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The 49ers defensive gameplan was stymied by the Ravens and their 2012 49ers-style offense

For the 49ers defense, it was like facing a historical version of themselves as the Ravens offense outmatched and out ran them all over the field.

San Francisco 49ers v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

The 49ers dropped a tough one on Sunday 20-17 to the Baltimore Ravens in a game that felt one-sided at times due to the inability of the 49ers to get key stops on defense. In reality, both teams held each other in check for a majority of the game thanks in large part due to a rainy, soggy atmosphere. Each team had only eight drives, and both teams only scored three points in the second half with the Ravens game-winning field goal coming in the final seconds on a drive that ate up nearly six and a half minutes.

While the 49ers defensive performance was probably one of the better ones the Ravens have faced in recent weeks or perhaps during the season, they still gave up 101 rushing yards to Lamar Jackson, at 6.3 yards per attempt. They forced only two punts and one fumble and simultaneously had all the answers and none of the answers to the Ravens zone-read running game.

After the game, head coach Kyle Shanahan spoke on the defensive gameplan for Lamar Jackson and stated that “We had to change some stuff up. Anytime you’ve got to play 11-on-11 football; you can’t just do what you’ve been doing. I was happy with the scheme we put in. I was happy with how the guys executed it. I thought they did a pretty good job at it.”

The scheme wasn’t the issue. The overall execution combined with the answers the Ravens had for virtually everything the 49ers threw at them was the difference on defense in this game. But the 49ers themselves should’ve been more familiar with the Ravens offense with a season’s worth of tape plus an entire archive of film on Colin Kaepernick, and how defenses, especially Seattle, in the early to mid-aughts limited the 49ers offense. To say nothing of a head coach who himself once ran a version of the offense.

And through all that, the defense still did a pretty good job of limiting the Ravens high powered rushing attack. It just wasn’t enough on this particular day.

What is the Read option?

First, a brief primer on what the read option is and what it isn’t. The read-option is simply that: option football. It’s a common form of football fans are more likely to see on Friday nights and Saturdays rather than on Sundays. The read-option is a family of option plays: the triple option, the double option, midline triple option, or the midline double option, any number of run-pass option variants.

One of the basic plays in the option family of plays is the single zone read. Whereas the triple-option reads multiple defenders and has multiple backs that can receive the pitch, the zone read is built around reading a single defender and “optioning” him at the point of attack. If the read defender plays the running back, the quarterback will keep, if the read defender plays the quarterback, the quarterback will “give” (usually a straight handoff).

Divisional Playoffs - Green Bay Packers v San Franciso 49ers
Zone read mesh between Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore
Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

49ers fans should be intimately familiar with the read-option. The above image is a general example of the mesh point between the quarterback and running back of a play that took the league by storm in 2012 when Harbaugh unleashed Kaepernick’s running ability in the playoffs against the Green Bay Packers, where he ran for 181 yards and two touchdowns.

Though it might have been the 49ers that put the play on the map with that playoff performance, it was actually Kyle Shanahan who began running the play with regularity that season with rookie Robert Griffin III (current Ravens backup).

What is the scrape exchange?

The defensive adjustment to the zone read in 2012 and more so in 2013 was to execute a scrape exchange.

Chris Brown, Smart Football

On the scrape exchange, a defender, usually a linebacker, or sometimes a safety, replaces the defensive in the C-gap. This allows the defensive end the freedom to crash the running back and forces the quarterback to keep the ball, where hopefully the gap exchange defender is there to meet him for a stop. It just didn’t always work that way for the 49ers on Sunday.

How the Ravens answered the 49ers defensive scheme

Play No. 1

The zone read ran into a multitude of problems in 2013 when defenses began utilizing a gap or scrape exchange with their linebackers or safeties replacing the defensive end in the C-gap so that the defensive end could freely attack the running back. The answer to this was to send an offensive player on an “arc” block (or two) to neutralize the scrap exchange defender.

This play from the 49ers in 2014 shows how a properly executed scrape exchange is supposed to work. And now not to block it.

The Ravens here are running a concept Harbaugh and Roman call “Slap” out of their “pistol weak LT slot.” It’s important to note that Roman and/or Harbaugh may not call this “slap” anymore as coaches tend to utilize different nomenclature at new coaching stops. The play concepts named here come from the 49ers 2014 offensive install.

Slap utilizes a single arc block from the backside away from the tight end to the weak side. Jackson motions tight Nick Boyle toward the center of the formation before hiking meets with running back Mark Ingram at the mesh point as he reads defensive end Nick Bosa (No. 97). As Bosa crashes the running back, linebacker Fred Warner replaces him in the C-gap, but Warner eventually widens with Boyle, pulling the scrape defender Warner out of the box for Jackson.

