, while either Hunter or Dixon run routes. Additionally, this may limit the amount of touches Gore gets in the passing game. However, I fully expect Roman and Harbaugh to work extensively on this during training camp.

Another primary focus of the west coast offense is to get the ball into the receivers hands in space and allow them to rack up YAC (yards after catch), a phrase that was popularized by Jerry Rice. San Francisco has the play makers for this to work perfectly. Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis come to mind first. You will see a nice amount of bubble screens to Crabtree, but also some slot screens to either Josh Morgan or Dominique Zeigler, both of whom have the athletic ability to be dangerous in such circumstances. 

As we saw with Stanford over the last couple of seasons, Harbaugh enjoys utilizing his tight ends as well. You will see some short out routes to both Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. The quarterback, whoever it is, needs to be able to put the ball on the money and in the right spots. Otherwise, it really wont work too well. As I noted in yesterday's article regards Colin Kaepernick, he is extremely solid in short and intermediate routes, Alex Smith not so much. 

Receivers are also asked to read the defense and change their routes accordingly. Michael Crabtree was asked to do this a great deal at Texas Tech, but has yet to be given the opportunity to do so in the NFL. I think San Francisco would be smart to go after a veteran receiver that has shown the ability to do this at the pro level. Sidney Rice comes to mind first. But, another alternative would be Braylon Edwards who ran the WCO in Cleveland. 

Slot_in_and_go_medium

via cdn0.sbnation.com

Now, if you notice the picture, the wide receiver lined up at the left slot position broke of his route and decided to utilize the go route. He read the defense and noticed that the secondary wasn't playing over the top coverage, so there will be a one on one play down the field. If the quarterback is able to read the defense pre-snap this could be another tactic that enables big plays. Of course, Alex Smith has had issues with this in the past and no current San Francisco receiver is experienced running this type of offense. There will be a lot of growing pains early in the season. However, "Camp Alex" seemed to help the offense get used to this new scheme. After all, Alex Smith is pretty darn experienced in learning new offensive styles. 

The role of the offensive line changes drastically as well. You want smaller, more athletic offensive linemen, who are able to pull to the outside when necessary. There will be a lot of halfback counters and sweeps in the west coast offense, so it is a necessity for the offensive linemen to be able to use their athletic skills in sweeping the line and brushing off defenders in order to open up lateral holes. 

One of the reasons San Francisco drafted Bruce Miller in the 7th round and plan to convert him to fullback is the importance of having a strong lead blocker. Once the offensive line pulls either to the right or left a gap is left open for the defensive linemen to blow up the play before it gets started. Now, it is extremely important for that fullback to be able to cover the hole and blow up the defender. Moran Norris was really good at this earlier in his career, but struggled a great deal in regards to it in 2010. San Francisco will probably look to acquire a fullback that has these skills. Vonta Leach and Heath Evans come to mind first. However, they could role the dice and see how Nate Byham (one of the better blocking tight ends in the NFL), or Miller do during training camp. There are sure to be a couple talented fullbacks available after week 2 or 3 of the pre-season.

Now, how does Stanford's scheme over the last couple seasons affect what Harbaugh is going to do with San Francisco?

379 Passing plays= 42.4 percent

514 rushing plays= 57.6 percent

65 percent of 1st down passing plays were of the 7 yard or less variety. 

 

Now this means that Stanford decided to utilize the passing game on early downs, while attempting to pick up 1st downs through the ground later in series of downs. Another interesting stat that I cam across was the fact that Stanford utilized the short passing game on third down and less than three yards. Over half the time they ran quick slants in such situations. Some of this could have to do with Andrew Luck's accuracy and the fact that Stephan Taylor isn't the most physical of backs.

I fully expect San Francisco to stick with Gore on 3rd and short, either via the running game or on passing plays. He picked up a huge amount of 49er 1st downs when in the game last season. I don't expect this to change that much under the west coast offense.

NFC West teams really have weak secondaries and the 49ers new offense should be able to exploit those weaknesses. For example, the Arizona Cardinals gave up an average of 35.5 points per game in five contests against teams that run the west coast offense. This scheme makes it much easier to exploit secondary issues. Michael Crabtree will be an important factor in determining the success of the 49ers new offense. However, I am looking at Vernon Davis to have an absolutely ginormous season. You can expect him to have between 1100 and 1200 yards as well as double digit scores. 

Additionally, the west coast offense is predicated on quick strikes and accuracy from the quarterback. We should know immediately if this style offense fits into Alex Smith's skill set. That said, one thing is certain; it fits perfectly into what Colin Kaepernick brings to the table. 

 

A couple things you can expect from the 49ers new offense.

  • Alex Smith's completion percentage will increase to between 62-64 percent
  • Frank Gore, if healthy, will have over 2000 total yards
  • Vernon Davis will be NFLs leading receiver among Tight Ends
  • NFL fantasy football players should pick up VD and Crabs rather early in their draft
  • It will be a much improved and more exciting San Francisco 49ers offense

 

Some Linkage For You Folks

Fooch's article about offensive sleepers.

Colin Kaepernick Not Expecting Huge Changes From Nevada Pistol Offense To Jim Harbaugh WCO

Detailed Explanation Of West Coast Offense

The Advent of NFL's West Coast Offense

West Coast Offense Playbook Index

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