The All-22 Super Bowl Preview (Part One)
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.
To appreciate this moment, it is important to ask ourselves: How many times was this run supposed to end? How many people had written Baltimore off as a one-and-done playoff team after its late three-game losing streak? Too many injuries, too many aging defensive stars, too many questions about Joe Flacco and the offense, they all said.
Well here we are. The Super Bowl. The Ravens enter as an underdog yet again, but does anyone think that matters by now? Let’s see a show of hands—how many people are scared, at this point, of being a 4-point underdog to San Francisco?
With that in mind, we turn to the tape. Interestingly, after being much larger underdogs to Denver and New England, this game against San Francisco could turn out to be tougher than either of the games against Manning or Brady. The Niners have a sound football team—a good coach, a great defense, possibly the best offensive line in football, and a shiny new toy at quarterback who likes to run the pistol read-option. That last part, in particular, could be the point on which the game hinges. Which makes it important to know what, exactly, the pistol is.
The Pistol, at it’s most basic, looks something like the below, with the quarterback lined up four yards behind the center and the RB directly behind the QB. The difference between Pistol and Shotgun is the distance that the QB stands behind the center (shorter in Pistol).
Of course there are variations of this formation, such as the Pistol Full House:
The Pistol Pro Strong:
And the Pistol Pro Weak:
At some point in the game last week against the Falcons, the Niners used all of these looks. These aren’t the only formations the Niners lean on (later on, we will discuss both a heavy package the Niners like as well as a five-wide spread look). For now, though we will take a closer look at the Pistol and one play in particular, the Inverted Veer. Unfortunately, we don’t have a ton of options for reviewing the Baltimore defense against read-option offenses. When the Ravens last played San Francisco in the Thanksgiving Bowl, Alex Smith was the 49ers quarterback and they ran an entirely different offense. So, we turned to the week 14 game against the Redskins for some insight.
Situation: 3Q 11:20. 2nd and 10.
One way that the Ravens planned to attack the zone-read scheme against the Redskins was to play Nickel when there were 3 WRs (not pictured) and bring SS Bernard Pollard down to the line of scrimmage to act as an outside linebacker. The thinking was that Pollard’s speed, coupled with his run stopping ability, would be able to account for RG3 on the scramble. Paul Kruger would account for the inside hand-off. This strategy had success at times but it was by no means an answer to this offensive scheme.
Tight end Logan Paulsen comes across the formation to “slice” block Bernard Pollard. Generally Paulsen’s responsibility in this instance is to block the man that RG3 is optioning in order to create an inside lane for RB Alfred Morris to run through. In this shot, Robert Griffin III eyes #99 Paul Kruger to determine whether Kruger continues his pursuit upfield or crashes down to take away the inside run. Because the Ravens should theoretically have two players taking away both of RG3’s options, the Ravens should be in decent shape schematically (Pollard still needs to defeat his blocker regardless). However, Paul Kruger is somewhat oddly caught upfield here, leaving a void for Morris to run through. To make matters worse, RT Tyler Polumbus and C Will Montgomery attacked the second level right off the snap by design and are now engaging the two remaining run support players #51 Brendan Ayanbadejo and #53 Jameel McClain (matchups in blue).
The result of the play is a 6 yard gain from Morris. The tackle was eventually made by Ed Reed, who eventually came from his deep safety position to make the tackle.
The result of the play is not entirely on Paul Kruger. It is easy to say in hindsight that he pushed too far upfield to impact the play, but schematically the play is designed to make Kruger guess wrong every time the play comes to his side. The Ravens were gashed in the first half by RG3 and Alfred Morris but their strategy of playing Pollard on the edge had some success in the second half. So what about San Francisco?
San Francisco’s Veer
Situation: 4Q 8:44. 1st and Goal from ATL 9.
After a three-and-out by the Falcons, the 49ers are approaching do-or-die territory. Despite trailing 17-0 at the half, they have mounted a strong comeback and are now within three points. They have first and goal on the Atlanta 9 and line up in a variant of the Pistol Empty. The difference is that, instead of a Z receiver on the offensive right Frank Gore is lined up as the tailback behind Kaepernick. Kaepernick waves to the FB, Bruce Miller, who you can see in this shot is about to come in motion.
