49ers give Raiders option anxiety with alternating QBs and Counter Bash

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I was writing for Football Outsiders when the Miami Dolphins premiered their Wildcat package against the New England Patriots in Week 3 of the 2008 season. The Patriots were coming off a near-undefeated season, and through they’d lost Tom Brady to a knee injury in the first half of the first game that season, they had a team good enough to finish the season 11-5 with Matt Cassel as their starting quarterback. The only time Bill Belichick looked overwhelmed at all that season, even without the greatest quarterback in NFL history, was in this 38-13 loss against a Dolphins team that had implemented a bunch of option stuff based on single-wing packages from the Paleolithic Era of football, and Belichick had absolutely no clue how to counter it.

Then-Dolphins quarterbacks coach David Lee had drawn up the three primary plays of the Miami Wildcat the year before, when he was Arkansas’ offensive coordinator. So, there was precedent, and if there was one time Belichick should have been looking for enemy video and didn’t… well, we’ll leave that one alone.

The Wildcat was snuffed out halfway through its first season at the NFL level because it was too simple, too run-based, and nobody thought to add enough passing concepts to make it a Real Thing. Regardless, there have obviously been various read-option concepts in the NFL before and since, and one of the most popular in today’s NFL — especially with Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens — is what’s called “16/17 Flow” or “Counter Bash.”

Ted Nguyen of The Athletic did a great piece on Counter Bash last year (I’m stealing the playbook graphic from his article), and our own Mark Schofield did a video on the concept last December.

Here’s what it looks like when the Ravens run it. The idea is to create a mesh point with the quarterback and the halfback, with the backside guard and tackle pulling, and the frontside linemen down-blocking, defining the frontside as the side to which the running back would go. If it’s done right, the power choreography up front and numerical disadvantages create impossible problems for a defense, and that’s generally been true for opposing defenses when dealing with the Ravens’ version.

(Ted Nguyen — The Athletic)

The quarterback is reading the frontside end to discern what happens with the option. If the frontside end stays put to defend the run, the quarterback will keep the ball. If the end rushes, the back will take it and follow the pulling linemen.

Now, the Ravens are not the only team set to stun the rest of the NFL with the QB Counter Bash concept; the 49ers came out against the Raiders in their Sunday preseason finale alternating quarterbacks Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance in drives, and sticking the idea right down the Raiders’ collective throat. It’s something that 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan has been talking about for a while.

Like the Taysom Hill package, only good!

The Saints have been running variants of the alternating quarterbacks thing since 2018, when second-year man Taysom Hill replaced Drew Brees for mostly option packages. As Hill presented some threat as a runner and virtually none as a quarterback, the switch hurt New Orleans' offense as much or more than it helped, but Shanahan said last week that he's been watching what Sean Payton has been doing with this all along, and it's made him sufficiently intrigued, especially with a decently mobile veteran quarterback in Garoppolo, and a rookie runner/thrower in Lance who presents far more problems to a defense than Taysom Hill does. "We do it a little bit in practice," Shanahan said. "I think I'm doing a little bit of more of it here these next two weeks, just for me to get used to it and stuff, so the guys get used to it. Watching New Orleans doing it with Drew Brees and Taysom has been pretty cool over the last three years. I'm sure that took them some time to kind of get the flow of that. But it's nothing that you can say, ‘Hey we did this in practice so this is how it's going to be.’ "You adjust to that in games and you prepare for everything, but you don't know until you go through it. So that's why I don't sit here and pretend like I have all the answers, because I don't. You prepare for every situation, you work the guys to the best of their ability, and then you see what your game plan is and you figure out what gives you the best chance to win that game. And you try to keep your thoughts just to that." Shanahan may not have had all the answers before the Raiders game, but based on a first half in which both Garoppolo and Lance benefited from the Counter Bash concept, it could be said that the Raiders had a ton of questions.

Flipping the script

The first drive started out with Garoppolo, then switched to Lance on second-and-10 from the Raiders' 49-yard line, and this 17-yard run by Raheem Mostert was the first instance of Counter Bash throwing the Raiders off their points. https://twitter.com/theStevenRuiz/status/1432076631896625154 At the end of that drive, Garoppolo was able to saunter into the end zone with the completely confused Raiders wondering where to go. https://twitter.com/jgroc/status/1432074985472991240

Mixing it all together

The second 49ers started with four straight passes -- three from Garoppolo, and one from Lance -- moving the team to the Raiders' 44-yard line. The 49ers alternated passes and option runs with more straight-ahead blocking throughout this drive, which one would think was designed to eliminate predictable run keys for Las Vegas' defense to pick up. Then, with 14:20 left in the second quarter, Shanahan called this bit of diabolical stuff for Lance at the Raiders' two-yard line, and the Raiders had no shot at stopping this. https://twitter.com/BleacherReport/status/1432082332438118405

How will this work, and how do you stop it?

As to the question of whether Shanahan would do this in the regular season... well, the 49ers open at Detroit, and if you've seen Detroit's defense this preseason, you can imagine that there are all kinds of evil ways in which Shanahan could throw it off with what is a fairly expansive package of read runs with some more advanced passing stuff rolled in. Because when you can marry the idea of making defenders bite on the fake mesh point, and they also have to defend passes like this? That's where things become profoundly uncomfortable. https://twitter.com/nflnetwork/status/1432088609088172035 The real question is, how do you stop it? Back to Mr. Schofield, and this video he did on how the Titans were at least able to manage Baltimore's Counter Bash concepts in last year's wild-card round. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jAWX7LquPKc You're going to have to have some type of spy on the quarterback, and you're going to have to both spread your defense to the boundary and watch for anything up the middle. And that's with the quarterback as a potential runner, which puts your defense at a numerical disadvantage. Fun! As for the Raiders, hopefully they learned something from this. Because after their confused performance against the apt students of QB Counter Bash, they go Week 1... of the regular season... on Monday Night Football... against the Ravens. Jun Gruden, who's famous for getting to his office by 4:00 a.m. every day to start studying film and putting his game plans together, might want to pull a few all-nighters over the next two weeks. https://twitter.com/NFL_DougFarrar/status/1432109923979055106

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