After three weeks of the 2013 season, the 49ers found themselves at a crossroads. Coming off a Super Bowl berth, they had limped to a 1-2 record behind an offense that had only scored 10 points against the Colts and Seahawks combined. The main reason behind the stagnant offense was Colin Kaepernick's struggles to consistently deliver as a pocket passer, which was understandable given his skill set and his lack of experience. Knowing a change was needed and their options limited by injuries to the receiver corps, Greg Roman allowed his quarterback to do what he does best, run.
Behind Kaepernick’s running ability, the 49ers have re-installed many of the read option principals that were ubiquitous of the 49ers offense last year. Zone reads, multiple shifts and jet sweeps have all been reintroduced to the offense, creating a rushing attack that was dangerous due to its multiplicity.
On the first drive of the game, the 49ers demonstrated the effectiveness of their creative running game. Using weak alignment, the FB and TE on differing sides, in the the Pistol formation and a zone read between Kaepernick and Gore, the 49ers created a large hole up the middle against an 8 man front.
Game Situation: 1st Quarter, 11:49, 2nd and 10 at the JAC 19, Jaguars 0, 49ers 0
Pre-Snap: The 49ers align in their 21 personnel with WR Kyle Williams split out wide left, WR Anquan Boldin in the left slot, TE Vernon Davis inline right and QB Kaepernick in the weak Pistol with FB Bruce Miller to his left and RB Gore behind him. The Jaguars respond with their base defense with SS Evans in the box as the 8th defender.
Post-Snap: LT Joe Staley releases off DE Jones to engage LB Posluszny on the second level. Additional FB Miller releases outside to gain outside leverage on LB Allen. Both Jaguar LBs slide outside to contain the potential QB Kaepernick sweep. This combined with the read man DE Jones slipping, keys QB Kaepernick to hand off to RB Gore on the inside dive.
RB Gore receives the ball and quickly cuts into a massive hole in the right A gap. The 49ers offensive linemen engage and dominate the Jaguar’s front seven eliminating any resistance at the line of scrimmage. This leaves only FS Cyprien between Gore and the end zone.
Once in the open field Gore sends Cyprien the wrong way with a sweet cut back left en route to a 19 yard touchdown.
Summary: Confronted with 8 man box and only 7 blockers the 49ers used the threat of Kaepernick running to even the numbers. Once matched up one on one, the 49ers offensive line locked up the Jaguars allowing Frank Gore into the second level untouched.
While the zone read is common practice in the NFL today and defenses are preparing for it weekly, it can still be devastatingly effective because of it allows the offenses to react to the defense after the snap. Yes teams have learned to crash the mesh point and provide help outside with a safety, but ability to attack inside or outside depending on the defenses reaction, forcing the defense to defend both, has evened the numbers at the line of scrimmage.
On the next 49ers possession, Greg Roman dialed up a power quarterback sweep that is rarely seen in the NFL outside of the Wildcat formation, highlighting the extreme diversity of the 49ers playbook.
Game Situation: 1st Quarter, 6:57, 2nd and 9 at the JAC 12, Jaguars 0, 49ers 7
Pre-Snap: The 49ers come to the line of scrimmage with TE McDonald outside left, OL Synder inline left, WR Boldin out wide right and QB Kaepernick with RB Gore to his left and FB Miller to his left. FB Miller motions left to create three 49ers off the line of scrimmage left. The Jaguars respond with their base defense with FS Cyprien in the box as the 8th defender.
Post-Snap: The reason for the motion becomes evident as FB Miller, TE McDonald and OL Snyder crash inside sealing the left edge. LT Staley pulls left to become a lead block along with RB Gore on QB Kaepernick’s power sweep left.
Following the blocks on the left edge, only 4 Jaguar defenders, CB Gratz, LB Posluszny, LB Hayes and S Evans have a chance to stop Kaepernick on the sweep.
The lead block combo of Staley and Gore manages to cut block 3 Jaguar defenders (Gore somehow cuts both Hayes and Posluszny with a single block) allowing Kaepernick to burst into the second level of the defense.
Once in the open field, Kaepernick uses his elite speed to beats S Evans to the pylon for a 12 yard touchdown.
Summary: The same play the resulted in Alex Smith’s touchdown run in the NFC Divisional Playoffs against the Saints in 2011, the power QB sweep is one of the more ascetically beautiful plays especially when it comes together. The outstanding blocks by Staley and Gore open the field for Kaepernick to demonstrate his game changing speed on his way to the pylon.
The creativity on this play starts even before the snap, with the motioning of a FB outside in between a TE and an extra OL. Once the trio of Miller, McDonald and Synder aligned outside and the Jaguars failed to shift accordingly, the 49ers had manufactured enough leverage on the outside seal the edge, allowing Kaepernick and his escorts to get to the outside.
With their backs against the the 49ers returned to their roots. Combining the creative genius of Greg Roman with the rare athletic ability of Kaepernick, the 49ers have found a way to effectively run the ball despite defenses aligning to prevent them from doing just that. Whether more disciplined defenses will be able to limit the 49ers attack or not is yet to be seen, but the multiple looks have certainly sparked the 49ers run game and therefore their offense.