Last week, we brought you the All-22 breakdown of San Francisco’s Pistol Read-Option offense (here). That offense has been the talk of the town for the past week; it is the topic on which most film-study articles around the web have focused. (Another shameless plug: co-author Dan Bryden has created an aggregate of film-study articles here, for your reading pleasure: here).
This week, we are looking at the Ravens offense against a stingy Niners D. The 49ers defense is unique in that its starters almost never come off the field. Five of their players–Carlos Rogers, Donte Whitner, Tarell Brown, Dashon Goldson, and Aldon Smith–have played 100% of defensive snaps in the postseason. In the regular season, nine 49ers defenders played 1,000 or more snaps (in fact, eight of those nine played over 1,100). By contrast only Ed Reed, Bernard Pollard, and Cary Williams played >1,100 snaps for the Ravens.
As you can imagine, then, the 49ers rely heavily on their base defense and when they substitute, they replace one DT (Sopaoga) for an extra cornerback (Culliver). San Francisco runs a base 3-4 with Cover 2-Man (generally). However, their secondary schemes do vary. They will often split the field in half, running Cover 2-Man on one half of the field and a totally different scheme, such as Cover 4 or Cover 2-Read, on the other half. Chris Brown offers a much more detailed and entertaining breakdown here.
The problem for Flacco will be correctly assessing the defense he is facing. Most of the variations that the Niners use in the secondary can look almost identical to Cover 2-Man, as you will see below in the screen grabs. Add in the fact that the Niners have a pretty strong pass rush, too, and it’s easy to see that the Ravens offense is facing a significant challenge.
On the bright side, there are a few places we believe the Ravens can win on offense. We looked to Atlanta’s success through the air in the NFC Championship game for a number of ideas.
Situation: 4Q 7:13. 1st and 10.
Offensive Playcall: Sluggo (Slant and Go)
Defensive Playcall: Quarters
San Francisco leans on its 2-Man scheme for the majority of the defensive snaps. However, they will also use Quarters (Cover 4) in situations where they want to keep more than two players deep. Quarters is easy to disguise as 2-Man, but the outside leverage (and depth) of the corners gives away the 49ers intentions and Matt Ryan barks out a new play. Edge rusher Aldon Smith is in his standard upright end position and will rush the edge vs. the Falcons 5-man protection.
Julio Jones, the outside receiver, has been a vertical and intermediate threat all day. In this play, after his vertical stem, he breaks toward FS Dashon Goldson as if he’s running a post. At the time of this screen cap, Julio Jones sticks his foot in the ground and runs vertical (sluggo). FS Goldson is caught breaking toward the post and Julio Jones blows past both Goldson and CB Tarell Brown. At the same time Matt Ryan is getting pressure off the edge from Aldon Smith and needs to tuck the ball to evade Smith’s big paws. Ryan manages to get the ball out but Jones is now 20 yards downfield and running full speed.
Ryan slightly underthrows his target, Jones, and Tarell Brown is able to recover and bat the ball from Jones’ hands. FS Goldson’s downhill aggression worked against him in this instance, and he is trailing the play even though the ball is underthrown.
This is a play that the Ravens can use to beat this 49ers defense down the field. Baltimore’s Torrey Smith is one of the few receivers in the league with a 40yd dash time comparable to that of Julio Jones, and Torrey will likely be matched up on CB Tarell Brown for much of the day. Additionally, Torrey Smith was open on the backside slant/dig for much of the day vs. New England’s man-coverage scheme (see the play breakdown, below, for an example).
Joe Flacco has a stronger arm than Matt Ryan and can possibly make this throw even under pressure. Aldon Smith is one of the best edge rushers in the league, but if the left side of the Ravens line (McKinnie/Osemele) can protect Flacco long enough to allow vertical routes to develop downfield, the Sluggo play is one play the Ravens may use to exploit San Francisco’s Quarters.
Situation: 3Q 14:15. 3rd and 9
Offensive Playcall: Smash-7 w/ Seam
Defensive Playcall: Cover 1 Robber
Down by six to start the second half, the Ravens are stuck at 3rd and long in their own territory. They are only 1 for 5 in 3rd down conversions to this point and they need to start generating momentum. The Patriots are showing their two-deep, man underneath look (2-Man) prior to the snap. Once Flacco takes the snap, the safeties move into their Cover 1 Robber look (as drawn). The Ravens have been facing man-to-man underneath all game, and the playcall is meant to exploit the matchup of Anquan Boldin on backup CB Marquice Cole (thrust into action after Aqib Talib went down).
