One of the more painful memories for 49ers fans is the 2011 NFC Championship Game. Not the fumbles by Kyle Williams, but having to start Chad Hall at wide receiver with a berth in the Super Bowl on the line. It went as well as expected as the entire wide receiver corps caught a single pass for 3 yards in a devastating 20-17 OT loss.
Fast-forward to 2013 and the problems are the same, injuries. In 2011, it was the loss of Josh Morgan, 2012 the loss of Mario Manningham (who is set to return to practice this week) and finally this spring the loss of Michael Crabtree. These injuries have crippled limited the 49ers passing weapons, leaving Vernon Davis as the only deep threat on the roster.
Despite struggling to stay healthy himself, Davis has been torching defense with an average of 18.4 yards per catch this season. Obviously, Davis’s immense talents, particularly his speed, are responsible for his success but offensive coordinator Greg Roman has also done a wonderful job maximizing the abilities of his star tight end by featuring him prominently in recent game plans.
In the Arizona game Sunday, Davis was called upon after a slow offensive start. Through play action and creating mismatches by lining up in the slot or motioning out wide, Davis dominated the Cardinals with 8 catches for 181 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Play action pass game: This play action pass out of the semi-jumbo package illustrates how the 49ers use their bread and butter, power runs, to create opportunities for Vernon Davis.
Game Situation: 2nd Quarter, 8:41, 1st and 10 at the SF 39, 49ers 8, Cardinal 7
Pre-Snap: The 49ers are in their 11 personnel with OL Adam Synder and Daniel Kilgore as eligible receivers. WR Anquan Boldin is out wide left, OL Adam Synder, TE Davis and OL Kilgore are inline right and QB Colin Kaepernick is under center with RB Frank Gore behind him. The Cardinals are in their base 3-4 defense playing zone coverage with CB Patrick Patterson playing man coverage on WR Boldin
Post-Snap: Both additional linemen stay in to block as Kaepernick fakes the handoff to Gore up the middle. LB Shaughnessy pressures Kaepernick just as he hits the final step of his drop; he’s however able to scramble left, evade the pressure while keeping his eyes downfield.
While Kaepernick is eluding defenders, Davis is running downfield past the underneath zones and into the deep zones of FS Tyrann Mathieu and CB Jerraud Powers.
Davis continues pushing downfield, getting inside of CB Powers’ deep half zone and behind the other deep half zone of FS Mathieu. Kaepernick sees this and replants his feet preparing to launch a deep ball to Davis.
Davis catches Kaepernick’s perfectly thrown pass in stride leaving both Cardinal defenders behind him en route to a 61 yard touchdown.
Summary: A semi-jumbo set on first and ten seemed to be destined for a power running play. Instead, Greg Roman used it as a decoy and went deep relying on his best weapon to take advantage of the defense’s reaction to the run fake. Despite the max protection being compromised quickly, Kilgore barely got a hand on Shaughnessy, and Kaepernick showed both poise and athleticism to escape the pocket before resetting to throw downfield to his best deep threat in Davis.
This play demonstrates why the foundation of the 49ers offense is and will always be the power running game. Especially with a young quarterback, an established run game allows the 49ers to maximize their vertical playmakers with the play action pass game.
As the only current deep threat, Davis is usually adequately accounted for by the defense, often being covered by the opponents best pass defender or covered underneath with safety help over the top. The play action game mitigates this by distracting the safeties and allowing Davis to display his elite speed.
Utilizing the slot alignment: While Davis is labeled a tight end he seemingly lines up everywhere. Of his multiple alignments, the most dangerous might be when he is in the slot. Given the freedom to go inside or outside and often covered by smaller corners, the slot position allows Davis to maximize his athletic abilities and create opportunities for the 49ers offense.
Game Situation: 2nd Quarter, 6:45, 1st and 10 at the SF 39, 49ers 15, Cardinals 14
Pre-Snap: The 49ers line up in their 21 personnel with an additional OL in Kilgore. WR Boldin is in tight right, OL Kilgore in-line left with TE Davis and QB Kaepernick is under center with FB Bruce Miller and RB Gore behind him in the I formation.
Before the snap, the 49ers shift into an empty alignment with OL Kilgore splitting out wide left (his receiver stance is textbook), TE Davis and WR Boldin in the left slot, FB Miller in the right slot with RB Gore out wide right. The shift causes confusion on the Cardinals defense, but eventually they get aligned with CB Power covering Davis and LB Daryl Washington covering Kilgore.
