Near the end of last season, I started doing this as a way to keep tabs on observations that either didn’t make it into another article or on to that week’s episode of the Better Rivals podcast, and I’m bringing it back for the 2015 season. Each week, I’ll be pointing out some notable performances, interesting statistics, new play designs, or whatever other random things that stuck out to me during that week’s game.
So with that, here are nine things I liked and didn’t like from the San Francisco 49ers’ season-opening victory over the Minnesota Vikings.
1. Geep Chryst’s Game Plan
San Francisco’s plan on offense was evident from the game’s first three snaps. Carlos Hyde took back-to-back handoffs on Outside Zone plays off the left edge to kick things off. The third play from scrimmage saw Colin Kaepernick fake the same zone action to the left and boot out to his right before hitting Torrey Smith on the crossing route.
That opening series established two things that stuck throughout the rest of the contest: 1) Chryst and the 49ers were going to force last year’s 25th-ranked run defense to prove they could stop their new workhorse running back, and 2) they were going to get their quarterback on the move to set up easy throws and keep him away from an offensive line that spent most of the preseason chauffeuring defenders into the backfield.
Outside of a stretch in the middle of the first half when penalties put them behind in the down and distance, Chyrst’s plan worked beautifully. San Francisco produced the fifth-best offensive performance in Week 1, per Football Outsiders. Hyde and the ruthlessly efficient ground game lapped the field, nearly doubling up the run offense DVOA of the second-ranked Bears.
As I touched on in my recap, that rushing attack relied almost exclusively on zone-based runs, a departure from the balanced zone and power approach we heard about during the offseason. Not only did that make sense from Hyde’s perspective, who is a markedly better zone runner than power runner, but it also helped out the offensive line.
Power runs are predicated on movement at the point of attack. Rushing lanes are created by offensive lineman physically overpowering the man in front of them. That’s not always necessary in zone runs. There were multiple plays in which a non-Joe Staley or Alex Boone member of the offensive line was pushed several yards into the backfield, yet Hyde was still able to cut off that block and pick up positive yardage.
There were a couple of minor things I took issue with in Chryst’s approach, some of which I’ll touch on later in this article, but overall the conservative, run-heavy game plan made a lot of sense for a new offense that’s undoubtedly still figuring what it does well.
2. Veteran Defenders Lead the Way
The questions surrounding San Francisco’s defense entering the season primarily focused on what they would get from their unproven young talent. While we started to get some answers there, this was a performance in which the savvy old guys stood out from the pack, namely NaVorro Bowman and Antoine Bethea.
Over the course of the season I will be tracking a couple of Football Outsiders’ defensive metrics, stops and defeats, for 49ers’ defenders. In you’re unfamiliar with those stats, you can get the complete definition at the previous links. In short, stops are defensive plays that prevent a successful gain by the offense based on the down and distance. Defeats are stops on steroids; turnovers, tackles for loss, and stops on third or fourth down.
It should come as no surprise who led the 49ers defense in each category in Week 1. Bowman and Bethea chipped in with five stops and two defeats each (complete numbers in the table below), making an impact in both the run and pass game. One of my favorite Mangini blitz designs from the game came early in the third quarter and involved both players.
Operating out of their base 3–4 look, Bethea and Bowman start creeping toward the line of scrimmage right before the snap. Mangini sets his sights on the left side of Minnesota’s offensive line, and the blitz design and timing from his veteran defenders works perfectly in concert to free up Bethea through the B-gap. Quinton Dial slants outside to occupy left tackle Matt Kalil, and Bowman attacks the inside of left guard Brandon Fusco, opening a clear path for Bethea to the quarterback. Even though Bowman is only a pawn in the scheme by design, he nearly gets there before the free-running Bethea. Bridgewater has tight end Kyle Rudolph coming open on the out route, but the pressure gets there too quickly and he has no chance to get rid of the ball.
Bowman and Bethea were great in the more mundane plays as well. And for a defense that figures to be more complex and more varied in their looks than in years past, San Francisco will need their veteran defenders to continue playing at a high level.
3. Jaquiski Tartt
Vets might have led the way, but the 49ers weren’t without contributions from the youngsters. Tartt has been one of my favorite players since looking at his tape shortly after the draft, not just for the skills he brings to the table, but for what those skills gave San Francisco the ability to do from a schematic standpoint. And though it’s still very early, it’s great to see some of those things starting to come to fruition.
Tartt was on the field for 20 of San Francisco’s 56 defensive snaps on Monday night, typically aligning somewhere near the line of scrimmage as a de facto linebacker, a la Deonne Bucannon from the Cardinals. From that position he was all over the field, blitzing on some downs, bailing back out to deep zone coverage on others, with several other responsibilities in between. It’s exactly the type of hybrid, joker role Tartt appeared to be a perfect fit for after the draft, where, in his words, he gets to "do whatever." Watching Tartt evolve in that role as the defense continues to add wrinkles is one of the things I’m most looking forward to over the rest of the season.
