What makes the Baltimore Ravens' read-option with quarterback Lamar Jackson so difficult to defend, according to 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, is that it's really not the read option.
The 49ers' top-ranked defense will face its biggest challenge of the season Sunday when it goes against the Ravens' league-leading offense in a matchup of two of the best teams in the NFL.
Shanahan this week marveled at how the Ravens' version of the offense is different than any version seen in the league's modern era.
Shanahan was the first coach to bring a consistent steady diet of the read option to the NFL. In 2012 as Washington's offensive coordinator under his father, Mike, he had to find a way to tailor the offense to the skills of rookie quarterback Robert Griffin.
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For Shanahan, the trick was not to figure out how to install the read option. The challenge was to anticipate how defenses would defend the offense and, then, tie it into the rest of his offensive system so as not to become too predictable.
"Every one can figure out how you want to run that scheme," Shanahan said on the 49ers Insider Podcast. "What you got to know is how guys are going to defend it.
"We made a 200-play reel of zone read that had been run over the past few years. There was a lot of Vince Young, Tim Tebow. There was some stuff with Michael Vick. We put in something in the offseason that we thought would tie everything together and take us through the year."
Griffin had a sensational rookie season, throwing for 3,200 yards and 20 touchdowns in 15 games. He also rushed for 815 yards and seven touchdowns. But a knee injury was a major factor in preventing Griffin from reaching any long-term NFL success. Mike Shanahan and his staff were fired in Washington after the 2013 season.
Now, Griffin serves as the backup to Jackson, the breakout star of the 2019 season. The Ravens have put together a unique scheme under offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
Roman brought the read option to the 49ers during the middle of the 2012 season when then-coach Jim Harbaugh kept Colin Kaepernick as the starter after Alex Smith sustained a concussion while having his best NFL season. Roman has taken the framework of what he did with the 49ers and expanded it to a whole new level.
Shanahan explains that the zone read consists of the quarterback reading the defensive end. If the end crashes, the quarterback keeps the ball and runs toward the sideline, turns it upfield near the numbers and takes as many yards as he can get before going down.
Shanahan likens the Baltimore offense to the Wildcat, in which a position player takes on the role of the quarterback and does not slide when challenged. Jackson rarely goes down without trying to make a defender miss.
"They're doing quarterback power, quarterback counter, running the quarterback up the middle," Shanahan said. "They're doing a ton of things off it. That truly makes it, to me, a Wildcat offense.
"You haven't seen someone use a quarterback that way with all those types of runs. The issue is, it's a Wildcat offense with the quarterback playing the Wildcat, which is what makes it pretty historic in what they're doing."
The 49ers' defense might not be best-suited to stop such a running game. The approach with the wide-nine alignment under defensive line coach Kris Kocurek places an emphasis on getting to the quarterback on every snap. If it turns out to be a run play, the linemen adjust on the fly. The 49ers must make some alterations against Jackson.
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"If you're not going to adjust at all and play the exact same way you always do, this quarterback and this offense has proven you're going to have some issues with that," Shanahan said. "There are things you need to tinker with, things you need to adjust.
"[But] just like anything, you still have to do what you're good at, so there's a fine line. We're going to have to honor a lot of what they do. We're going to have to play smart. Their scheme is making everybody adjust. But there have to be some times in the game when we do what we do, and we do it at a high level and get to the quarterback."
Kyle Shanahan identifies issue 49ers have trying to stop Lamar Jackson originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area