At the midpoint in the season, San Francisco's vaunted rushing attack seemingly fell off a cliff. Through the first nine weeks of the season, the 49ers had the sixth most efficient run offense in the league by Football Outsiders' DVOA metric. As a team, they were averaging 4.48 yards per carry and only Washington and Green Bay saw a higher percentage of their runs convert for either a first down or a touchdown. With a shaky passing offense, the run game powered the 49ers to five consecutive victories heading into the bye week.
Following the bye, opposing teams began devoting even more attention than normal to stopping San Francisco's running game. Running the ball as often as the 49ers do, stacked boxes were nothing new. But teams were taking it a step further. New Orleans actually removed a defensive back in favor of an additional linebacker in numerous instances. Eight-man boxes quickly became nine and sometimes 10-man boxes. That sixth ranked run offense DVOA plummeted all the way down to 30th in the 49ers' post-bye week games.
With Colin Kaepernick and the passing game making strides, things have finally started opening back up in the running game. The 49ers put up their first positive run offense DVOA since the Jaguars' game against the Seahawks, capped off by a 51-yard Frank Gore run to seal the game. In Tampa Bay, things got even better. The 49ers finished with their third best rushing game of the season by DVOA, producing 187 yards at 4.68 yards per carry.
Even more encouraging than simply seeing great production against two very good run defenses was the manner in which they were able to accomplish it. After becoming a bit stale, content to just pound away from heavy personnel packages into loaded boxes, the variety and creativity that was the staple of San Francisco's rushing attack has started to return. Off to the All-22 we go!
We are going to get an edge. We are going to run power.
Before getting into a few of the new wrinkles that Greg Roman and co. introduced this week against the Buccaneers, I think it's important to cover the 49ers' most important rushing play: power.
Power is a staple play for many offenses, all the way down to the high school level. San Francisco's offensive line coach Mike Solari discussed how the 49ers run power at a coaches clinic and outlined some basic rules as to how they coach it:
- We want to identify the front.
- Block the inside gap first.
- Going to people on paper, but responsible for your gap first.
- Maximize numbers. Double-team whenever you can!
- If someone shows on your track, he gets hit and blocked.
- Not going to complicate a physical, explosive, violent play once the ball is snapped. Power! Leverage is the winning edge! Feet! Acceleration through targets!
Look at all those exclamation points! Power! Needless to say, power is a core play in the 49ers' offense and they feel as if they can run it against essentially any front that the defense may present.
It didn't take long for Roman to call the first power of the day against Tampa Bay, as we see it on the second running play of the day. The 49ers are aligned in an Offset I formation in their 21 personnel (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR) with the Bucs matching with their base 4-3 personnel. Gerald McCoy is aligned in a strong side 3-technique (outside shoulder of the guard). Normally against this front, the 49ers would get a double team on McCoy with left tackle Joe Staley and left guard Adam Snyder. But right before the snap, middle linebacker Mason Foster moves into the strong side A-gap (between the center and guard). This cues Snyder to instead implement our second rule from above: block the inside gap first. Snyder blocks down on Foster; Staley blocks down on McCoy. These two blocks seal off the inside, providing the edge for Gore to run off of.
The next two key blocks come from fullback Bruce Miller and right guard Alex Boone. Whenever you're running power from a two-back set, the fullback is going to be responsible for the kick-out block and the backside guard is going to pull up through the hole, around the double team (or in this case, Staley's block). The key for Miller is to approach his block from the inside-out, getting his outside shoulder on defensive end Adrian Clayborn's inside shoulder. Miller does a fantastic job and Gore now has an alley to run through with Boone leading through the hole.
Boone wants to turn tight around Staley's block, squaring his shoulders and then looking for the first player to show on his track, typically a linebacker. He gets a little wide on this play, but he's able to peel back and pick-up former trusted agent Dashon Goldson, who snuck down into the box late. Boone's block also forces linebacker Dekoda Watson to go around both his and Vernon Davis's block to get to Gore.
Gore does a great job of using his blocks and the result is a seven yard gain. Nothing flashy, but when the 49ers' run game is rolling you can expect to see several plays just like this one.
The Lead Draw
San Francisco actually opened the game with a play that they don't use all too often: the lead draw. By my count, the 49ers ended up running a draw on four different occasions, twice ending up with an explosive play.
Here we see the 49ers in an Offset I formation with their 21 personnel. The Bucs align in a 4-3 under, something that we see often from the Seahawks. Maybe the most incredible thing about this play is the fact that the Bucs are in a two-high safety look on the 49ers' opening offensive play of the game. This was unheard of as recently as a few weeks ago and is a testament to the improvement in the passing game.
