The San Francisco 49ers lost to the Chicago Bears last week, but it wasn’t the defense that let us down. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and his squad were on point for most of the game. The Bears entered the game averaging 26 points per game, and they were held to almost half that. Given the youngsters playing on the defensive side of the ball, that’s a monumental task. Even near the end where Chicago looked to run out the clock, and needing a key first down to do so, the defense made a play. With just a few minutes left, Tavarius Moore punched the ball out and the team had hope. That’s a change we weren’t used to seeing this season, a welcome change indeed.
Chicago is one of several teams using run pass option concepts, and their offense has evolved so much so that they also have plays that look like RPOs but are in fact just regular running or passing plays. The word I could use is multiple. They have numerous plays that look like a lot of their other plays. Their foundation however, is getting defenders to think themselves out of position so they can run or throw by them.
San Francisco defended these plays several ways. One way was to play assignment football. Instead of letting defenders read and diagnose, they simply assigned someone to cover specific players, almost like man defense in basketball. No matter what fake or formation the Bears ran, linemen and linebackers knew their assignments. Missed run fits were rare.
The second thing I saw was athletic ability. While the experience is lacking, the speed and aggression is top notch. Our linebackers can really roam sideline to sideline, and even on the defensive front our “bigs” can still move laterally better than most.
Mitchell Trubisky is averaging 6.5 yards per carry this season, but against the 49ers he averaged 0.6 yards. The threat of the quarterback run was eliminated. Jordan Howard went for 4.1 yards a carry and Tarik Cohen went for 2.0 yards a carry. The run game was non-existent for much of the day because the 49ers were never far out of position.
Let’s take a look at how the Bears tried to attack the defense, and how the 49ers adjusted and made plays. There were three basic plays, there was a RPO Bubble screen, an RPO Slant, and your run of the mill read option. In each instance Trubisky would read a lineman or a defender, and then have the option of handing it off, running himself, or passing the ball.
Read Option Runs
Our first clip shows Trubisky reading Elijah Lee at the mesh point. Lee stays put so Trubisky hands the ball off. Howard tries to squeeze through an opening but Jullian Taylor shuts it down with one arm.
In our next clip, Trubisky is reading Ronald Blair. Blair doesn’t crash down so Trubisky hands the ball off. Arik Armstead splits two defenders and is in the backfield as soon as Cohen gets the ball, he tries to cut back but Blair is right there to take him down.
Runs to the left and to the right didn’t work, so Trubisky decides to keep one for himself. In this next clip Marcell Harris almost takes his head off. This is an example of assignment football. Blair is being read but he doesn’t even flinch as he has the running back and attacks him at the snap. Fred Warner has the quarterback so when Trubisky tries to take off he’s right there to corral him. Trubisky tries to turn the run inside and ducks when he sees Harris coming his way.
RPO Bubble Screens
In our first clip, from early in the game, Mitchell is reading Blair off the end. Blair crashes down so Trubisky goes outisde to Cohen. Warner peeks inside at the QB and hesitates just long enough to create an opening. Warner gets on his horse and still has a chance to stop the play, but misses the tackle. He does slow him down enough for the remaining Niners to get there.
The Bears went to that well too many times however, and in this next clip the 49ers were ready for it. The play starts the same, Blair is being read off the edge, and he starts to crash down, but this time he has his head up. He sees Trubisky keep the ball and begins to chase. Trubisky runs outside and tries to pass the ball off to Cohen. Problem is Allen Robinson whiffs on his block, K’Waun Williams attacks and forces the drop. Warner is also in better position. This play results in a turnover on the backward pass.
The next clip is a running play. We start with the end zone angle, Trubisky is reading Armstead and Lee. Both defenders stay put to prevent the QB run, or the pass outside, so the ball is handed off. All three lineman Solomon Thomas, DJ Jones, and Deforest Buckner close in for the quick tackle and the running back is held to a small gain. From the All-22 angle you can see the bubble screen action at the top of the screen which might’ve been the better option.
In our first clip Trubisky reads Warner at the mesh point. Warner stays off the line and in the passing lane, so the ball is handed off. The 49ers are in great position. Cohen just shakes and bakes his way for 5 yards. Sometimes good players just make good plays, can’t fault the defense here.
This next clip was one of the longer pass plays of the game. It came late in the 4th where the 49ers were selling out to stop the run, they probably weren’t expecting the Bears to pass. Initially the safeties are in a cover 2 look. This play wouldn’t have been successful in a cover 2 look. However expecting run, the 49ers shift to a cover 1 look and Marcell Harris drops down in the box. Now when the run action happens, Harris, and the linebackers all crash down on the ball. This leaves a big open area for an easy slant pass and completion.
The Bears did add in some variation to try and catch the 49ers sleeping, but they didn’t have much success. For this play the Bears try to leak the tight end out into the flat. The plays starts with a normal RPO look, with the quarterback faking the hand-off. Trubisky probably reads Blair crashing down, and also sees K’Waun Williams blitzing off the slot. The tight end Trey Burton should be left all alone. Williams shows great awareness by changing direction during his blitz to get back in position and makes the tackle for a small gain.
This week versus the Rams we won’t see much in the way of RPOs. Next season, however I can see this type of offense becoming more prevalent. The fact that we seem to have a good beat on it is a positive. The Rams offense is more play action-based, but being fundamentally sound will be just as important. In the season finale I hope we can finally see all three phases come together. We’ve seen instances where the offense was potent but defensively we couldn’t compete. Last few weeks we’ve been much better defensively but offensively a bit inconsistent. We could also use more splash plays on special teams, we’ve had one all year. We’ve seen flashes of all three units doing well but not together in one solid outing. The Rams could be sitting starters like last year, but I’ll take the dub just the same. Go Niners!