4. Lack of Shot Plays
A surprising omission from the 49ers offense, particularly considering how much we heard about this all throughout the offseason, were deep shots down the field. I haven’t had an opportunity to sift through the coaches film just yet, so I’m unsure if Chryst had more shot plays dialed up than it appeared and the Vikings just did a great job taking them away, but Kaepernick actually attempted only two of them.
The first was a play-action rollout in which San Francisco tried to sneak Vernon Davis to the backside on a deep over route, but was overthrown and incomplete. The other was a pretty awful throw from Kaepernick off of his back foot that barely landed in the same zip code as a streaking Torrey Smith. In fact, it was so far off, Kaepernick might’ve just been throwing the ball away but it’s tough to determine for sure.
It could have just been the flow of the game and the fact that Hyde was so effective, but there’s little reason the 49ers shouldn’t be building in three or four shot plays to Torrey Smith every week. Smith is not only one of the better deep threats in football, he’s been in a class by himself when it comes to drawing defenisve pass interference penalties. Those penalties might not show up in the box score, but they produce chunk yardage for your offense all the same.
I fully expect this to change in the coming weeks, particularly when San Francsico faces a run defense that doesn’t allow them to rip off 10 yards at a time the way Minnesota did. But for now, it was noticably absent from the 49ers offense in Week 1 and is worth monitoring going forward.
5. Hyde’s Spin Move
Just gonna leave this here…
6. 3-man Pass Rush
There were a number of tendencies from Mangini’s past defenses that allowed us to make some reasonable assumptions about the things that would change from the previous regime. We had a good idea Magini was going to blitz more often and that he was going to be more varied in his pre-snap looks. One tendency that I was hoping had been left on the cutting room floor, however, was his penchant for rushing only three defenders.
Rushing three can be a valuable tactic for a blitzing defense that crowds the box, which is exactly what we saw from the 49ers for much of Week 1. However, it’s a tactic best used sparingly, something that Mangini has never really done. According to data from Football Outsiders, Mangini’s defenses while head coach of the Jets and Browns ranked first in rush–3 percentage in four of five seasons (finished third in the other season), dropping eight into coverage right around 20 percent of the time on average.
I don’t have the exact numbers from Week 1 at this point, but it appears that Mangini has plans on pacing the league in this area once again. It remains to be seen how effective this tactic will be for the 49ers defense in 2015, but too often it allows the quarterback with ample time to throw, helping him find a rhythm in the passing game. And I know this much: There are few things more frustrating than watching a quarterback move around in the pocket for 10 seconds before finding a target who had finally broke open down the field for a big gain.
7. Double Stack
One of my favorite wrinkles from the 49ers offense came early in the first quarter when they came out in this look:
That "double-stack" formation is something out of the Chip Kelly playbook, and the look presents a few complications for the defense. If they don’t widen to account for the stacks on each side, the offense can throw a quick spot screen for some easy yardage. And if they do, the defense becomes thinned out in the box, helping to open up rushing lanes.
There are also some interesting run/pass option looks, concepts that seemed like a natural inclusion for where this offense was trending during the offseason, that can be run from this formation. Ultimately, the 49ers ran a basic zone read that resulted in a give to Bush, which he bounced outside for a solid gain. It was the only time I saw this formation on Monday night, but it’s something I’m hoping to see more of as the season progresses.
8. Jarryd Hayne’s Usage
After an electrifying preseason, it was saddening to watch the "official" start to Hayne’s NFL career get off on such a sour note. Hayne appeared to misjudge the ball in his first punt return, stumbling forward and watching the ball bounce off his chest and into the arms of the opposition. His shot at redemption was nullified by penalty, and that was all we got of Jarryd Hayne, the punt returner.
While it didn’t work out the way we expected in Week 1, Hayne is clearly a talented return man and there’s no reason to suspect he won’t bounce back going forward.
The more concerning thing in regards to Hayne’s usage against the Vikings was that the 49ers appear comfortable putting him in as a running back. Hayne ripped off some big runs in the preseason, but those plays were often the product of excellent blocking up front and defenders who are currently off searching for work. Hayne was a natural in the open field, but didn’t appear ready to make an impact in the interior run game where space is more limited. But with rookie Mike Davis inactive, when Reggie Bush went out with an injury the 49ers were left with Hayne as the lone change-of-pace option in the backfield.
Hayne touched the ball just five times on offense, primarily in long-yardage situations, but he didn’t show anything to make me feel differently about his readiness as a running back. If Bush doesn’t get hurt, maybe Hayne never touches the ball on offense. But by keeping Davis inactive, the 49ers are stating that they feel comfortable with either, A) going to Hayne as the primary backup if someone (Bush) goes down with injury, or B) giving Hyde a heavy workload. It worked out fine in Week 1, but I’m not sure either of those options are good in the long-term.
9. No Lack of Sideline Entertainment With Tomsula
"No, seriously, I’m having fun. That’s why I’m smiling." pic.twitter.com/kNsktVRzn9— SB Nation (@SBNation) September 15, 2015