Following an impressive performance that resulted in a dominating win over Washington on national TV, 49er fans have much to be thankful for (had to go ahead and get my Thanksgiving reference out of the way off the top). LaMichael James impressing in return duty. The Smith's once again wreaking havoc on the opposing quarterback. Our best offensive weapon is set to make his debut in the very near future. Yup, everything has been sunshine, rainbows, and unicorns in Niner Land this Thanksgiving week.
However, the aspect of that Monday night victory that has me most optimistic as we head towards the final stretch of the season were the improvements in the passing game. Colin Kaepernick and co. were incredibly efficient. The struggling QB posted an impressive 12.29 AY/A (adjusted yards per attempt), the second highest mark of his career. Football Outsiders' defense-adjusted metrics were also a fan of the effort, as Kaepernick put up his highest passing DYAR since that Week 1 outburst against Green Bay.
As fantastic as the numbers were from that game, it was the addition of several passing concepts that have been mostly absent from San Francisco's playbook recently that got me excited. Because let's be honest with each other, Washington's defense hasn't exactly been causing opposing offensive coordinators to lose sleep this season. We know this. An impressive looking stat sheet is expected against a team struggling as much as Washington has. It was the method in which we went about accumulating those stats that was the important takeaway.
After running roughshod over the middle of the schedule, relying on a strong running game, stifling defense and a favorable slate of match-ups, everything came crashing down following the bye week. Carolina and New Orleans exposed our offense as what we feared it to be all along. The formula was relatively simple: sell out to stop the run by loading the box with as many defenders as possible -- New Orleans spent a large portion of the game in a 5-3 defensive alignment, personnel reserved almost exclusively for goal line and short-yardage situations at the NFL level, and would frequently drop the lone safety into the box as well -- and force the 49ers to make plays in the passing game. And make plays, they could not.
On Monday night, Washington took that same approach to defending the San Francisco offense. And if their goal was to shutdown the 49ers' running game at all costs, they certainly succeeded. The 49ers managed only 2.3 yards per carry while posting their second worst rushing DVOA (subscription required) of the season. The difference was that San Francisco was able to capitalize on the advantageous looks provided to them in the passing game.
One of the problems that had plagued the 49ers' passing game was a lack of passing concepts that effectively attacked the middle of the field. During the games against the Panthers and Saints, most of Kaepernick's throws were to routes outside the numbers. The 49ers spent much of their time in 22 personnel. Their passing game had become overly simplistic and, therefore, limited. With only a single wide receiver on the field, they were not able to take advantage of run-heavy fronts teams were playing against them. Against Washington, they were able to do just that.
Let's go to the All-22 and highlight a few plays that show how the 49ers expanded their passing game to attack the middle of the field.
The NCAA Route
1st Quarter, 5:38 remaining, 2nd and 8 at the SF40
I'm actually going to start with a play that wasn't ultimately successful. It's as much about process as outcome when looking for these improvements and this was a play where I felt Kap's process was on point, he just needed to pull the trigger a bit quicker.
San Francisco is running what's commonly referred to as the NCAA route, which features a post-dig-drag combination attacking the middle of the defense at varying levels. Pre-snap, Washington is in a single-high safety look with strong safety Reed Doughty down in the box.
Immediately following the snap, Kaepernick keys on free safety Brandon Meriweather. Like most route combinations, the NCAA route is read from deep to short and Meriweather's action will determine where Kaepernick should go with the ball. Rather than staying in the deep middle of the field, Meriweather rotates over the top of Boldin, bracketing him along with corner DeAngelo Hall. Kaepernick correctly diagnoses this and immediately looks back to his left to Manningham running the post route to the area vacated by Meriweather.
Everything is gravy to this point. Kaepernick has made the correct read, Manningham has inside leverage on corner Josh Wilson on the post route with a large void in the middle of the defense to run to. The problem arises when Kaepernick fails to pull the trigger on the throw. Rather than trusting what his eyes have told him and letting it rip, Kaepernick "burps the baby" and reshuffles in the pocket just a bit before deciding to make the throw. That slight delay gives Wilson enough time to recover and make a play on the ball.
