Jim Harbaugh and Alex Smith chatted with the media today before the 49ers went out to practice and naturally much of the discussion centered around the red zone issues (Harbaugh Video; Smith Video). The 49ers red zone woes have been particularly noticeable the last two weeks. Against the Cardinals and Rams, the offense stalled out inside the 20 numerous times and was only able to punch in touchdowns on big plays outside the red zone.
The team is putting in additional work this week on their red zone offense, although we won't really know what that entails until Monday. Coach Harbaugh was asked about Vernon Davis and his use in the red zone, but of course he did not address scheme issues. Vernon has been a bit of mystery in the Harbaugh/Roman offense. He'll get a big play here or there, and then disappear from the game once in a while. Given how little we know about what exactly is going on week to week with scheme adjustments, we can't really say why that is. At times Vernon is being doubled, but we've seen a lot of times where he is held back to block. Mix in some ugly drops at times and it becomes all the more complicated.
I have no idea how the 49ers will improve their red zone performance, or even if it will improve. They face a Steelers defense that Football Outsiders ranks 12th overall in the red zone, tenth against the pass and 12th against the run. The Cardinals actually now rank fifth in the red zone, but given that the Rams rank 21st, it hasn't made a huge difference in the red zone struggles.
At some point, Alex is simply going to have to simply take more chances. He discussed the value of taking a sack over turning it over, but at some point field goals are just not enough. Maybe it requires some different play-calling, better execution or something else entirely, but the status quo the last couple weeks has been unacceptable.
Head Coach Jim Harbaugh
Press Conference - December 15, 2011
San Francisco 49ers
"Before we get started, I've been asked to make a presentation on behalf of USA Football. Each year USA Football selects an All-Fundamentals Team to honor players who exemplify good technique. Also, as with these guys, great members of our team. Consummate team players for youth football players (to emulate). I'm pleased to announce that Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, and NaVorro Bowman have been selected to the All-Fundamentals team. Congratulations, guys."
Any interesting phone conversations with your brother this week?
"Just the usual. We did speak earlier this week."
Can he help you tackle the Steelers, given that he plays them twice a year and he's been very good against them?
"We talked about it. We talked about last week's game, talked about this week's game as we often do."
Are there similarities between last week's game and this week's game from an opponent's defensive perspective?
"Yes. As you know, Ray Horton, Defensive Coordinator at Arizona, was at Pittsburgh. There's definitely a similar style."
You said after the Ravens game, in regards to the sacks, it obviously just wasn't one thing. Has that held true the last two weeks? Is there one area you can pinpoint? It's an individual breakdown or QB Alex Smith is holding the ball too long? Or is it just like the Ravens, game across the board?
"I think you could probably say that a lot. It's never just one thing. You go about addressing them and trying to find ways that you can eliminate getting your quarterback hit, eliminate getting sacks. That's the goal."
Jon Gruden and Ron Jaworski in a conference call seemed to suggest that your offensive line, especially [G] Mike Iupati and [T] Anthony Davis, were struggling against zone blitzes. Is that what you've seen?
"We did see some zone blitzes. We didn't do as well as we would have liked. Not singling anybody out in particular."
They suggested that that's a result of the lockout, those two guys in particular, didn't get the benefit of this offseason to congeal, to get experience in those types of plays. Is there any truth to that? That both guys are still learning on the fly, especially when it comes to sort of confusing types of blitzes?
"Like I said earlier, it's not one thing. It's not one guy. Like it always is, there are some combinations of factors and we're working on them."
It's hard in each play, but would you prefer Alex to take a sack over throwing an interception in certain situations?
"Yes. In certain situations, yes. Probably in most situations. Sacks would be better than an interception."
Does the lockout impact offensive line play more than any other? Because of the cohesion?
