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The All-22: San Francisco’s complex offense is about far more than a running quarterback

Doug Farrar
Shutdown Corner

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Twist and Shout: Frank Gore makes the Packers look silly. (AP)

NEW ORLEANS -- There's been a lot of talk about the San Francisco 49ers' quarterback-based run game, and justifiably so -- Colin Kaepernick has given that offense new life and a host of new options with his dynamic mobility and deep arm. But when you talk with people in the NFL about what makes San Francisco's offense really go, it's all about the most multiple run game people have seen in a very long time. Under head coach Jim Harbaugh, offensive coordinator Greg Roman, and offensive line coach Mike Solari, the 49ers present opposing defenses with a dizzying array of options, predetermined to make any defensive guess the wrong one.

Every aspect of that run game has its antecedents -- from the old-school Wishbone, to the trap blocks favored by the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s, to the counter plays defined by the Washington Redskins of the John Riggins era, to the read-option favored by so many college teams, to the Pistol offense invented by Nevada head coach Chris Ault, and run in college under Ault by that very same Mr. Kaepernick. But the ways in which the 49ers put it together are very different and quite befuddling, even to NFL defenses that are primed to stop just about anything.

ESPN analyst Mark Schlereth, who won three Super Bowls as an offensive lineman with the Denver Broncos and Washington Redskins, told me this week that the real problem with defending what the 49ers do is that you never really know what to key on. Defenses live and die with their ability to read keys and trust what they see, and the 49ers use that to their own advantage.

"I think it's different in that ... you look at the other teams, like the Washington Redskins, who run this, or the Seattle Seahawks ... Seattle's line coach, Tom Cable, was a teammate of mine at the University of Idaho, and he was tutored in that zone system under Alex Gibbs, the Godfather of the zone running system," Schlereth said. "They and Washington run their read-option and Pistol stuff out of zone running concepts. The 49ers are much more of a trap/counter/power team. And when you run that, you're going to double-team on the front side, and you're running a guard or fullback or somebody over there as a trap guy."

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Ego Bruiser: The 49ers present a base personnel package that is about to change... (NFL.com)

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Fullback Bruce Miller motions into the backfield from a tight end set. (NFL.com)

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The 49ers' line slides to the right on two levels, while Miller gets ready to rumble. (NFL.com)

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Colin Kaepernick gets a free lane for a long gain behind textbook blocking. (NFL.com)

This poses serious issues for any linebacker, because when you're a linebacker standing over a left guard gap and reading the blocking, you expect to come up and fill if you see a trap or a counter. Zone slides off the read-option, where most or all of the blockers are traveling one way, make easier reads. What the 49ers do -- and this is really Greg Roman's baby -- is to show the same types of blocking concepts for several different types of run packages -- including the ones in which Kaepernick takes off.

"As a defensive lineman, you've been taught your whole career that when that trap comes at you, you trap the trapper and constrict that hole," Schlereth said. "But now, you can't be aggressive on that. Because if they run the exact same blocking scheme, but run read-option out of it, and you go to trap the trapper, Kaepernick will run around the edge for 60 or 80 yards, like he did against Green Bay. It's really difficult to defend, especially when you're playing San Francisco, because everything you've ever been taught about how to defend power and counter goes out the window. From a personnel and formation and execution standpoint, it makes it really tough -- it all looks identical. You don't know if it's read, or trap, or power. It all looks the same, but it's completely different.

"The beauty of that ... if I'm part of this offense, it doesn't change what I do at all. A double-team on the front side is a double-team on the front side. It doesn't matter, because technique-wise, I'm doing it all the same. But conceptually, the play is completely different."

In addition, the 49ers often have a fullback or tight end run a lead blocker through those option attacks in or out of the Pistol. Bruce Miller is often the man in those packages.

"That's part of the power aspect and the counter aspect," Schlereth said. "It's just hard to get a read about what's different. Then, they'll run it out of a big formation with two extra offensive linemen, or two tight ends, or three-wide, or '11' offensive personnel. So, it's multiple formations, and multiple personnel groupings -- different looks, but it's all the same to us.

For Tom Rathman, who played fullback for the 49ers Super Bowl-winning teams in 1988 and 1989, and now serves as the team's running backs coach, the offense he's a part of designing and implementing is a refreshing blend of old and new schools.

"Right now, it's new to the league, and I don't think teams are ready to defend it -- or, at least, some teams weren't," Rathman told me on Tuesday. "We'll see how Baltimore defends it. But we've got multiple concepts in our offense -- we're not just one-dimensional. We don't just have to get in that Pistol offense and run a read-option. We've got other schemes in our system where, if that's not working, we'll go to [other things]. We feel that he can drop back and throw the ball, too."

"You try to keep them off-guard, It's tough to read what we're trying to do, and we just keep adding to it."

