The beginning of September feels like such a long time ago, doesn't it? As the San Francisco 49ers prepare to take on the Green Bay Packers for the third time in the last calendar year, let's take a trip back to the beginning of the season when the 49ers hosted the Packers in Week 1 and see what we can learn.
Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers offense ran all over an unsuspecting Packers defense to the tune of 323 yards in the Divisional round of last year's playoffs. As you surely remember, things went a bit different in the opening game of this season. Instead, it was an aerial assault that propelled the 49ers to victory, as Kaepernick set a career high with 412 passing yards while the 49ers rushed for a mere 90 yards. As it turned out, that game was quite the anomaly for the 49ers' offense. After a rough patch immediately following that Packers game, the passing game would remain efficient – the 49ers finished with the fourth ranked pass offense DVOA – but Kaepernick would not top 300 yards passing again until just this past week against the Cardinals. The offense returned to the Harbaugh-era M.O. of relying more heavily on the running game.
Some of the passing outburst from that Week 1 game was surely part of the game plan to begin with, but there's no question that the ineffectiveness of the running game contributed as well. According to DVOA, it was the 49ers' second-worst effort on the ground all season – only the New Orleans game was worse. On 27 carries by San Francisco running backs, the 49ers gained a pedestrian 68 yards with 23 of those coming on a single carry. Kaepernick managed just 22 yards on his seven carries with most of the positive yardage coming on a couple of scrambles as opposed to designed running plays.
So what in the hell changed so drastically in Green Bay's ability to stop the San Francisco run game from last year's playoffs to that Week 1 game? Green Bay was obviously determined to not get embarrassed on the ground in the manner that caused their early exit from the postseason, but in rewatching every rushing play from that Week 1 game, a few things stuck out to me:
- San Francisco strayed from their staple running plays
- Green Bay was able to consistently win one-on-one match-ups up front and didn't frequently drop a safety into the box
- There were an unusual number of missed blocks from the 49ers' offensive line and lead blockers
Let's go to the All-22 and see what happened.
Straying from their staple run plays
One of the things that has made the 49ers run game so successful in the Harbaugh era is its multiplicity. Over the course of the season, San Francisco will run a little bit of everything on the ground, giving opposing defensive coordinators plenty to prepare for. But their bread and butter has been in man-blocking, or gap-scheme, run plays. Power, counter, trap, wham; these are where the 49ers make their living.
In Week 1 against the Packers, the 49ers used more zone running plays (not including read option plays) than they typically use on a weekly basis. There are always a few of them that pop up each week, particularly when Kendall Hunter or LaMichael James is in the game, but it was clear that Harbaugh and Roman wanted to feature them more heavily in this game. The results weren't so great.
On this play the 49ers come out in 22 personnel (2 RB, 2 TE, 1 WR) with offensive lineman Adam Snyder as the second tight end. After some pre-snap shifts and motion, San Francisco ends up in an offset I formation with Green Bay in their base 3-4. As you can see from the screenshot above, the shifts and motion accomplish what the 49ers are looking for: a numbers advantage to the play side. To the left side of the offense, the 49ers have four blockers with only three Packers' defenders. Unfortunately, the 49ers are unable to execute.
On the outside zone, the aiming point for the running back is the outside shoulder of the tight end (Snyder on this play) and he's focused on the edge defender. If the helmet of that edge defender is outside of the tight end, the back will cut upfield inside of that block. If his helmet is inside, the back will bounce it around the edge. In the screenshot above, you can see Clay Matthews is inside of Snyder, which means the read for Gore is to take it to the outside.
There are a few things that go wrong from here. Matthews does a fantastic job of holding up at the point of attack and Snyder isn't able to get much movement on his block. This leads to Bruce Miller attempting to help out on Matthews as opposed to getting outside and picking up safety Jerron McMillian. With Matthews taking up two blockers and McMillian free to come up and fill the alley, Gore has nowhere to go on the outside. Without knowing the specific assignments on the play – specifically what Miller's responsibility was – there's a couple of things that could've happened. Either Gore needs to recognize that Miller is about to help on Matthews and cut inside of his block or Miller needs to alter his path and arc around Snyder's block so that he's able to pick-up McMillian. Instead, neither of those things happens and Gore hesitates.
By the time that Gore tries to get upfield, B.J. Raji, who beat Iupati with a swim move, is tracking the play down the line of scrimmage and makes the stop for no gain. Even if Gore had cut up the field, the back side of the play was a mess, too. Neither of the back side offensive lineman were able to get successful cut blocks and there's a solid chance that Raji is able to make the play before Gore gets through the hole, as he's already beaten Iupati at the time Gore is making his decision whether or not to cut.
