Vernon Davis' long crossing route was set up by formation diversity. (Getty Images)Now that everybody is rushing to "confirm" the report from SI.com's Jim Trotter that Colin Kaepernick will start for the San Francisco 49ers in favor of Alex Smith -- a decision that isn't based on Smith's heath as much as Smith would like -- it's time to take a look at how Kaepernick was able to play so well last Monday night against the Chicago Bears' top-ranked defense.
Kaepernick, selected in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft out of Nevada, played for head coach Chris Ault in a Pistol offense of Ault's design. It's an offense built on the ability to hide the running back (lining up three yards behind the quarterback, who's four yards back from center in a short shotgun look), to allow specific read-option looks, and to set up play action advantages in the passing game.
When Kaepernick started to learn Jim Harbaugh's offense, the NFL's most creative and multiple when it comes to formations in run-game concepts, he had a head-start not afforded to most college spread-option quarterbacks, Smith included.
In that 32-7 blowout win over the Bears, Kaepernick seemed right at home in just about any formation, with just about any formation shift. The game plan for the second-year quarterback in his first NFL start was to keep Kaepernick's first read open, but it wasn't as simple as it sounds. Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman pre-determined Chicago's defensive disadvantage.
"I watched that [49ers-Bears] tape very carefully, and I thought it was an unbelievable marriage of offensive orchestration and design, and the quarterback making outstanding throws," Greg Cosell of NFL Films said on this week's Shutdown Corner matchup podcast. "They dictated matchups by their use of personnel and formation. And when teams do that, it's not done on a whim. It's not a fluke -- 'Hey, we got Vernon Davis matched up on Major Wright,' or you get Davis matched on Lance Briggs. Based on shifts and motions and formations, the 49ers did a phenomenal job of dictating matchups -- knowing they'd get man-to-man, and feeling very good about those. Kaepernick didn't do a lot of reading in this game, and that's not a knock on him -- that's good coaching.
"They set him up, and Davis became the focus of this offense for the first time in a number of weeks. Now, you've got to make the throws, and I'm not taking anything away from Kaepernick, because he clearly made a couple of throws I'm not sure Alex Smith could make. He had five throws of 20-plus yards in that game, and they all came against man coverage."
The play that put Briggs solo on Davis, a mismatch no matter how good Briggs is on coverage, was based on a great pre-snap formation shift that left Chicago's defense ... well, defenseless. It was the first play of the second quarter, and the 49ers started out in what looked like a typical power run play -- I-formation with two tight ends inline to the right. The Bears, who sent a lot of interior blitz looks in this game, did so again by sending 10 men inside traditional linebacker depth.
Pre-snap, everything went all higgeldy-piggeldy for the 49ers from a formation perspective. Fullback Bruce Miller went from inline to split wide right, halfback Kendall Hunter split wide left, and the two tight ends to the right -- Delanie Walker and Vernon Davis -- spread out to flex and slot positions. Thus, a base run formation switched to empty backfield, and whatever the Bears planned to do with their defense was shot right through.
The Bears were now forced to play straight man, and the matchup the 49ers wanted -- Briggs on Davis -- was there for the taking. The three outside receivers ran straight routes to clear coverage, and left slot receiver Michael Crabtree ran an inside/under crossing route to occupy Brian Urlacher and keep him from helping Briggs on Davis. That gave Davis the decisive edge when he ran a long crossing route from right to left.
But with all that formation advantage, here's where Kaepernick's skill set comes into play. Yes, Davis was the first read, and it was set up well, but Kaepernick was the one who had to make a throw 20 yards in the air, over the defender, and to the receiver in stride before safety Chris Conte converged. Alex Smith can do a lot of things at this point in his career, but nobody who's watched a lot of 49ers football would contend that Smith could consistently make those kinds of throws. That's why Kaepernick is starting now, and that's why he -- or another quarterback like him -- will most likely fill Harbaugh's quarterback paradigm in future.
Today, against the New Orleans Saints' 31st-ranked pass defense, the 49ers will look to gain similar pre-snap formation advantages, and they'll probably have a lot of opportunities to do so. Saints defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has implemented more inside blitzes from his linebackers in recent weeks, but between San Francisco's outstanding use of counters and traps to dominate the running game between the tackles and the need to keep linebackers in coverage against first-read tight end route concepts, Spagnuolo could find his defense stretched to its limits just as the Bears' defense was.
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