In this shot Flacco sees a very familiar defense as New England opted to play man-coverage on all of the receiving threats (including Ray Rice). On the defensive line, DE Jermaine Cunningham will loop (stunt) behind defensive lineman Vince Wilfork and Trevor Scott (both lined up on the offense’s right side).
As Boldin (orange circle) is making his 7-cut (diagonal toward the sideline), Flacco is releasing the ball. #96 Cunningham was freely rushing Flacco by this point and the ball needed to come out. On Flacco’s blindside, LT #78 Bryant McKinnie struggles to handle DE Rob Ninkovich in pass protection, so Flacco is starting to feel the pocket collapse. Flacco only has time to look toward his left because of the pass rush, but interestingly the opposite side of the field shows two routes that are open here and throughout the day: Rice in the flat vs. LB Mayo and Torrey Smith (blue circle) on the backside dig/post.
The ball is placed somewhat behind receiver Anquan Boldin, but Boldin is able to use his size and body control to make a strong-handed catch for a 26 yard gain and a first down. This single play is fascinating on many levels because it exemplifies what the 49ers will try to do in the Super Bowl:
1) San Francisco primarily plays man coverage and will generally align with two deep safeties, as seen in the first image.
2) The 49ers rarely change their man-coverage matchups and will almost always use LB Patric Willis to cover tight ends (see below). Willis is a very good cover linebacker, but against top-tier TEs like Tony Gonzalez, Willis is overmatched.
3) The 49ers defense leans on NaVorro Bowman to cover running backs. Ray Rice likely has an advantage in this matchup due to this speed. Often times, however, Bowman plays a “greendog” technique where he locks onto the running back in man coverage or blitzes if the running back stays in to help pass protect. San Fran uses few designed blitzes, but expect to see Bowman and Willis as greendogs throughout the game.
4) Flacco will undoubtedly see pressure from his left side on Sunday, especially when Aldon Smith can pin his ears back. Aldon will likely give McKinnie problems on the edge (as Ninkovich did in the above play), and he will also loop around the opposite side from an interior lineman position (similar to Cunningham’s stunt in the above play). The offensive playcall above is designed to give Flacco a defined read to his left and a checkdown to his right. This will be important versus a very good 49ers pass rush.
5) When the 49ers see three wide receivers, they generally sub DL Isaac Sopoaga out of the game for a third CB, Chris Culliver. As a slot receiver, Boldin will match up against Carlos Rogers who is 2″ taller and a much better cover player than New England’s Marquice Cole. Boldin will not have an easy day against the 9ers defense.
TE Double Move
Situation: 2Q 0:29. 2nd and 4 on SF 10.
Offensive Playcall: TE Double Move
Defensive Playcall: Cover 2-Read
Initially the Niners look like they are in Cover 2-Man. In reality, they are playing Cover 2-Read (responsibilities vary based on route combos). What’s important to note here is that, on the bottom portion of the screen, everyone is in man coverage, including #52 ILB Patrick Willis against #88 TE Tony Gonzalez, who is split close to the formation. Gonzalez is going to run a double move on Willis that ends in a route breaking across the very front of the endzone.
Here you can see Gonzo making his double move. Ryan’s vision is directed right at the spot where Gonzalez turns his head to pretend to look for the ball, pictured in the orange box. The fake gives Gonzo an even greater advantage over Willis, who was the underdog in this matchup from the beginning. Though Willis has safety help over the top, the safety must also keep his eye on the outside receiver. Because Gonzo’s route will break to the middle of the field, the safety never has a chance to catch up and break up the pass.
The ball hits Gonzo right in the hands, away from both defenders—a nice throw from Ryan. But nearly all of the credit goes to Gonzo, whose route leaves both Willis and #31 S Donte Whitner out of position.
If the Ravens can get Pitta running similar routes, he may find success against Willis. Against SF, Tony Gonzalez was targeted five times and caught all five passes for 43 yards and a touchdown. The 49ers linebackers harassed Gonzalez at the line of scrimmage all game long, but he still found plenty of success in the passing game. We’re hoping that Pitta can do the same.
Hey everyone–we are Chris Worthington (@C_Dubs87) and Dan Bryden (@PlainMilksFine), two good friends and past college roommates as well as avid Ravens fans. We have been using the new All-22 Coaches film to try to get a closer look at the Ravens this year. We hope you enjoy it, and we STRONGLY encourage you to leave comments or questions in the forum–one of our primary goals when we decided to start writing was to foster conversation.