"I'm not really talking about the lockout. That was so long ago that I think it's irrelevant to really delve into it. Our task, our challenge, is to win the next game. That's what it always is. That's what we want to be about. A winning outfit. Winning special teams, winning offense, winning defense. Easier said than done. Win the next game. That's the challenge, that's where the pressure is. That's up to us to figure out the best way to do that and go out and execute. That's always the goal. We put a plan together and execute it."
Has T Joe Staley been cleared to practice?
"He's been cleared to do some walk through, but no, he's still going through a series of - as you guys like to say - protocol. For lack of a better word. I'll use it."
Are there any similarities between the Ravens defense and the defense you'll see on Monday night in terms of attacking and pressure?
"Yes. There's a lot of similarities. They're two of the best defenses in the league. Two of the best defenses that we've played all year. You could find a lot of similarities in terms of scheme, in terms of great players that are very well-coached. Have a lot of experience and confidence in their system. Again, the challenge is dealing with the Pittsburgh Steelers defense. Our guys are excited about that. They want to take that head on. It's a big challenge, and one that our guys embrace."
Does it benefit you at all on the schedule to have Arizona right before Pittsburgh so you kind of get a preview for that defense?
"It could be. Yes, I guess it would be. Two similar style defenses. Two 3-4 based defenses. As opposed to a 4-3 and a 3-4."
Defensive Line Coach Jim Tomsula visited us and said that never is it spoken about, this streak of no rushing touchdowns allowed or no 100-yard rushers, it's never discussed. But that that unit takes a lot of pride in stopping the run. What's your assessment of how that group approaches it?
"I think it's exactly the way you just said it. I think you just summed it up very well. That's how they approach it. It's not something that's talked about but they do take a lot of pride in it."
It's an impressive feat, wouldn't you say? Have you seen a streak like this?
"I can't say that I have. I think the way our guys, our coaches, our team approach it, is how it plays in to situational football. How it helps us to accomplish the one and only thing we want to accomplish and that's be a winning defense. Win the next game. It's a big factor. It's a big factor, being able to contain an opponent's running game. To shut down an opponent's running game. To keep them out of the end zone."
In terms of the pass rush with LB Aldon Smith, has he exceeded expectations on the pass rushing front?
"Yes, I would have to say yes. The expectations, where are those ever? Other than let's go to work and let's see if we can't get better than we were yesterday. Can't say enough good things about him. He's doing a great job. I loved the hustle play the other day in the ball game. He kind of missed the sack, but then turned and ran and chopped, ripped the ball out of the quarterback and he got us a turnover. I thought that was kind of Justin Smith-like, in a lot of ways."
You said that he might get more downs in the run game. Would he come in for LB Ahmad Brooks or LB Parys Haralson on one side?
"Well now we're getting in to talking scheme and how we'd approach the game. We don't ever like to tip anything off.
Was that the strategy to limit what he does? He's not an every down guy so he can just focus on pass rushing right now?
"I think that was part of the progression when we first started making the transition of being a defense end to an NFL outside linebacker. Like we've said from the very beginning, he's been a quick learner. Adapted very well."
How has CB Chris Culliver progressed throughout the year?
"Really well. Been a major contributor. It's great to watch it in practice because he's getting better and better in practice and it's showing up in the ball games. In special teams and on defense. Again, he's a committed guy, a quick learner. Works very hard at it, practices very hard. He's got a knack for getting his hands on the ball. When you see it in practice, you know you'll going to see it in games."
Are you approaching the game like Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger is going to play?
Do you feel you guys have an advantage because you have an extra day to prepare for this game versus other weeks when you just have the regular seven days?
"Does it help? Yes, the extra day helps."
Do you guys do anything that's different to hone in on the red zone, to focus and study it? Try to self scout it and figure out where it's missing?
"Yes, all those things and more."
Do you change the practice schedule at all to emphasize that more or do you keep the same routine?
"We're going to work on it more."
What day is generally your situational day?
"For the red zone?"
"Well there's going to be more than one."
And that's different than usual?
"We'll go from two to three."
