Recently the NFL playoffs have become as unpredictable as March Madness. Instead of the powerhouse 13-3 or 14-2 teams steam rolling their way to a Lombardi trophy, the norm has become a Wild Card team sneaking into the playoffs only to get hot and surprise everyone by winning it all. Whether it was the Packers in 2010, the Giants in 2007 and 2011 or the Ravens last year, more often than not in the past seven seasons the last team standing was an afterthought as the playoff races became clear in the beginning of December.
What else do those three teams have in common; they all had proven quarterbacks that made the jump in big games in January and February. We all remember Joe Flacco ridiculous stretch, or Eli Manning's heroics against the Patriots being the deciding factor for teams than had relatively forgettable regular seasons. It seems as if the formula for winning in the playoffs has become getting hot in the last half of season with a quarterback catching fire at the right moment.
Sound familiar? The 49ers have reeled off a currently league-leading 4-game win streak, fittingly tied with the Ravens, and have seen their quarterback transform from completely overwhelmed to clutch in a matter of weeks. Three short weeks ago, after embarrassing performances against the Saints and Panthers, 49er fans were wondering if Colin Kaepernick really was the answer or if keeping Alex Smith would have been wise.
Fast forward to now and Colin Kaepernick looks like a more polished version of the NFC Championship quarterback that we fell in love with last year. Now I'm not saying the 49ers will win the Super Bowl, but they are making a strong case for serious contenders by following the footsteps of the past three Super Bowl Champs and coming together late in the season behind excellent quarterback play.
Dual Threat: After setting the quarterback record for rushing yards in a game, Colin Kaepernick seemed to be at the forefront of the transformation of the position. Yet this year, he has seemed hesitant to tuck the ball and run despite his ability to create big plays for himself and other by running the ball.
Let's look at how Colin Kaepernick reverted to his old ways with decisive and confident scrambles that moved the chains and led to points.
Game Situation: 1st Quarter, 10:30, 3rd and 8 at the TB 33, 49ers 0, Buccaneers 0
Formation: 4 Wide Shotgun
Offensive Concept: QB Scramble
Defensive Scheme: Man 1
Pre-Snap: The Bucs come to the line showing an overload blitz with S Keith Tandy and S Mark Barron at the line of scrimmage. On the back end, the Bucs are showing Man 1 coverage with former 49er S Dashon Goldson playing a deep center zone. Despite the blitz look, the 49ers stay in their 4 wide shotgun set with Gore in the backfield with Kaepernick.
Post-Snap: As the ball is being snapped, S Tandy sprints back into a deep safety position while S Barron blitzes off the left edge and slot CB Leonard Johnson blitzes from the right. All of the changes result in the same Man 1 coverage but the deep safety is now S Tardy and S Goldson is in man coverage on Manningham.
With the combination of the blitzes off the edge and the defensive line getting too far up field losing lane discipline, Kaepernick is able to easily step forward into the open field. Making it worse for the Bucs, the man coverage and single deep safety mean none of the Bucs defenders are in a great position to challenge Kaepernick's scramble.
The one defender that has an opportunity to stop Kaepernick short of the line of scrimmage is CB Jonathan Banks, who comes off Crabtree's in-route. Undeterred, Kaepernick uses his speed and size to break CB Banks lunging tackle and turn up field for 17 yards and a 3rd down conversion.
Summary: While the Bucs seemingly outsmarted themselves with a complex defensive blitz that ultimately created an obvious scrambling opportunity, Colin Kaepernick showed his elite athleticism by challenging and beating a defender in open space turning a 5 yard gain into a 17 yard first down. And this was far from an isolated incident on Sunday as he had 4 scrambles for 42 yards on the day, 2 of which were crucial 3rd down conversions that ultimately led to 10 points.
Throughout the 2013 season people have wondered why Kaepernick seemed so hesitant to run; was it the coaching staff's instructions or his own desire to prove to the league that he could win from the pocket? I don't know, teams have also been playing more zone or QB spies limiting scramble opportunities, but Sunday showed that Kaepernick's running ability must be accounted for or it can prove costly for defenses.
Extending the Play: While the first downs off scrambles can be back breaking for a defense, the real pain comes when a quarterback can extend the play with his legs while continuing to look downfield for a big opportunity. Now it's not an easy task, especially for a young quarterback like Kaepernick, but he managed to show the patience and poise against the Bucs to create plays down the field with his arm from outside the pocket.
Let's look at how Colin Kaepernick turned a failed play into 7 points on the 49ers first drive and set the tone for the offense.
