49ers Preview: S.F. eyes 4th NFC title game in row
An NFL team’s modus operandi is like underwear: better to change it a little too early rather than a little too late. So despite reaching three NFC title games in Jim Harbaugh’s three seasons as head coach, the 49ers could be ushering in a new approach in 2014. Their traditionally run-first offense will incorporate more passing concepts; on defense, coordinator Vic Fangio’s stalwart man-to-man scheme will incorporate more zone.
The defensive changes actually commenced last postseason. Against the Packers, Panthers and Seahawks, Fangio kept his opponents guessing by using a variety of man and zone concepts (sometimes simultaneously). Offensively, aside from the first half of the Carolina game, the Niners remained a run-first team, though Colin Kaepernick’s scrambles—an extension of the passing game—were a big part of that.
There were still critical throwing situations, and Michael Crabtree’s late season return certainly propelled the offense here. With his lateral quickness, fluid hips, strong hands, body control and acceleration turning upfield, Crabtree was (and is) the team’s only receiver—save for maybe tight end Vernon Davis—who can consistently beat man coverage.
The receiver position is like the cornerback position: when a player is inserted or removed, there can be a severe domino effect. With Crabtree re-inserted, Anquan Boldin became more effective, going from facing No. 1 corners whom he couldn’t always shake to facing ancillary corners whom he could often outsmart or overpower. Davis also reaped benefits, as the presence of Crabtree and Boldin together made it harder for defenses to match nickel personnel against the two-time Pro Bowl tight end.
These are the weapons Harbaugh’s and offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s updated scheme will center around. This offense, which has used base “21” (two backs, one tight end) or “22” personnel as often and effectively as any in the league, is expected to feature more multi-receiver sets in 2014. Hence what GM Trent Baalke did with a pair of fourth-round picks this offseason: trading one for Buffalo’s Stevie Johnson (a limited athlete but shrewd route runner) and using one on South Carolina’s Bruce Ellington (a quick, vertically threatening slot weapon). And they also have last year’s fourth-rounder, Quinton Patton, who saw more playing time down the stretch. Plus Brandon Lloyd is back from a one-year sabbatical.
No matter how many investments are made at wide receiver, Colin Kaepernick will ultimately decide how and where this reworked offense goes. Kaepernick’s physical tools are second to none. His long-striding speed is lethal on scrambles and designed carries. (If you spend a day or two watching all the league’s mobile quarterbacks on film, you see that Kaepernick is clearly the most scintillating and explosive.) His quick-hitch fastball is one of the hottest in the game, allowing him to make all the throws, including those outside the numbers.
But when it comes to the mental and fundamental aspects, Kaepernick is still unripe. Too often he flees the pocket without even getting to the top of his drop, which is the mark of a quarterback who either has no idea what to do on a certain play or no idea what he’s seeing (or both). If Kaepernick’s first read is not open, the play immediately becomes randomized. Not surprisingly, Harbaugh and Roman don’t even ask the 26-year-old to drop back and scan both sides of the field. And Kaepernick’s understanding of how routes are synchronized and intersected is primitive, at least in terms of how they relate to various coverages.
The perplexing thing is, even with Kaepernick’s lack of refinement, the Niners have had substantial success. And a lot of that success has been because of their quarterback, specifically his playmaking prowess. Kaepernick has had a lot of ups and downs, but so far, his team has not paid a high price. (Though granted, some of those downs have come in scoring position at the end of big games—like against the Ravens in the Super Bowl and the Seahawks in last year’s NFC Championship. But hey, the Niners were still in those games in the first place.)
A fascinating debate worth having: if Kaepernick were to stay this way forever, would that be good enough long-term? We won’t get a strong feel for Harbaugh’s and Roman’s opinion on this until we see what kind of passing game they structure around the third-year starting QB. They’ll use more multi-receiver personnel, sure, but what kind of plays will they call from here? If they feature five-step timing, they’ll need Kaepernick to become more than just a one-read dropback passer. If they spread out and go with more quick timing, they’ll need Kaepernick to read defenses before the snap.
Harbaugh and Roman will play to Kaepernick’s mobility even in the passing game. Example: last season, most notably on his 58-yarder in the NFC title game, they cleverly designed quarterback scrambles out of spread formations. They had all their receivers align wide, run vertical routes and, instead of turning around to look for the ball, block the defender closest to them. This created extraordinary space that Kaepernick gobbled up.
Harbaugh and Roman will also keep using Kaepernick on read-options at least a few times each game. It’d be foolish not to, given how much defenses have to sacrifice just to defend it (and prepare for it during the week).
