We are very happy to have Alen Dumonjic, an x's and o's football junkie who blogs for The Score, back for another season to give us his insight on the intricacies of the game.
INSIDE THE 49ERS’ OFFENSE
Let’s get it out of the way now: The San Francisco 49ers are going to be the most complete team the Patriots will have faced all season. They are dynamic in all three facets of the game and have several playmakers all over the field.
Offensively, they are led by second year QB Colin Kaepernick, who is a more dangerous quarterback than Alex Smith ever was and it’s not simply because of his mobility. Kaepernick is indeed mobile and can pick up yardage in chunks on the ground but it’s his arm strength and deep ball accuracy that really stands out. It’s an area which Smith struggled mightily and as a result, the offense was limited. However, now they are able to utilize their vertical threats – tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker and to a lesser degree, wide receiver Randy Moss – and attack all three levels of the field.
The offense was created by Jim Harbaugh, who took West Coast Offense principles in the passing game and married it to a power running game. The latter sets up the former and it comes in various fashions. The 49ers’ running game consists of all sorts of run concepts, such as the base plays of Inside Zone, Outside Zone, Lead, Power as well as the old school Wham play (seen with NYJ last year) and recently popular Zone Read. They will use these from various formations, including Bill Walsh’s old split-backs and the recently implemented Pistol set that Kaepernick was familiar with at Nevada. The formations consist of 11, 12, 21, 22, and 13 (including tackle-eligible) personnel.
As noted, the passing game consists of West Coast Offense concepts, such as the popular Smash concept (Hitch + Corner route), Mesh (crossers) and endless variations of the Hi-Lo concept, and utilizes 3 and 5 step dropback passing. The goal of every West Coast Offense passing game is to keep the ball in between the hashes and attack the defense through the seam. The 49ers do this very well with the aforementioned tight ends and a big reason why is because of their pre-snap movement.
The 49ers use a plethora of shifts and motions to mess with the keys of the defenders, leaving them confused as to who their assignment is. The pre-snap movement is the biggest reason why defenses struggle against the 49ers because of the sheer multitude of them. There is no offense in the NFL that is built this way and does such an excellent job of getting the numbers advantage in the passing game as well as the running game, where they do a very good job of getting numbers at the point of attack.
INSIDE THE 49ERS’ DEFENSE
As good as the offense looks for the 49ers, it is still the defense that shines. This unit might be the most complete in the NFL and it shows in how they play.
A four man rush is a constant with them because they can rely on the front four to get pressure. Aldon and Justin Smith speak for themselves and are most popular but the other rushers are very good as well. Outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks is a very good rusher and defensive end Ray McDonald is underrated. These rushers get after the quarterback through various fronts in Vic Fangio’s defense, which includes but is not limited to 2, 3 and 4 man fronts. They can be seen lined up in the Okie front (both guards uncovered), Even (center uncovered) and various other techniques that are typically seen in Under (strongside guard uncovered) and Over fronts (weakside guard uncovered). Regardless of the front, the 49ers are stout in run defense as they work as a team to get after ball-carriers.
While the rushers get after the quarterback, the linebackers do an excellent job of covering. The unit is led by arguably the two best inside linebackers in the NFL, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. Both have range and speed to run with running backs, wide receivers or tight ends. When outside linebacker Aldon Smith is not getting after the quarterback, he can be seen dropping in coverage (usually in the curl-flat area) with fluidity.
In the secondary, the cornerbacks are sometimes very physical with wide receivers and are quality in man coverage, mirroring receivers throughout their routes. The safeties are also very physical, laying the wood often and coming down very aggressively in run defense. They are quick to identify run or pass, which allows them to play fast. Altogether, they play a variety of coverages, which include Cover 1 (Man-Free), Cover 1 Robber, Cover 2 Man (Man-Under), Cover 3 (4-under, 3-deep) and Cover 4 (Quarters).
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
- 49ers’ offensive shifts: As stated earlier, the 49ers’ offensive shifts are the key to their offense. They utilize them very well to help set up blocking schemes and get the numbers advantage, so it is imperative that the Patriots defenders communicate throughout the game. They need to make sure they are lined up properly and have their assignments; otherwise, they will go down in flames like the Chicago Bears’ once dominant defense did earlier in the season.
- 49ers’ play-action passing: Kaepernick has made some impressive throws off of play action, especially deep, so the Patriots must be conscious of deep routes. Kaepernick does a very good job of buying time and is willing to step up in the face of pressure to deliver down the field. Davis is a threat but so is Walker, who flies under the radar.
- Patriots’ no huddle: The 49ers don’t make many substitutions defensively because all of their defenders are able to play all three downs. This benefits the Patriots, who should be able to go to the no huddle offense and move the ball. The 49ers have yet to deal with an offense like the Patriots’, so it will be interesting to see how this works out. I fully expect to see the no huddle.
- Patriots’ deep passing: One of the most interesting things to watch for is if the Patriots will be able to attack the 49ers deep. The 49ers’ safeties are aggressive but disciplined. However, the Patriots have the players to attack vertically. It wouldn’t surprise me if we see the Patriots take shots outside the numbers against the 49ers when they are playing with one deep safety.
- 49ers’ defensive stunts: The 49ers’ front four is very good at destroying offensive lines with stunts, the most famous of them being the T-E (tackle-end) with Justin and Aldon Smith. Aldon Smith is particularly dangerous looping inside on this stunt.