Alex said the other day that in the past few years, Vernon has been one of his best red zone targets. He doesn't seem to be getting as many looks this year. Is it a factor of you guys are using him differently, he's being double teamed, all of the above? Why not more Vernon Davis in the red zone?
"Don't really address the scheme part of it. Who, why, where, what we're trying to get done or what we're going to try to get done this week. Know this - we're trying to score touchdowns. It's important to get points when you're in the red zone. You have to have points because that leads to winning football. We're trying to score touchdowns."
Let me just ask you from the opponent's point of view. Have they picked up on the fact that he was such a good target for Alex that they are concentrating on him in those situations?
"I'm not going to speak for the opponents. Just write your article or talk to the opponents and make your observations. I'm not going to talk about what we're going to do schematically."
As a player, can you recall or did you go up against a Dick LeBeau coached defense? If so, was what he was doing at the time considered revolutionary in some of his schemes?
"I don't know the entire lineage of his schemes. They adapt. They are very, very good technically in all phases of their defense. They have veteran players. That's one standpoint. Also, extremely well-coached. There's no false steps. There's very few eye violations. There's very few times that somebody blows a coverage or is out of position. That's great coaching. That's great learning. That's a real understanding on the players' part of knowing what to do. It's impressive."
What's an eye violation?
"Somebody in the secondary in man-to-man coverage or in zone coverage and putting his eyes in the wrong place to lead to a blown coverage."
What makes your defense so good in the red zone?
"What makes our defense? The fact that they're very good at stopping the run. Doing a very good job of tight coverage. Getting pressure on the quarterback. Good scheme."
Would you tell us a little bit what has worked for the Ravens against the Steelers from your observations from afar?
"In the two games that they've won this year? No, not really. Not concerned with the Ravens other than to watch those games and see what could work for us."
As a player and coach, you hear the excitement on the Monday Night Football game. How real is that? How do you see it affect the players and the team?
"I think it's real. I think it's one of the NFL's biggest stages. Brightest lights. Just football players in general, going back to high school, like playing under the lights. It's a thrill. A game where everybody is watching. All those things."
QB Alex Smith
Press Conference - December 15, 2011
San Francisco 49ers
Coach Harbaugh just said that you guys might spend more time this week on red zone than you normally do, do you think that will be beneficial, do you think it's sort of chemistry issues that are plaguing the team?
"Yeah, I think just trying some little things here and there to obviously get us more time down there and more reps. Yeah, no question need to get better down there. And part of that is just getting comfortable with it, getting reps. One of those things, kind of time on task type of deal I think. We've just got to execute better too, and we've left a lot of food on the table, so to speak. So, obviously room for improvement and we all need to improve."
You guys have done a lot of things down there, tried a lot of things down there, do you guys need to hone in and just sort of find whatever it is it might be meaningful, or does some things that just work?
"Yeah, it's a mix there. Obviously you'd like to form an identity of what you're good at, where your strengths are down there. But then no question, week in and week out, all defenses are unique down there in how they play, what they play, where the matchups are. So, it's also not just cookie cutter every week, like hey, we're just going to run these things. It's also how you match up versus their personnel and their scheme. So, you're always going to have new things in down there as well, wrinkles and things like that."
There seemed to be a lot of those in the sacks and the pressures. Afterward you saw linemen sort of look at each other, you know it looked like just miscommunications and things weren't always together up front, what's happening on those and what can you do to try to get everybody knowing what the assignment is?
"Some of it is communication, like you're saying. Some of it isn't. Some of it's just we're not getting it done. It's tough. You're on the road. It's noisy, especially on third down a lot of times. So, it's tough to make calls, hear calls. They're moving around at the last second. All of those things kind of go into it. So, just got to continue to focus and hone in, preparation. Things like that all play into that."
What is your thought on risking injury, taking another sack if you have a nine sack game versus risking a possible turnover, I mean, how do you?