And if the Niners want to go back to leaning on their hallmark ground-and-pound system, they can. They have experience up front and in the backfield to keep hammering with staple concepts—wham blocks, counters, powers—out of a bevy of different formations. And even with Kendall Hunter being waived (ACL injury), there are still multiple options at running back. Frank Gore is 31 but has not shown strong hints of slowing down. And even if he did, with his game being predicated on setting up blocks through timing and vision, he could continue being fairly productive. To hedge against Gore’s inevitable decline, Baalke used a second-round pick on Carlos Hyde, a similar style of back. And he signed Bruce Miller to a three-year extension, even though the fourth-year fullback is coming off a fractured scapula.
Miller, as a flexible blocking piece who can occasionally handle the ball, has been a major facet of this offense. The hope is that No. 2 tight end Vance McDonald can eventually become that, as well.
Working alongside these guys is the most physically imposing run-blocking line in football, featuring Pro Bowl guard Mike Iupati and Pro Bowl tackle Joe Staley on the left side. On the right side, guard Alex Boone (who recently ended his holdout after getting his two-year deal reworked) and tackle Anthony Davis aren’t the most fleet-footed tandem, but both can drive defenders in the ground game. At center, Daniel Kilgore is inexperienced but should be an upgrade after Jonathan Goodwin hit a wall last year.
The 49ers’ increased use of zone coverage in the postseason may have been a response to the types of offenses they were facing. The Panthers and Seahawks had so-so wide receivers and mobile quarterbacks who were most readily contained by having multiple defenders keep eyes on them. But even before the playoffs, this D was diversifying down the stretch. Fangio did a great job mixing man and zone principles against stationary quarterbacks like Tampa Bay’s Mike Glennon and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan.
Diversity will continue to spread for this defense. Since Harbaugh and Fangio took over, the Niners have played an overwhelming amount of man-to-man, often with two safeties deep. They could use this predictable approach because they always had the more talented unit on the field.
That could change this year, though. The heart of their defense has been Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, irreplaceable inside linebackers because of their physical, instinctive and fundamentally sound run stopping plus their ability to play man-to-man against tight ends (Willis) and running backs (Bowman). Now that heart has been reduced, as we all saw Bowman in the NFC title game suffer the type of horrific leg injury that’s been known to ruin careers.
Most likely, at the earliest, Bowman’s return will be in November—and who knows how different he might be. The fact that Baalke used a third-round pick on Chris Borland suggests the Niners find Bowman’s long-term status uncertain. In the short-term, the interim strong inside backer is Michael Wilhoite. He was solid in fill-in duties last season but will never be mistaken for a first-team All Pro.
This defense will also be without Aldon Smith for the first nine games. His fill-in will be either Corey Lemonier, a third-round pick from a year ago who has shown potential as a speed-to-power edge-rusher, or Dan Skuta, who was impressive in all facets as an eight-game starter in 2013. Smith is crucial to the pass rush, though it won’t be inept without him as long as Ahmad Brooks, who is coming off his first Pro Bowl but still might be the most underappreciated defensive force in football, is lining up on the left side.
It’s critical that San Francisco’s defensive line remain viable against the pass. That’s been a big factor in past success, even though this group has no individual pass-rushing dynamos. The closest thing, of course, would be Justin Smith, but his damage is done primarily as a puzzle piece, where he sets up stunts and twists with his bulls and angles into double-teams. Smith’s counterpart, Ray McDonald, is a capable penetrator. And both ends should stay fresher again this year now that backup Tony Jerod-Eddie has become a resourceful rotation piece. That rotation could soon expand for last year’s second-round pick, Tank Carradine, who is coming off an ACL injury.
As far as the men who are actually executing the zone wrinkles: Tramaine Brock began last year as the No. 4 corner, climbed to No. 2 by season’s end and now enters 2014 as the No. 1. Refined fundamentals and football instincts make Brock capable, but there are questions with the rest of the cornerbacking group. Chris Culliver, a good-looking (though painfully inconsistent) young outside corner in 2012, is coming off a torn ACL. In nickel, Perrish Cox was unable to fend off first-round rookie safety Jimmie Ward for the slot job.
Furthering the notion that San Francisco is ready for more zone is Baalke using his first-round pick on a safety for the second year in a row. The last team to do that: the 1979-80 Patriots, with Rick Sanford and Roland James
Last year’s first-rounder, Eric Reid, looks like a raging success. He plays bigger than his 6-1, 215-pound size, is a hard hitter, decent ball hawk and a smart student of the game. He’ll be only the second shrewdest safety in this year’s backfield, as ninth-year veteran Antoine Bethea is expected to start ahead of Ward. With Bethea here, the Niners might consider replacing their two-backer nickel package with a three-safety dime package.
Kicker Phil Dawson and punter Andy Lee form arguably the game’s most trustworthy kicking combo. Either LaMichael James or rookie Bruce Ellington will handle return duties. At this point, a role as a returner might be the best chance for James, a 2012 second-round pick, to carve out a niche in the NFL.
San Francisco’s hope is that a notable, though far from drastic, decrease in talent on defense will be offset by deeper personnel and more diverse schemes on both sides of the ball. In this formula, Kaepernick’s performance has an even greater impact on his team’s output.