Roman learned his blocking concepts from a lot of different people -- offensive line coaching mentors like Solari, and Harbaugh, who he worked with at Stanford and in San Francisco. Harbaugh is quick to say that the best offensive line in the NFL is really Roman's project.

"Every week, we're trying to find new ways to attack a defense, and we've got a great staff. Mike Solari, our offensive line coach, is one of the more veteran and accomplished in the league, and that affords us a great deal of teaching with the line. We've got some great players up there, and we're going to put them to work."

Even when Alex Smith was the team's starting quarterback in the 2011 season and halfway into the 2012 season, that run game and the blocking that facilitated it was very advanced. But Roman intimated this week that Kaepernick has always been the potential force multiplier, and that's playing out in some very interesting ways.

"Colin's been practicing the game plans every week, and we've always had a little 'Colin plan,' whether or not we chose to bring it out," Roman recalled. "We chose to bring it out against the Jets this season for the first time, and it worked. Colin's an adaptable guy -- he can run a lot of different styles of offense, and we're always going to push the envelope with what we put in and ask our players to do. Keep them stimulated, keep things fresh, and teaching as we go.

"They've got to figure out where everyone is, and where they're going. Advantage: Us. We'll take it."

Advantage them indeed, and those who have coached at a very high level in the NFL are suitable impressed. Current FOX Sports analyst and former Ravens head coach Brian Billick was also the mastermind behind the Minnesota Vikings' 1998 offense that set the league record for points in a season before the 2007 New England Patriots broke it. Billick, who was a confidante of Bill Walsh's, has seen every kind of offensive philosophy come down the pike, and he's very on board with what he's seen.

"San Francisco is a power/counter/trap team with Frank Gore, and they've augmented that with their zone option, and Kaepernick on the outside," Billick told me on Wednesday. "They've stayed true to their personality. But this game has never changed -- it's about numbers and angles. I want to get more blockers at the point of attack than you have tacklers. If I can't get a numerical superiority, I want to get an angle superiority. In my one-on-one, I have a better angle to do my job on you than you do on me. part of that is to get defenders to pause. If you can get NaVorro Bowman or Patrick Willis or Ray Lewis to hesitate ... at this level? You're out of the gate. The momentary pause of 'What are they doing?' -- that's what all the misdirection is. I heard Greg Roman talking about how much of their game-planning is spent on disguising and misdirection. How can they play their basic game and still hide their intent?"

Multiplicity aside, the 49ers are also capable of ramming their gameplans right down your throat and making everything as simple and brutal as possible, especially when Gore runs behind the left side of an offensive line that features tackle Joe Staley, guard Mike Iupati, and center Jonathan Goodwin. It is the rare front seven that can hold up against that stack. Roman has blocking packages he calls "Brutus" and "Bully" -- sometimes, it really is about kicking the other guy's ass. Billick wonders if the Ravens are up for it.

"I saw this Ravens team defense in the middle of the season against the Dallas Cowboys, and they got mauled," he said. "San Francisco has the ability to maul the Ravens. Although the read-option stuff will either be successful or it won't, the number-one challenge I see for the Ravens is if San Francisco wants to line up in their big package -- two tight ends, extra tackle -- and just maul the Ravens."

As Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN's NFL Matchup said on this week's Super Bowl podcast preview, the ways in which this run game can unleash itself gives defenses unsolvable problems at times. Billick said it best -- it's about numbers and angles, and the 49ers are geometric geniuses. Cosell pointed to one play in particular that probably still has the Atlanta Falcons shaking their heads.

"One of the most fascinating plays -- and I've seen it college, which shows you how much the college run game is coming into the NFL -- was the LaMichael James touchdown in the NFC Championship game," Cosell said. "It was really cool, because it was two concepts in one play. It was a jet sweep concept with LaMichael James, but they also pulled the guard, and it was power for Colin Kaepernick if he didn't hand the ball off. You don't see that kind of stuff in the NFL. You're going to see more of it now, but you need a quarterback that can run to execute that, because you're counting on a certain defensive response. If the defense takes James away and jumps hard outside, you run power inside with Kaepernick -- who, by the way, probably would have scored on that play if it was power.

"They've been tweaking a lot of those types of things -- really cool concepts that, at this point, the NFL is not used to, They'll get used to it, and then, it will be different. But right now, the Ravens have to be prepared for that."

Prepared? Sure. Ready? Quite possibly. Ray Lewis said this week that a lot of the teams playing against San Francisco's option and run game packages just don't communicate well enough, leading me to believe that the Ravens have seen something on tape they can use to counter it. I would not question Ray Lewis' football intelligence for one second -- he may be the smartest on-field defender the game has ever seen. But to stop what the 49ers put on the field requires every aspect of a defense to play at its highest level, and that's a tough order for anyone.

If the Ravens want to win Super Bowl XLVII, they'll have to fill that order in ways that other teams simply haven't.

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