Reading Bosa, Jackson makes the correct read and pulls the ball and runs for a gain of 11. As Warner broke contain with Boyle, linebacker Dre Greenlaw should’ve then realized that Ingram was not getting the ball and should’ve vacated the box a fraction sooner to close the alley. But Jackson is just too fast for it to matter.

Slap is a concept the 49ers had success with at critical moments in the franchise’s history. These two plays were at pivotal times in playoff games in 2012 versus the Packers and 2013 versus the Panthers. Both went for touchdowns, and the first clip is the infamous 54-yard touchdown run by Kaepernick.

Play No. 2

This time the Ravens ran the zone read to the tight end side, a concept called “Blunt.” On blunt, the arc block and the play direction are to the strong side.

The 49ers defensive alignment suggests they’re expecting the zone read to the left, but Roman does a great job of hiding his offense’s tendencies with the formations they use. Instead, Boyle arcs around to the right side to neutralize the scrape exchange, but there is no scrape exchange.

Jackson rereads the read man, Arik Armstead, this time (No. 91), and pulls the ball and keeps it again. This time, there is no designated scrape exchange defender, or it’s supposed to be Jacquiski Tartt (No. 29), and he is late getting over as he kept eyes in the backfield. Tartt ends up running with Boyle on the arc block at the last second when he should’ve replaced Armstead in the C-gap and let Boyle go.

Play No. 3

Before the 49ers could adjust to the Raven’s tendencies to run the zone read into the arc block, Roman switched up the motion and sent the arc block away from the play side.

Using a fly motion here, receiver Willie Snead runs the arc fake away from the zone-read play side as Jackson hits the mesh point again with Ingram. The fly motion gets the linebackers to flow that direction for a split second as Jackson pulls the ball. Bosa was aggressively crashing the running back because he had both Warner and nickel defender K’Waun Williams (No. 24) as the gap exchange defenders coming downhill.

The Ravens offensive line can get downfield and seal off the defenders from sliding over to meet Jackson due them being out position upon seeing the fly motion. Jackson looks like he might be stopped dead in his tracks, but he ends up juking Williams out of his cleats and gets out to the edge for a few more yards on 2nd down.

Of the juke play, running back, Mark Ingram stated, “That’s Lamar doing Lamar, doing Lamar things. It was a pull read; he pulled it. I got hit, and Lamar broke to the outside. Again, that’s Lamar doing Lamar things. That’s what that is.”

Play No. 4

On the Ravens second touchdown of the game in the 2nd quarter, they’re running “duo” (power without the puller, called “drill” in Roman/Harbaugh terms) that utilizes double teams at the point of attack to create new gaps for the running back. The running back reads middle linebacker and bounces outside or squeezes the middle for his route.

However, Roman added the quarterback read to the play, allowing Jackson the ability to keep and run. And that’s just what he does here as linebacker Mark Nzeocha (No. 53) stays keyed on the running back and doesn’t take Jackson out to the edge. Jackson waltzes in for the score.

The 49ers should’ve known this play was coming.

In week nine versus the Patriots, the Ravens ran the same play for a Jackson touchdown when linebacker Jamie Collins (No. 58) came too far inside on the mesh point fake. Jackson kept here and jogged into the end zone.

Play No. 5

Another tendency breaker is to pull lineman one way and run bash counter the other way. Bash counter is “back away, quarterback counter.”

The 49ers couldn’t stop the Ravens here and force a potential fourth and long situation in which the Ravens would need to decide to go for it or kick a field goal from outside the 49ers 40-yard line. The Ravens play call is “16/17 Flow,” the name of their bash counter concept. Jackson’s read is the same, the defensive end to the weak side. Jackson read’s Bosa as the unblocked defender and decides to keep the ball, taking it up behind his pulling linemen.

The flow of the play is such that the second-level defenders have to read and react to the running back running away from the counter blocking, have to watch the counter pullers, and have to keep their eyes on the quarterback. The hesitation and delay this causes allow the blockers to get up to their blocks, allowing Jackson to get to the edge.

The 49ers do hold as Jackson cannot convert the third down, but instead of fourth and long, it’s now fourth-and-2, and on the next play, Jackson converts with a short pass play. Later on the drive, the Ravens would three points and lead 17-14 at half time.

Play No. 6

Even when they aren’t running zone read, everything in this offense is designed to look like zone read.

The play call is “Jam” with the fullback coming across to kick out the end man on the line of scrimmage and the backside guard pulling and wrapping around up through the hole and looking for the first linebacker there to meet him.