Post-Snap: Kaepernick receives the snap from Jonathan Goodwin and immediately looks left at the route combination of Kilgore and Davis. Running a smash concept, a quick hitch with a corner over it, the 49ers isolate Davis on Powers. As Davis pushes up field and into Powers, the mismatch becomes obvious. Upon contact with Davis, Powers is knocked back creating enough separation for Kaepernick to squeeze the football in.
Another perfectly thrown football arrives over Davis’s left shoulder and results in a 24 yard gain.
Summary: Sometimes the mass shifts by the 49ers offense seem unnecessary and pointless, but occasions like this, all that movement makes sense. When it comes together, Greg Roman’s combination of creativity, formation change and tried and true football concepts, the smash route, are simple a joy to watch.
Add in an elite playmaker in Davis and it’s the equivalent of smack to football junkies like myself. Already difficult to deal with, Davis’s threat was increased when CB Powers was forced to cover him. Davis simply used his frame to create space and give his young quarterback an open target.
Isolating Davis on the outside: The previous plays have demonstrated how Greg Roman and the 49ers have created openings with creative play design, but sometimes all it requires it splitting Davis out wide. There are few defenders that can match Davis’s speed and strength, allowing him to overpower defensive backs and outrun linebackers, or sometimes both.
On this play the Cardinals tried to cover Davis with SS Bell and paid the price.
Game Situation: 2nd Quarter, 2:00, 1st and 10 at the AZ 35, 49ers 15, Cardinal 14
Pre-Snap: The 49ers come to the line of scrimmage in their 12 personnel with TEs Vance McDonald and Davis inline right, WR Kyle Williams out wide left, WR Bolding in the left slot and QB Kaepernick under center with RB Gore behind him.
Again they shift with TE McDonald sliding over to the right side of the line, TE Davis splitting out wide right and Kaepernick dropping into the Shotgun formation. The Cardinals are in their base package and decided to play press coverage with SS Yeremiah Bell on Davis out wide. FS Mathieu is playing a single safety deep zone behind.
Post-Snap: Davis releases outside as Bell quickly turns his hip in response to Davis’s go route. Simply outmatched in terms of foot speed, Bell allows Davis to create separation down the sideline. While this is happening, Kaepernick is looking to his left towards the three receivers of Williams, Boldin and McDonald in order to prevent Mathieu from providing help over the top on Davis’s go route.
After hitting the final step in his drop Kaepernick snaps his head right and locates Davis down the sideline. Kaepernick releases yet another beautiful pass that arcs just over Bell’s outstretched hand and right into Davis’s path. Davis snags it and walks into the end zone for his second touchdown of the day.
Summary: While there was a shift, this was quite a straightforward play. The simple movements managed to get the 49ers exactly what they wanted, Davis isolated against Bell. The final piece to the puzzle was Kaepernick manipulating the safety by looking right, assuring there was no help over the top on the right side.
After bullying Powers with his strength, Davis showed why he is one of the elite tight ends in the NFL. His ability to outrun safeties, even with an injured hamstring, makes his a matchup nightmare for defensive coordinators. Given the injuries to Crabtree and Manningham, the 49ers and Greg Roman have relied on their Pro Bowl tight end to provide the vertical passing game essential in the NFL
Overall: Due to multiple injuries to their wide receiver corps, the 49ers have had to maximize their only remaining weapon, Vernon Davis. Whether it was play action or shifting players pre snap to create mismatches, Greg Roman masterfully utilized the strengths of not only Davis but also Colin Kaepernick.
Every single one of the big plays to Davis was a single read throw, where Kaepernick knew exactly where he was going with the ball before it was snapped. Additionally, Kaepernick was eased into the game with easy reads that progressively got more difficult starting with the play action deep post then the quick corner route before being asked to look off the safety on a go route.
This cannot be overstated as Kaepernick has shown the arm strength and accuracy to make every throw in the NFL, yet when he asked to read coverage or progress through multiple reads his throws have inaccurate and ineffective.
While many experts predicted Kaepernick would start off where he finished last year, he was co-favorite for MVP at many Vegas casinos in the preseason, it was unrealistic to expect a quarterback with only 10 starts to be among the best in the league. He isn’t alone either; Russell Wilson, RG III, Ryan Tannehill and even Andrew Luck have had their struggles this year as defenses have been given adequate time to study film and force them into their weaknesses.
Due to his inexperience and lack of traditional weapons on the outside, Greg Roman has had to adjust the offense. By recommitting to the power run game, providing easier reads and featuring Vernon Davis, Roman has put Kaepernick in a place to succeed. There will still be mistakes, as there was Sunday, but small steps in the right direction in October can lead to big things in January.