Now, FB Bruce Miller has lined up flanking the QB to the right in Pistol Pro Strong. San Francisco has run a significant portion of their offense out of this formation all game long.
However, Miller is not done moving. Here, he has motioned to Kaepernick’s left, instead, in the Pistol Pro Weak. The play clock has nearly expired and this will be the formation San Francisco settles on for the play. The ATL defense knows that Kaepernick has been running the read-option with the FB leading all game long, so OLB Sean Witherspoon, RDE Vance Walker, and MLB Akeem Dent all take a step to the defensive right.
The play, however, is going to the offensive right, not the defensive right. The play call here is “veer”, the same play we detailed previously, except that SF is running to the weak side of the play rather than the strong (which they have been doing all game long). The FB leads to the right and takes on the DT. Kaepernick reads DE John Abraham, who overpursues the QB badly. Kaepernick simply hands the ball to Gore, who finds a huge lane in front of Abraham and to the right of Miller’s block. TE Vernon Davis goes up the field and blocks the only DB on the right side of the field (just off the screen at the top right).
Here, you can see the huge lane that Gore finds. There are only three defenders who even have a shot at Gore, but he is much too quick and waltzes into the endzone untouched.
Stopping the read option will take a lot of discipline from Baltimore’s defense. Kruger, Upshaw, Ayanbadejo, Ellerbe, and McClain didn’t have particularly good games against Washington. However, the defense should find itself out of position less often with Suggs and Lewis in the lineup, both of whom were missing against Washington.
Two More Looks From the 49ers Offense
What makes the Niners such a difficult team to defend right now is their versatility. They undoubtedly have the most success running the read-option from the pistol, but they can do far more than just that. Baltimore’s defense will be tested repeatedly in New Orleans.
2Q 14:03. 1st and 10. Ball on SF 29.
The 49ers lug out an extra two offensive lineman, backup LG #68 Leonard Davis and backup C #67 Daniel Kilgore. Additionally they align TE Vernon Davis on the LOS and backup TE Delanie Walker as a wing. This forces the defense to counter with their heavy package in order to take on the extra blockers. The playcall is Power Lead Right which calls for LG #77 Mike Iupati to pull to the right side and lead running back Frank Gore through a hole created right where #46 Delanie Walker is currently standing. The result of the play is a 3 yard gain from Gore.
The 49ers don’t use this type of play as the basis of their run game but they are willing to line up with several big bodies and force the run defense to beat them. Additionally, notice that the game situation does not call for a play like this. They are not backed up in their own end or trying to punch it into the endzone. The ball is on their own 29 on First Down.
Situation: 3Q 5:55. 3rd and 5.
In this play the 49ers have five yards to go for a first down with the ball on the Falcons 21. They will attack with their 1RB, 1TE personnel but they are spreading the field with all of their skill players. The goal here is to widen the Falcons Cover 3 zone defense out in order to find a crease between zones with one of the two underneath “Whip” routes to gain a first down. The result of the play is a tipped-pass-incompletion.
This play is important because it is a strategy that is in stark contrast to all of the ones displayed above. As we showed in the previous play, the 49ers are willing to bring the big boys onto the field in certain situations, but they are also willing to spread the field to the sidelines in others.
What This Means for Baltimore
The Ravens need to prepare all types of personnel groupings when trying to stop this offense. The Niners bring a ton of looks and have a versatile quarterback under center. Kaepernick is extremely athletic and is a quick, smart football player. However, we both thought that his accuracy leaves a little something to be desired. Additionally, he started off very slowly against Atlanta. Clearly the game is not too big for him, as he helped bring his team back from down 17-0 to a 28-24 victory, but his first quarter-and-a-half against the Falcons was a struggle. For Baltimore to win, they will need to take advantage of a potentially slow start and put some points on the board, much like the Falcons did. However, Baltimore’s defense will have to do a better job of adjusting to the read-option looks in the second half. Atlanta failed to adjust, and they were outscored 28-7.
The play of the Raven linebackers will ultimately determine their defensive success. An extra wrinkle that the 49ers will use is play-fake the zone-read option and force the linebackers in the middle of the field to crash forward to stop the run. This leaves a void in the middle of the field for speedy receiving threats like Vernon Davis to catch and run. The Ravens struggled against this play action scheme in Washington but hopefully having Lewis and Suggs back in the line-up will inhibit San Francisco from sticking to their game plan.