On the play side (the side the run is going to), we get a double from Boone and center Jonathan Goodwin on defensive tackle Akeem Spence. Right tackle Anthony Davis gets a terrific block on defensive end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, tossing him a good 3-4 yards from where he initially makes contact and opening up a giant rushing lane in the process.
Vernon gets a nice kick-out block on Watson, leaving Miller leading the way up through the hole for Gore. Miller takes out Foster and with Boldin coming inside to pick-up safety Mark Barron, only Darrelle Revis is left to save what was nearly a huge gain to open the game.
There may have been something specific in their film study that the 49ers' coaching staff saw that they would be able to take advantage of with the lead draw, leading to the unusual usage of it this week. But if defenses continue to leave a safety out of the box, this is a play that I would expect the 49ers use more of going forward.
Wait, they read who?
49ers' fans have been clamoring for LaMichael James to become more involved in the offense. On Sunday, James saw a season high 10 snaps, while also doing good work in the return game. This is closer to the low-teen snap counts that he was getting once he started seeing action late in the season last year. By far, his most notable play came on the 49ers' second offensive play of the third quarter.
San Francisco is again in 21 personnel here, this time with Kaepernick in the Shotgun and a back aligned to each side of him. The 49ers are going to run a zone read with Kaepernick and James, but make two adjustments to the way you would typically see this play run. I think most of us have a decent understanding as to the basics of the zone read at this point, but for the uninitiated here's the quick breakdown. The offensive line is going to zone block to the play side (in this example, to the left) while leaving a back side edge defender unblocked. The quarterback will then "read" this player, keeping the ball himself if the defender crashes down and giving it to the back if the defender stays home.
Again, here the 49ers make two modifications to that basic formula. The first is that Staley and Snyder are going to use the same pin and pull technique that I outlined last week when discussing Gore's 51-yard run against Seattle. The second is that Kaepernick is actually reading an interior lineman as opposed to an edge defender.
When watching this play initially, I had my questions about whether Kaepernick was actually reading anyone at all. But after repeated viewing, it became clear that Boone was making no effort whatsoever to block Spence, who was aligned on his inside shoulder. When Spence goes to engage Boone, you can actually see Boone attempt to rip through and get passed him and on to the second level to pick up a linebacker.
Staley ends up with such a devastating down block on McCoy that both Boone and Spence are taken out of the play, rendering that whole read thing a little irrelevant. But it was still something that I haven't seen the 49ers do before. San Francisco saved much of their read option game for the Playoffs last season and with little tweaks like this popping up late in the year, it makes me wonder if we might end up seeing a similar expansion in that aspect of the offense as we head into the post-season.
Miller and Boldin again make key blocks to seal off the edge, leaving LaMichael with tons of room to the outside. The result is the 49ers' longest run of the day and one of five explosive plays on the ground in the game.
The touchdown that should've been
The last play that I want to highlight is one that went for no gain. Reason being, I think it's a great example of the type of creativity that has been missing from the 49ers' offense for much of the season.
The 49ers begin the play in a Shotgun Empty formation with their 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR). Boldin then motions into the backfield to the left of Kaepernick. Finally, just before the snap, James motions towards the backfield from the opposite side. Kaepernick fakes the outside handoff to James on the sweep action before spinning back inside for the underneath handoff to Boldin.
Despite all of this fancy backfield action, the blocking is actually just a simple counter play. Counter is another one of the 49ers' staple running plays and is very similar to the power play described above. The key difference is the assignments of the two lead blockers. On counter, they flip responsibilities. The pulling guard (Snyder on this play) is going to handle the kick-out block, while the fullback (or Vernon Davis in this example) is going to lead up through the hole, around the double team.
Everything sets up beautifully after the snap. Several defenders flow to the left towards James on the sweep fake. Anthony Davis and Boone seal off Spence with the double team and Vernon Davis gets a good block on Lavonte David. The problem arises with Snyder's kick-out block. Snyder makes barely any contact with defensive end William Gholston, who goes around Snyder and makes the tackle before Boldin has a chance to get through the hole.
Had Snyder been able to kick-out Gholston, Boldin's only obstacle to the end zone would have been backup safety Keith Tandy. That's a match-up that I'll take every single time.
Regardless of outcome, this is a perfect example of the type of creativity that Roman showed frequently prior to this season. You take a core play, something that the offensive line knows and is comfortable running, and present it in a different package. On first and goal from inside the 10 yard line, it was a perfect situation to make that type of call. And it was one block away from being a touchdown.
There are many things to be excited about with how the 49ers have been playing football these last few weeks. But after how dull and stale the offense was during the majority of the season, the addition of these types of creative wrinkles in the play-calling and the game plan is the thing that has me most optimistic going into the final weeks of the season.
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