"Oh, obviously turnovers change games and we all understand that. You don't like sacks either, but there are a lot of situations, almost all situations, I can't think of one I wouldn't rather take a sack than a turnover. But part of the deal playing quarterback is you've got to protect the football. That's making good decisions, accurate throws, but it's also in the pocket protecting the football."
Alex, from your perspective, what's particularly difficult about facing a fire zone, or a zone blitz?
"Man-to-man you know what you're getting. Everybody's manned up. You've got to beat the man in front of you. Matchups outside, obviously it's usually people are playing tight, bump, things like that. Pittsburgh, obviously known for the zone pressure, kind of got invented there. Obviously it's spread throughout the league. It's kind of revolutionized defensive football. So, yeah, you're getting overload pressures to one side. They're beating your protection and then they're zoning off the field basically. And most of them are looking at quarterbacks' eyes and trying to read where he's going with the ball, and it's all meant to disrupt your hot throws and things like that, sights. Defensive coordinators are looking to adjust those, to tailor them to how you're beating pressure, things like that. So, it can be difficult. You've got to get on top of it."
Alex, this is sort of a two-parter, but what strides have you seen from LB NaVorro Bowman this year based on practice, and also, how impressive are some of these streaks your defense has in stopping you know, no 100-yard rushers, no rushing TD's?
"It's tough. Obviously focused on our side of the ball, and I haven't really gone against our defense really since camp. But, obviously the way NaVorro's playing, just the pure production to be in there and making all those tackles. And doing it game-in, week-in, week-out, for a second-year guy, first year starting, obviously he's doing really well. I think we all understand that. He's playing at a really high level right now, and the guy works really hard. He's humble and obviously really talented. So, as far as our defense goes, especially just the way they've been playing in the red zone, against the run, really well. And it's doing it a lot of times without the extra hat in the box. It's a credit to our front seven, really getting the job done, our D-line playing well. Linebackers running to the football, making good tackles. I think the core there is obviously we're a good tackling football team up front. Don't miss a lot of tackles and it's a credit to those guys."
Alex, are you interested to hear what the result of the appeal is with Steelers OLB James Harrison?
"Once it comes out, we'll see what the news is, but really we're getting ready to play. All their linebackers are really talented. The next guy in, [Steelers OLB Jason] Worilds is a good player as well. So, we're getting ready for what we have to do I guess. Obviously, we'll be paying attention."
Can you go back to the eye thing a little bit, about the blitzing that you have to watch what you're doing with your eyes, is that you have to make sure you're not telegraphing more than usual when you're facing a defense like this?
"Not so much telegraphing-obviously you have to have good eye discipline, but you also have to see where you're throwing. I think more the dangerous thing is throwing blind. That's where you get a lot of turnovers, things like that. You've got to see out in front. You've got to see the zones. But, obviously a team like this, they're a veteran group across the board, and they know what they're doing. They play it fast. So, they're all very skilled at reading routes as well, reading the quarterback, especially the two safeties. Very instinctive players, jump things, make plays on routes that a lot of guys wouldn't make. They're good. They're good at what they do. So, no question, obviously you've got to have good eye discipline, but you've got to see what's going on as well."
You seem to have developed a good red zone rapport with TE Vernon Davis in previous seasons, what's different this year with that connection close to the goal line?
"It's all different. Obviously we're running different stuff, we're doing different things. And some of that is just taking what they're giving us. And I think Vernon, obviously, has shown what he can do in the red zone and I think defenses are aware of it a lot of times. A little bit, obviously, is just execution as well, getting those opportunities and capitalizing on them. Just getting the extra work down there, especially the last couple of years being in the same system where they're running the same stuff, getting really good at it down there. You could see why we had success down there, especially last year. This year I still think, obviously a work in progress, need to get better."
Is it a nice perk that your head coach can call his brother for a little bit of insight on your opponent, the team that the Ravens beat twice?
"Yeah, I guess. We've still got to go out there and play and do it. He knows them, plays them twice a year. But, you can turn on the film and you see it just as well. So, it doesn't change the fact that you're still playing the Steelers and they're a good football team."