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49ers 101: The smash concept

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We begin our series on the 49ers' most commonly used offensive concepts by looking at their preferred way to pick-up big chunks of yards in the passing game.

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The smash concept is one of the best passing concepts in football, for both its simplicity and effectiveness against multiple types of coverage. It also happens to be one of the most used concepts in the 49ers passing game. The 49ers will use the smash from a variety of different formations and personnel groupings, and it is their preferred passing concept when looking to attack the defense vertically.

There are two main components to the smash concept: a corner route from the inside receiver and a quick hitch route from the outside receiver. Against Cover 2 defenses, this creates a vertical stretch on the cornerback, forcing him to choose between coming up to play the hitch route in front of him or sinking to the corner route behind him. Pair this combination with one of a few complimentary routes and you now have options to attack just about any type of coverage.

For the quarterback, this is a progression read and is read high (corner) to low (hitch). Generally the quarterback wants to throw the corner until the defense takes it away. Once that cornerback starts cheating towards the corner route, the quarterback takes the easy completion to the outside receiver on the hitch.

Let’s turn on the tape and look at a few of the ways San Francisco likes to use the smash concept.

Mirrored Smash Concept

It’s very common for teams to run mirrored passing concepts with the exact same routes to each side of the field. This allows the quarterback to choose which side of the field he wants to work based on match-ups and his pre-snap read of the defense.

The 49ers will run the mirrored smash concept out of either a two-by-two formation—two receivers to each side of the field—or from an empty formation like we see in the image above. When running the smash, Harbaugh and Roman will almost always look to get their best pass targets (Boldin, Crabtree, or Davis) in the slot running the corner route, and through the use of motions and shifts are often able to get them matched up on either a safety or a linebacker.

After initially aligning in a run-oriented formation with heavy personnel on the field, the have 49ers shifted to an empty formation. The Cardinals are forced to spread their defense—they had brought on an extra big body of their own and were left with just three defensive backs on the field—and check to a simplified coverage. Arizona ends up in Cover 1—man coverage across the board with a single deep safety in the middle of the field.

Though the Cardinals do manage to get a cornerback on Vernon Davis in the slot, the 49ers are able to occupy a defender on the outside with extra offensive lineman Daniel Gilgore (!) who ends up running a hitch route on the play. When running the corner route against man coverage, Davis wants to work to eliminate the defender’s cushion, give a nod to the post, and then separate towards the sideline.

You can see that the linebacker at the top of the image—lined up over Gilgore—is unsure of whether he should respect Kilgore’s hitch route or sink under the corner and ends up in no man’s land between the two. This gives Davis space along the sideline and Kaepernick drops the ball in for a 28-yard gain.

Trips and the Middle Read

Perhaps the most effective way San Francisco runs the smash concept is with the use of trips. The two outside receivers will still run the corner-hitch combination we saw above with the third receiver typically running one of two routes: the divide or the middle read.

On the divide route, the receiver—which will almost always end up being Davis—is running vertically up the field at a slight angle towards the goal posts. Against a two-high safety look, this receiver wants to split, or divide, the safeties and gives us another defender in conflict. The deep safety to the trips side must decide whether he wants to stay over the top of the divide route or the corner route. Because of the likelihood of giving up a big play in that situation, you will almost always see the defense check out of Cover 2 against trips.

With a single-high safety look, the divide route is mostly the same. The receiver is still running vertically, but he wants to run more up the seam in an effort to hold that safety in the middle of the field and prevent him from helping on the corner route.

Though you will see the divide route from time to time, San Francisco's preferred route when running the smash concept from trips is the middle read. As you might guess from the name, the middle read requires that third receiver to read, well, the middle of the defense. Against two-high safeties, it will play out much like the divide route did with the receiver splitting the safeties down the middle of the field. The difference comes against the more common single-high safety looks that you will get against trips.

If the receiver sees just a single safety in the middle of the field, he will break his route across the field looking to separate from man coverage or settle in a void against zone coverage. If that safety wants to cheat over the top of the corner route to the outside, this is a fantastic way to hit the defense with a big play across the field, especially against man coverage where defenders have a difficult time sticking with Davis moving full speed across the field.

In the above image, we see what the smash concept looks like with a middle read against man coverage. The safety ends up in terrible position—opposite hash from the trips—at the snap and with a straight drop, he has no chance to get over the corner route by Boldin. Kaepernick drops in another great throw over the top of the defender and because the safety is so out of position, Boldin is able to get big yards after the catch on a 42-yard gain for the 49ers' offense.

Compressed Formations

The final variation we're going to look at from San Francisco's smash package is from a bunch, or compressed, formation. The key difference here comes with the route of the outside receiver. Because of his reduced split, rather than running a hitch he needs to get out to the flat in order to create the same kind of high/low stress on the cornerback that we saw in the examples above. There are a few ways that you can accomplish this, but the 49ers' preferred method is with the speed out.

Crabtree motions inside to create a compressed alignment with Boldin while also forcing the cornerback to show his deep zone responsibility before the snap. With both the cornerback and safety to that side of the field looking to stay over the top of the corner route from Boldin, Kaepernick makes an accurate throw to Crabtree near the sideline—getting the ball over the underneath flat defender—to move the chains.

★★★

The smash concept is a versatile and effective part of the 49ers' passing game. It's something they feel confident going to in just about any situation and is a favorite on third down and in the red zone. San Francisco uses this concept in a variety of different ways, including several variations we didn't cover today. The smash offers big play potential with the corner and middle read routes down the field while also providing Kaepernick with a safe, underneath option if the defense plays over the top. Because it can be effective against just about any type of coverage, you can fully expect to see this concept from the 49ers a few times each Sunday.