Not the outcome we want, but the process was there. And good processes will eventually lead to good outcomes. That was the case when we went back to the same exact concept on the first play of the subsequent drive.
2nd Quarter, 15:00 remaining, 1st and 10 at the SF42
On this play San Francisco comes out in an Offset I Pistol formation with their 22 personnel and Vance McDonald aligned directly alongside Bruce Miller at the fullback position. What's interesting about this play is the formation of the Washington defense. Nick Barnett (#55) has replaced Doughty in Washington's base 3-4 defense, giving them a fifth linebacker in the box to load up against the run. As you can see from the screenshot above, there's not a single Washington defender deeper than seven yards from the line of scrimmage. This was something that New Orleans did with regularity on early downs and the 49ers weren't able to take advantage.
The play action fake by Kaepernick freezes those inside linebackers and with no one in the deep middle of the field, it's game over for corner Josh Wilson as Vernon Davis has the entire field to separate on the post route.
These are the type of plays that the 49ers' offense must continue to make if defenses insist on focusing that much attention to the run game.
Over the passed several weeks (and much of the season, really), the 49ers go-to formation in obvious passing situations has been a Shotgun Trips formation with Manningham as the lone backside receiver. Out of this look, they love to run four verticals or the smash concept, each of which aim to stretch the defense vertically. However, on this third down play early in the 4th Quarter, they turned to a concept that I haven't seen them run much of this season: levels.
4th Quarter, 13:34 remaining, 3rd and 11 at the SF44
Levels is a common passing concept in the NFL -- Peyton Manning has made a living on it for years. The routes run by Davis (dig) and Boldin (5-yard in) create a high-low read for Kaepernick in the middle of the field. Unlike the previous concept, levels is typically read short to deep. It is a particularly effective concept against Cover 2 Zone coverage, which Washington is in on this play.
Vernon does a great job of taking an outside stem on his dig route, which widens Wilson in the slot and creates more space for Boldin coming underneath on the in route. This is particularly important in this situation, as Boldin is going to need room to run following the catch in order to move the chains. Kaepernick makes the easy throw and the out of position Wilson can do nothing but dive at Boldin's feet as he makes his move up the field to convert the first down.
Creating Space With Motion
Throughout their tenure, Harbaugh and Roman have done a fantastic job at "scheming" players open in the passing game. What I mean by this is using formations, motion, etc. in order to create favorable situations and match-ups for the offense. The imagination in this area has been lacking as of late, but was something we started to see a bit more of on Monday night. This completion to Manningham early in the 4th Quarter highlights that nicely.
4th Quarter, 12:18 remaining, 2nd and 13 at the WAS46
San Francisco lines up in an Offset I formation with 21 personnel and Manningham split out to the wide side of the field. Washington again matches this base personnel grouping by dropping a safety into the box. More often than not, when Washington dropped a safety down, he would align to the strong side of the formation, which he does on this play. The coaching staff uses this knowledge, along with the fact that the safety would follow tight end motion to the opposite side of the field in order to remain on the strong side of the formation, to create extra space for Manningham to work on the backside slant.
With the safety out of the picture, there's no defender on that side of the field that will be able to jump into the passing lane quick enough to disrupt the throw. The only thing left is for Manningham to win his match-up on the slant route, which he does easily.
These types of adjustments, while small, can often be the difference in the success of a play. We saw on the first play to Manningham that I highlighted above that even a split second delay can change the outcome of the play.
There were plenty of other encouraging moments in the passing game on Monday. Several of the concepts that have been commonplace throughout the season were better executed. The pass protection from the offensive line was as good as it's been all season against a pass rush that was the only real strength of the Washington defense headed in. But the way the 49ers attacked the middle of the field was atop the list of positives in this game. Continuing to be successful in this area -- which in theory, should only improve once Crabtree is back in the lineup -- will be key as the 49ers' offense looks to hit it's stride for the run to the playoffs.