Now that everyone and their brother is running the read-option in the NFL, we've all heard ad nauseam that the difficult part for the defense is that they have to pick their poison in terms of who to focus on. The quarterback can hand the ball to the running back if the defense cheats outside, or keep it if they "bite" inside on the hand-off. In the 49ers first two playoff games we saw each team take one of the above approaches...and neither really "stopped" the success of the read-option at all. This begs the question: How will Baltimore choose to defend the option?
As mentioned, when the 49ers hosted Green Bay earlier this month, the Packers clearly were more concerned about the inside hand-off. Their defensive ends crashed, linebackers and safeties took steps toward the line of scrimmage, only to see Colin Kaepernick dart outside and down the field for huge chunks of yardage.
Conversely the Atlanta Falcons seemed intent on stopping the big plays made by Kaepernick, sending their ends up the field to contain the keeper. In response, Kap handed the ball willingly to Frank Gore and LaMichael James, who combined for 124 yards rushing and three touchdowns (each of which came on a read-option run).
So what will Baltimore do differently? Will they contain the edge and trust that they simply have a better front-seven who can stop running backs more effectively than Atlanta did? Or will they try to take away the inside runs and instead put a "spy" on Kaepernick in order to limit his effectiveness on the edge?
The spy idea sounds good on paper, but I don't think it will work. You have to have a guy who can beat Kap to the edge, starting from the same place on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage...not likely that there is such a guy. If you use a safety, he has to come down into the box at or before the snap, taking a coverage player out of the equation. Even then, can Bernard Pollard or Ed Reed really beat Kap to a spot, through the trash, and then make a tackle on the 230lb. QB?
Conversely, the problem with focusing on containing the QB and forcing runs inside is that the 49ers offensive line has been absolutely dominant lately and you're effectively taking the defensive end out of the equation. The numbers are in San Francisco's favor at that point, especially in the full-house formation where Bruce Miller AND a tight end will be blocking into the second-level.
What most people say is the key to defending the option is to try to blow-up the mesh point. Slow down whomever is going to end up with the ball by getting right up in that spot where the hand-off (or retraction of the ball) happens. That does work, but most of the time you can't get a defender into that spot quick enough to really disrupt it, unless there's a colossal failure by the offensive line or a blitz is coming.
In the case of the blitz, Kaepernick can identify it, fake the handoff and drop back for a quick pass to the void where the pressure came from...provided it IS identified and executed properly by the offense, that is.
Greg Cosell even suggested the "attack the mesh-point" strategy recently, even suggesting that the Ravens did that against the Redskins week 14. NFL Game Rewind was giving me fits today, but I did watch the first two quarters, and while I saw defenders approach the mesh-point, I didn't see any signs of a rushed decision or any disruption of the read-option. In fact, Alfred Morris rushed for over 120 yards with Robert Griffin, III adding 34 of his own on just seven carries.
That's the beauty of the read-option. You really do have to "pick your poison" as a defense. It's a chess match, and if the 49ers have all angles covered in terms of how the Ravens may choose to defend it, they should continue to have success with this play in the Super Bowl.