During last year’s playoff game against the Packers, the 49ers unveiled the zone read with devastating results. Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers torched the Packers for an NFL record 181 rush yards by a quarterback and the 49ers continued to feature the zone read a week later in a victory over the Falcons in Atlanta en route to a NFC Championship. Having fueled a Super Bowl run with a 2nd year quarterback, with only nine starts under his belt, the zone read seemed destined to be a staple of the 49ers offense going forward.
Surprisingly, Jim Harbaugh’s team has more or less abandoned the zone read through the first six games of the 2013 season. Some speculated the reasons behind this move were to protect Kaepernick from the hits that come with running the ball or the fear that defenses had learned from college coaches how to defend the zone read. Regardless of why Greg Roman has reverted to more traditional offense for Kaepernick, the 49ers offense has been nearly as effective without the zone read.
Against a physical Titans team that had given the Seahawks trouble in week 6, the 49ers decided to return to the scheme that was so successful last season. Calling 5 zone read plays, 4 of which Kaepernick kept the ball, the 49ers established an early run game that set up the entire offense.
Game Situation: 2nd Quarter, 6;50 3rd and 7 at the TN 20, Titans 0, 49ers 3
Pre-Snap: The 49ers are in their power Pistol formation with WR Anquan Boldin out wide left, TE Vance McDonald inline left, TE Vernon Davis inline right and QB Kaepernick in the pistol with FB Bruce Miller to his left and RB Frank Gore behind him. The Titans are in their nickel package due to the down and distance, 3rd and 7, giving the 49ers a size advantage.
Post-Snap: LT Joe Staley releases past DE Antonio Johnson allowing him into the backfield. He crashes towards the mesh point between Kaepernick and Gore keying Kaepernick to keep the ball on the outside run.
As Kaepernick pulls the ball out of Gore’s belly, TE McDonald, FB Miller and C Jonathan Goodwin engage the second level of the Titans defense. Having realized his mistake, Johnson attempts to chase down Kaepernick but he has gotten too far out of position to impact the play.
On the outside, WR Boldin gets inside position on CB Alterraun Verner leaving only FS Michael Griffin between Kaepernick and the end zone. Gore, who is leading the blocking after being faked the handoff, cuts Griffin, paving the way for Kaepernick.
With every defender accounted for, Kaepernick simply strolls into the end zone untouched for a 20 yard score.
Summary: Going against tendencies, calling a run play on 3rd and 7, Greg Roman caught the Titans off guard with the perfect play call. Why the Titans didn’t substitute in their base 3-4 when they saw a heavy formation on the field is beyond me (potentially because they wanted defensive backs to match up with McDonald and Davis on a passing down) but the 49ers were more than willing to take full advantage of the blocking mismatches.
The size difference showed on the outside as McDonald, Miller, Boldin and Gore manhandled their blocking assignments, creating a massive lane for Kaepernick. Combined with his speed to outrun the pursuing defenders, and this play was an easy touchdown for the 49ers.
Opening running lanes inside: On the first 4 called read options, the Titans crashed inwards allowing Kaepernick to get outside for big gains. Determined not be beaten by Kaepernick again, the Titans stayed at home containing Kaepernick but allowing a nice cutback line for Kendall Hunter on this read option.
Game Situation: 2nd Quarter, 3:10, 1st and 10 at the TN 26, Titans 0, 49ers 10
Pre-Snap: The 49ers are in 11 personnel with WR Baldwin out wide left, WR Boldin in the right slot, WR Kyle Williams out wide right, TE Davis to the right of the offensive line and QB Kaepernick in the shotgun with RB Hunter to his right. The Titans respond with their nickel package with SS Bernard Pollard walking into the box at the snap.
Post-Snap: The 49ers’ offensive line blocks to open a lane in between LG Mike Iupati and LT Joe Staley with RT Anthony Davis and C Goodwin pulling and RG Alex Boone and LG Iupati blocking down. In addition, TE Davis arc releases vertically to the second level. These actions leave DE Kamiron Wimbley unblocked as the read man on the zone read between Hunter and Kaepernick.
As Kaepernick and Hunter meet at the mesh point, Wimbley is clearly committed to containing the outside run, so the ball is handed to Hunter on the power run to the left. Behind Wimbley, LB Colin McCarthy hesitates due to Davis’s arc release, which is very similar to the release on a pass pattern, and doesn’t provide any run support on the backside.
With DT Mike Martin occupying Ipuati and Goodwin, and Pollard and LB Zach Brown flowing left, the designed run lane is closed. Hunter sees this and cuts immediately after receiving the ball towards the right side line into an open lane between Boone and Wimbley. Once Hunter is outside Boone, he cuts upfield, picks up 5 yards before getting tackled
Summary: While this play wasn’t a game changer, it illustrated how the zone read evens out the numbers in the run game through the threat of the quarterback run poses. With 6 blockers to 7 defenders in the box pre snap, the chances of a successful run looked slim. Yet the threat of Kaepernick running effectively negated Wimbley’s ability to crash down allowing for the cutback lane and an easy 5 yard gain.
My favorite aspect of this play was the arc release by Davis. Not only did it freeze McCarthy, who would have been able to stuff Hunter if he diagnosed the play correctly from the snap, it also set up play action with the 49ers most dangerous weapon.
While the 49ers returned to smash mouth football after their 1-2 start, the return of the read option provided the offensive spark that had been missing. All in all, the 49ers ran the zone read 5 times Sunday for 40 yards and a touchdown. While those are impressive numbers, the true benefit of establishing the zone read was getting Kaepernick into his comfort zone.
Growing up as a dual threat quarterback, Kaepernick has always been able to rely on his athletic ability to make plays. Trent Dilfer considered Kaepernick’s running ability as an essential part of his ‘quarterback DNA’, meaning that running the ball is vital to Kaepernick’s confidence and ultimately success as a quarterback. By running multiple read options out of the Pistol formation, a play Kaepernick has been running for years, Greg Roman put his young quarterback in a familiar setting, a setting where he has been successful before.
The benefits of this decision became obvious later in the game as Kaepernick started 11 of 13 passing and posted a ridiculous QBR of 99.7 through 3 quarters. Not only were his stats impressive, he also looked confident. When his back foot hit on dropbacks, he made quick decisions to throw the ball or run for positive yards, a drastic change from the early season games where he clearly lacked decisiveness and poise.
The question is whether the zone read is a staple or a wrinkle going forward. Honestly, I’m clueless. While Kaepernick thrives in the pistol/zone read offense, Greg Roman’s game plans tend to vary greatly from game to game. Therefore I expect certain teams, like the Titans who looked confused and undisciplined against the zone read Sunday, to see a healthy dose while others won’t see it at all.
Or maybe it’s the lack of playmakers on the outside to create space for the zone read? During last year’s playoffs, the starting wide receivers were Randy Moss and Michael Crabtree, two vertical threats. These weapons allowed the 49ers to spread the field with multiple wide receiver sets that had to be respected, creating space that accentuated the speed element of the read option. This year our 3 wide set features Boldin, Williams and Baldwin, none of whom command respect vertically from the defense, allowing the defense to stack the box limiting the effectiveness of the zone read.
Despite the limited personnel, the 49ers should utilize Kaepernick’s greatest strength, his athleticism, early and often. Not only is the zone read effective as a play itself, it provides a foundation for Kaepernick to succeed. Given how vital quarterback play is to winning in the NFL, the pros of the zone read seem to outweigh the cons.