Former Ram and current 49er Craig Dahl made some NFC West waves this week when he revealed how the St. Louis Rams defense had, to some extent, solved San Francisco's offense in 2012. The 49ers tipped their plays, Dahl told the San Jose Mercury News, allowing the Rams to often figure out whether a run or pass play was coming at them.
"Different personnel and different alignment stuff really were the big keys as far as giveaways," Dahl, who left St. Louis to sign with San Francisco this offseason, told the Mercury News. "It's been addressed and corrected. They knew most of it before I even got here. We just reconfirmed it. It's ongoing self-study and self-scouting that got it cleared up, too." That revelation was met with scorn from Dahl's former Rams teammate Cortland Finnegan, who tweeted, "Craig Dahl is lame and weak for that glad he with another squad we know how he play thanks for the tips we know who 2 go at.”
It's that latter game that we are putting in the spotlight here. Was Dahl right about the 49ers' tipping their plays? It sure seems like it, based on what the game tape shows ...
Shotgun formation: 15 occurrences, 14 passes, 1 designed QB draw
Whenever Kaepernick dropped into a traditional shotgun look (about six yards deep, with a running back at his side), the 49ers took to the air. This was the case no matter the personnel on the field -- San Francisco usually either went with three receivers, one TE and a running back or two receivers, two tight ends and a back when Kaepernick lined up in such a way.
On 14 of the 49ers' 15 shotgun snaps, Kaepernick dropped to throw. He wound up scrambling on a couple of occasions, but the only designed run from this set was a QB draw up the middle, which resulted in a 1-yard gain.
This also does not take into account the 49ers' use of the pistol. They implemented that look a couple of times, once with Gore lined up being Kaepernick; at least twice out of their "diamond" set with three backs.
1-WR, 2-TE set: 19 occurrences, 13 runs
2-WR sets: 26 occurrences, 19 passes, one designed QB run
The shot above is of the two-tight end, two-back ("22" personnel grouping) that San Francisco utilized rather frequently during this game. On almost 70 percent of the snaps with that setup, the 49ers ran the football.
(And this is as good a time as any to remind everyone that the 49ers did manage to score 37 points in two games against St. Louis' defense, so the "tipped plays" did not occur on 100 percent of the snaps; the Rams also did not snuff out every play that followed a pattern.)
Conversely, when the 49ers replaced either H-back/second tight end Delanie Walker or fullback Bruce Miller with a second receiver, Kaepernick usually put the ball in the air -- 73 percent of plays from that personnel grouping were passes.
"Jumbo" set: 8 occurrences, 7 runs
"Jumbo,", "heavy," whatever you want to call it, this refers to when the 49ers loaded up with big bodies in the backfield -- multiple fullbacks, a third tight end or an extra tackle. There's not a lot of mystery meant to be here anyway, so it's not a huge surprise that San Francisco ran on seven of eight plays from these groupings (eight of nine, if you count a play wiped out by penalty).
Bruce Miller or Delanie Walker motioning out wide: 4 occurrences, 4 passes
Small sample size here, considering the number of snaps that San Francisco had in the game. But whenever Miller or Walker shifted from inside the tackle box out to a receiver spot -- either wide or to the slot, as Walker did once -- the 49ers took to the air.
Each time, Frank Gore remained in the backfield. That differs from the three times that San Francisco went to an empty set, with no backs behind or alongside Kaepernick; those empty sets all resulted in passes.
Delanie Walker motion to strongside: 6 occurrences, 6 runs
Another small sample size that resulted in 100-percent consistency. Whenever Walker motioned to the strongside, thus lining up offset next to Vernon Davis, the 49ers ran the football. These plays mostly occurred with the 49ers in their "22" personnel, which we've already determined is a run-heavy formation. Moving Walker to the strongside pre-snap tipped the scales entirely. And on at least one such instance, the Rams charged through the line like they had guessed the correct play in "Tecmo Super Bowl" -- blowing through the blocking to secure Gore for a loss.
Conclusions? Dahl and the Rams might have been onto something here. It's possible that they found their tipped plays by looking at factors other than the ones highlighted here, but even a cursory scan through the 49ers-Rams tape hints at some easy-to-read calls by San Francisco. The 49ers still won the NFC West, captured a conference crown and nearly pulled out a Super Bowl victory. Disguising their offensive plans even more in 2013 will only make opposing defenses' jobs that much tougher.