Jackson opens and turns perpendicular to the line of scrimmage for a brief second before pivoting and handing off to the running back. That 90-degree turn as he takes the snap indicates to the edge defender on that side that he’s going to read the end man on the line. That quarter-turn draws the gap exchange and opens the middle of the defense, making the blockers easier for the lineman.

Defensive miscues

Play No. 7

There were times that the 49ers defense had miscues and did not correctly play the zone-read at all, losing contain and failing to recognize the need for the gap exchange player to get downhill toward the running back.

Safety Marcell Harris, who I’ve touted as a good young safety in his second year after turning in a good second half of 2018, had a lapse in assignment on this play as he failed to replace Armstead in the C-gap here, allowing Jackson another 10+ yard run. Armstead aggressively plays the running back, indicating that Harris should be the gap exchange player behind him. The Ravens don’t arc block here either.

Play No. 8

Here the Ravens are running “DBL Slope” out of their “Bully” formation, commonly known as a pistol diamond formation. There is a tight end on both sides of Jackson and Ingram in the backfield. Bosa is the read defender for Jackson, and his responsibility on the play is to slow play and possibly force Jackson to keep.

A key component of the zone read is holding the mesh as long as possible to get the read defender to commit to the quarterback. Once Bosa is at the point attack and upfield far enough after slow-playing the mesh point, indicating he’s trying to force the keep read, Jackson, lets Ingram take it up the gut.

Warner hesitates and doesn’t get downhill, instead of finding himself sandwiched between the slope blockers downfield. Ingram carries it up the gut for seven yards.

In 2012, Kaepernick scored on a long touchdown run against the Dolphins on the same DBL slope play out of the bully formation.

Play No. 9

Sometimes there is just nothing a defense can do against Lamar, but it helps to have players play the correct assignment. On the gap exchange, there must be a defender who replaces the read defender, whether or not the read defender crashes the running back or takes the quarterback.

In this play, that’s Warner. Defensive end Solomon Thomas (No. 94) is playing here to force the give read. He tends to commit to the running back often on zone-read, but here he stays home in an attempt to force the ball to Ingram. The game of chess continues, and Jackson wins this one again. He actually pulls the ball out of Ingram’s grasp here when Thomas thinks Ingram has it. Watch how late Jackson pulls the ball out of Ingram’s grasp.

As good as a play is from Jackson, there was no gap exchange defender, at least not one who got upfield quick enough. It’s not to say because we don’t know the play call, but the linebackers look like they expect the defensive play call to force the give read as none of them come downhill to replace Thomas.

Adjustments were made

Adjustments were made, but it was nearly too late. The 49ers’ defense was not able to get key stops when they needed to get off the field.

Play No. 10

The times the 49ers defense did adequately defend the zone-read finally came in the fourth quarter. Here the overhang defenders don’t give ground and stay parallel to the line of scrimmage, keeping Jackson moving toward the sideline vice downhill as both Harris and Warner set the edge laterally. Jackson tries to cut inside of them, but safety Jimmie Ward (No. 20) comes down and fills the alley and forces, Jackson, out wide where Witherspoon cleans up.

They could not force the Ravens into a third and long, however, because, on the very next play, they gave up a 12-yard completion to get them across midfield. The defense eventually held on fourth down a few plays later, but the offense was unable to take advantage of the field position and late clock.

Play No. 11

On the final drive, the defense made a key stop on the zone read to force a second and long. But it proved to be futile.

To counter the arc and slope blocks by the Ravens tight ends, the 49ers used their linebackers to gap exchange. Instead of one linebacker or safety as the scrape defender, both Warner and Greenlaw get out to the edge as contain and scrap as Bosa crashes the running back. There isn’t a lane for Jackson to run to, and Bosa eventually gets the stop **after** peeling off his tackle on Ingram. Unfortunately, the defense continued to give up first downs after this, leading to the game-winning field goal by Justin Tucker.


Fortunately, the 49ers will not face another zone read-heavy team like this until a potential Super Bowl rematch with the Ravens. The positive takeaway here is that this is one of the best defensive performances the Ravens will see all season outside of losses to the Chiefs and Browns. The negative is that the game was within their grasp if just one or two players here and there would’ve played sound 11-on-11 assignment football and made a stop here and there in key situations.

The defense should be thoroughly prepared for the Saints and anything they throw at them with Taysom Hill, who is a good athlete but not Lamar Jackson good. And they should more than likely be able to contain Brees similarly to the way they handled Aaron Rodgers.

With the Seahawks win on Monday Night Football, the 49ers are vaulted down to fifth place in the playoff seeding but are in full control of whatever happens between week 14 and the end of week 17. They need to win out from until the end of week 17 to get the first-round bye because they are not likely to get any help from any of their rival’s upcoming opponents.