Game Situation: 1st Quarter, 7:42, 2nd and 3 at the TB 4, 49ers 0, Buccaneers 0
Formation: I Formation
Offensive Concept: Scramble
Defensive Scheme: Outside Man
Pre-Snap: The 49ers come to the line of scrimmage with James split out wide right in a 3 wide set. A quick motion ofJames back to the backfield and the 49ers are in a traditional I formation. The Bucs are in their base defense, 4-3, but with both S Barron and S Goldson at the goal line forming a suedo 5 man linebacker corps, all playing underneath zones.
Post-Snap: A double playfake, inside handoff to Miller and a pitch to James fails to move any of the zone defenders, something required to make the first option, Boldin's slant route, possible. Without any movement and S Goldson stuffing Boldin at the line of scrimmage Kaepernick is forced into plan B.
Before Kaepernick can toggle to his second progression, Crabtree's quick out route, DT Gerald McCoy beats Anthony Davis inside forcing Kaepernick to escape the pocket to his right. With the timing of the quick out route off due to the pressure, and a late throw to an out route can be very costly, Kaepernick keeps drifting right creating a scramble situation for him and his receivers.
In response to Kaepernick sliding right and CB Banks closing taking away the out route, Crabtree spins back inside before quickly doubling back towards the sideline. The double move sends CB Banks the wrong way and leaves Crabtree wide open for Kaepernick and an easy touchdown.
Summary: When the double playfake slant route went south and inside pressure disrupted the second option, Colin Kaepernick knew he had to give his receivers time to get open. By sliding right he did just that and Crabtree rewarded him with a nice move that fooled Banks and gave Kaepernick an opportunity.
While it seems like Kaep didn't have to do anything spectacular on this play, he showed the poise and patience to create enough time for his receiver to create on the fly. More so, the combination of the 17 yard scramble on 3rd down earlier on this drive and the execution of this play set the tone for the 49ers offense with an opening touchdown.
Rocket Laser Arm: We have all seen Kaepernick's ability to create plays with his legs, but they may not even be his most impressive physical attribute. Boasting a huge arm that reportedly threw a 93 mph fastball in high school, Kaepernick has the ability to go deep, real deep. While the 49ers lack the traditional deep threat on the outside, they do have the fastest tight end in the league and have been known to attack mismatches down the seam in search of a big play, especially with a safety in coverage.
Let's look at how the 49ers did just that out off play action in the second quarter.
Game Situation: 2nd Quarter, 01:56, 1st and 10 at the SF 48, 49ers 10, Buccaneers 0
Offensive Personnel: 1 WR (Anquan Boldin) 2 RB (Kendall Hunter, Bruce Miller) 2 TE (Vernon Davis, Garett Celek)
Formation: Ace Big
Offensive Concept: Deep Post
Defensive Scheme: Cover 3
Pre-Snap: The 49ers motion Miller from the backfield to a left wing position maintaining a run heavy look on 1st and 10. The Bucs respond with their base defense in Cover 3 with S Barron, who is has deep right responsibility, 8 yards off the line of scrimmage in a run support position.
Post-Snap: A quick playfake to Hunter and Celek and Miller staying in creates a max protect play action pass. The route combination of a comeback route by Boldin and a deep post route by Davis was meant to attack S Barron in single coverage against Davis.
The play design works to perfection as S Goldson, the deep middle zone, is forced to step up on Boldin's hitch route leaving S Barron one on one with Davis. Unable to match TEDavis's speed and having started with outside technique against a post route, S Barron is trailing and out of position. In the backfield, Kaepernick slides left with great protection before demonstrating his arm strength on a deep pass that finds Davis in the endzone.
Summary: Watch that throw again, please; it's for your own good. It's not the distance, approximately 60 yards, but the pace of the throw that is shocking, more of a cruise missile than a bomb. I made the GIF and still can't stop watching it. And this isn't just me getting excited; a former NFL scout on CSN Bay Area claimed, "it was one of the more incredible throws I've ever seen in my life".
Alright back to the play, what Kaepernick described the play as a "shot play" is a rather simple play that really has only one option, Vernon's deep post. With his blazing speed, it's unusual for teams to try and play one on one with a safety on him, but that's exactly what the Bucs did multiple times on Sunday. Even an extremely talented safety like Mark Barron is overmatched against Davis and it showed Sunday with Kaepernick completing this pass for a 51 yard touchdown and narrowly missing another deep pass against similar coverage minutes before.