There's a reason that many of the teams that feature effective zone running games only run zone running plays. Zone blocking is something that takes a lot of time and effort to perfect. There's a different skill set that's required to run these plays successfully. This is why when the 49ers do run zone running plays, they tend to be boom or bust. If they are able to execute, there are big plays to be had. In the play above, the opportunity for an explosive play to the outside was there. Midway through the fourth quarter, Kendall Hunter would break loose for a 23 yard gain on another outside zone play. But all too often, the end up as they did above; with no space for the running back and a minimal gain to show for it.
Losing one-on-one battles
Even when the 49ers were calling their staple running plays, they were losing the one-on-one battles up front. Raji, Matthews, and Ryan Pickett in particular all had standout games and gave the San Francisco offensive line problems in the run game.
Here the 49ers shift into an unbalanced line with right tackle Anthony Davis moving over to the left side. Aligned again in an offset I formation, the 49ers call a power play to the left. Notice that Green Bay does not bring a safety into the box, which means that San Francisco can account for every defender in the box.
After the snap, Staley gets minimal movement on his down block on Raji, but it's an effective enough block to prevent Raji from being able to make the play. Bruce Miller, however, gets manhandled by Matthews on his kick-out block. Matthews bench presses Miller and squeezes the hole so much that pulling guard Alex Boone can't initially get through it and up to the second level.
Gore is able to keep his balance after running into the back of Miller and eventually squeezes through a crease for a positive gain, but against just a seven-man box this should've been a much bigger play. The numbers were in their favor, they just got out-muscled at the point of attack.
On another play later in the third quarter the Packers again only put seven players in the box, this time with the 49ers in their 22 personnel, giving them an additional blocker. But Raji does a perfect job defeating the double team of Boone and Goodwin. Raji drops to a knee and gets sideways, giving Boone and Goodwin minimal body area to make contact with. Raji splits the double team and swallows Gore up before he can get through the hole.
Finally, I want to look at a play that the 49ers had a good amount of success with in the divisional game that was shut down in Week 1: an isolation run out of their Pistol Diamond formation.
San Francisco likes this particular play against teams that run a 3-4 defense. The blocking scheme here is simple. Goodwin is responsible for the nose tackle. Each of the guards are going to kick out the defensive end to their outside with McDonald and Miller leading through the hole to pick up the inside linebackers. In this instance, the 49ers are looking to run over right guard Alex Boone.
Boone and Davis get a nice double team on Mike Daniels and both McDonald and Miller appear to be in good position to seal off the inside linebackers. However, even though the blocks of everyone else would lead you to believe that the play is designed to go to the right side of the offensive line, Goodwin jumps to the left of nose tackle Ryan Pickett, preventing Gore from following his lead blockers through the hole. With Gore forced to go to the left of Goodwin, both inside linebackers have a free path to the ballcarrier. What could've been Gore one-on-one with a safety and some space to manuever ends up getting bottled up for a short gain.
After physically dominating the Packers in the playoff match-up, it was quite the turnaround to see the 49ers suddenly losing these battles and missing assignments in the manner they did. With as often as they run, San Francisco has frequently had to win up front against worse odds than you see in the plays above. Eight man boxes are the norm against this team. When facing just seven in the box, as they often did against the Packers in Week 1, it should be a field day on the ground for the 49ers. Instead, Green Bay consistently won one-on-one match-ups and San Francisco's running game could never get going.
The big question is whether or not we should expect similar things to happen this week. If you look at each team's body of work since that game, the answer would appear to be a resounding no. The Packers run defense DVOA in that Week 1 game was a minus-36.5 percent, their second best mark of the season. Only one other time – against a Ravens team that featured one of the worst rushing attacks in the league this year – did Green Bay even get back to the same ballpark as the number they posted against San Francisco.
The Packers run defense fell off a cliff in the second half of the season, falling from 14th in run defense DVOA all the way down to 31st from Week 10 on. B.J. Raji hasn't been able to sustain the level of play that he showed against the 49ers in the opening week of the season. After Pro Football Focus gave Raji a +2.0 run defense grade in that game, he's failed to top +1.0 in any other game this season and has graded negatively in that area in all but one game over the second half of the season. The other standout in Green Bay's run defense from that game, Clay Matthews, won't be suiting up this week. With Matthews sidelined, Nick Perry and Andy Mulumba will likely split time at Matthews' outside linebacker spot. Needless to say, both players represent significant downgrades from the Packers' star outside linebacker.
On the San Francisco side of the ball, the run game has certainly seen its ups and downs over the course of the season. But overall, the offensive line is playing much better than they were in the opening weeks of the season. I would be very surprised to see Green Bay have the same type of success in completely shutting down the San Francisco run game the way they did the last time these teams faced off. Green Bay's defense has been among the worst in the league all season long and as long as the 49ers don't beat themselves with mistakes and missed assignments, they should have success moving the ball just about any way they want to in this matchup.
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