Even with the return of Michael Crabtree, it still seems as if the main deep threat is Vernon Davis . And that's more than ok, his elite speed and ability to line up inline in heavy formations against slower defenders creates mismatches that can be downright unfair. Add in Kaepernick's seemingly unlimited range and the 49ers will continue to challenge teams deep down the seam a few times a game.
Putting it all together: We've already seen Kaepernick's ability to beat teams with his legs, create when the play breaks down and his elite arm strength. The last question is could he do it when it mattered, when a first down was needed not wanted. It's a lot easier to make a big play early in the game when there is time to make up for a mistake or missed opportunity. But what about when it's 3rd and long in a one score in the 4th quarter?
Well, we were treated to just that situation when the 49ers faced a big 3rd and 12 after a personal foul from Crabtree. Let's look at how Kaepernick avoided a free rusher, kept his eyes downfield and broke the back of the Buc's defense with 14 yard completion that extended what would become an 11 minute drive that put the game to bed.
Game Situation: 4th Quarter, 12:35, 3rd and 12 at the TB 29, 49ers 20, Buccaneers 14
Offensive Personnel: 2 WR (Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Mario Manningham) 1 RB (Frank Gore) 1 TE (Vernon Davis
Formation: Shotgun Trips Right
Offensive Concept: Flood
Defensive Scheme: Zone Blitz
Pre-Snap: The Bucs show a 4 deep zone shell with pressure underneath from LB Lavonte David. The 49ers slide the protection right to protect against additional rushers from the right side and allowing Gore to slide left to pick up LB David. In reality, the Bucs bring an overload zone blitz from the left with S Tandy rushing forward at the snap.
Post-Snap: The zone blitz works to near perfection as 4 of the 49ers offensive line slides right to block 3 defenders while Gore and Joe Staley are left to block 3 defenders. With Staley taking DE Adrian Clayborn and Gore picking up S Tandy, LB Lavonte David is allowed to enter the backfield untouched. The immediate pressure up the middle forces Kaepernick to retreat to his right just as the play begins.
On the outside the trio of Boldin, Crabtree and Davis run a hitch, 15 yard out and a post respectively forming a flood route combination.
With only 5 defenders in zone coverage, 2 underneath and 3 deep, the trio of routes pulls the defense apart. The hitch route occupies the two underneath routes and the deep post forces both the deep center and right zone to drop, leaving a space for Crabtree's out route. CB Revis is seen pointing at Crabtree realizing the looming gap in the zone as its happening but cannot step up as it would leave Davis open on the post route.
Meanwhile in the backfield, Kaepernick has escaped LB David but his retreat has created an angle for the other pass rushers to disengage their blockers and provide pursuit.
As both defenders close in, Kaepernick releases a dart from 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage that finds Crabtree along the sideline for a 14 yard gain and a back breaking 3rd down conversion.
Summary: Wow. With one of the faster linebackers in the NFL in his face at the snap, Colin Kaepernick conjured some magic on the game's biggest play. He simply received the snap, sprinted at a 45 degree angle from the line of scrimmage creating time for his receivers to come open. While Kaepernick avoided being sacked, he was 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage and still under pressure. Yet he found someway to rip a pass down the sideline that traveled 30 yards in air for a 14 yard completion and a huge first down.
Not only was the play itself impressive but it came at a deciding moment of the game. The Bucs had just scored with ease to cut the 49ers lead to 6 and the 3rd and 12 situation due to a bizarre penalty on Michael Crabtree had the 49ers against the wall. All in all the 49ers were in a bleak situation that got infinitely worse after the snap when the protection was compromised instantly. But Kaepernick bailed the 49ers out with an incredible individual effort that highlighted his combination of athleticism and poise.
The stats will say that Week 1 against the Packers was Colin Kaepernick's best game of the season but the tape says differently. With a combination of big time throws, escapability and clutch moments, Kaepernick looked a lot like a bigger version of that quarterback that plays in the Northwest who is in the MVP conversation.
Add in that Tampa Bay's defense is nothing to scoff at, and it was understandable that Jim Harbaugh was bringing up Kaepernick's performance without being prompted and people are jumping back on the Kaepernick bandwagon. Not only has Kaepernick played well for the past four weeks, but he has shown progress week to week in the subtle areas of quarterbacking, progression reads, decisiveness and most importantly confidence.
With an elite defense, a potent running game and now improving quarterback with an extremely high ceiling, the 49ers are returning to the team that won the NFC last year. Yes this year is slightly different, not as much zone read, but the 49ers are becoming the team no one wants to play in the NFC and Kaepernick's play is a big part of that.
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