When the 49ers changed quarterbacks in November, they also changed their personality as an offense.
Colin Kaepernick was a more capable runner than Alex Smith, and also a better deep-ball thrower.
But that was just Stage 1 of the 49ers’ transition. Call it the subtle stage.
Stage 2 hatched in the playoffs, first against Green Bay and then against Atlanta, when the 49ers’ offensive scheme shifted dramatically to a more read-option attack out of the Pistol formation.
According to an interesting, detailed breakdown of the San Francisco offense by NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks this week, the Niners became a dramatically different offensive team in the playoffs than they were during the regular season.
“The fact that the team has used the Pistol on 49.2 percent of its offensive plays in the playoffs – after employing the formation on just 70 of 969 offensive plays in the regular season – reflects Jim Harbaugh’s willingness to continually adapt his offensive philosophy while making a Super Bowl run,” wrote Brooks.
By going to the Pistol on nearly half their plays during the postseason, the 49ers dominated the Packers, then toppled the Falcons to reach this Sunday’s Super Bowl matchup against the Ravens.
As Brooks notes, the Packers and Falcons played against the offense in two different ways. The Packers’ defenders concentrated early on stopping the inside runs of 49ers’ running backs Frank Gore and LaMichael James, which allowed Kaepernick to read their movements, keep the ball and sprint wide to avoid their inward slants. The result was a record day of 181 rushing yards and a lopsided 49ers win.
A week later, the Falcons concentrated on shutting down Kaepernick’s outside running lanes – keeping defenders in the flats – and Kaepernick was content to hand off to Gore and James up the middle and off tackle. Those two backs combined for 124 yards rushing and three TDs.
Now the Ravens will have to figure out how best to play the option offense this Sunday. If they can contain it, Baltimore could set itself up for a win. If it can’t, the 49ers could pick up their sixth Super Bowl trophy.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh has studied film of the 49ers in the playoffs, seen them en route to scoring 73 points and averaging 476 yards in two victories, and knows his team needs to silence the Pistol and stop Kaepernick.
“We’re going to have to tackle him,” John Harbaugh told the Baltimore Sun. “We’re going to have to keep him inside and in front of our defense. We’re not going to be able to run past him. He’s fully capable of putting 200 yards on you in a second, just as capable as Frank Gore is, or any of their running backs. So, he’s not just an integral part of their passing game. He’s a huge part of their run game. So, we’ll have to plan for it.”
The foundation of the 49ers offense is to gain yards on the ground. It controls the clock, sets the tone for the game and sets up play-action passing. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman told the Sun this week that it doesn’t matter whether Kaepernick or the running backs is picking up yardage as long as someone is. The Pistol simply gives the 49ers more options.
“We have a need for a lot of rushing yards every week,” Roman said. “We’ll take them every week. But who does it? It doesn’t matter to us, as long as we’re getting production. So as far as Kaep running the ball (in the Super Bowl), it may happen. It may not.”
In the playoffs, the 49ers have run the read-option 29 times -- against 26 times in the regular season – and are averaging 8.4 yards per carry with four TDs. That will make any defense take notice.
In addition, the option has made San Francisco’s play-action plays more dangerous. While defenses are focusing on the run, Kaepernick is completing 63.5 percent of his throws and averaging 9.5 yards per passing attempt.
“Those numbers would be considered remarkable at any time of the season, but they’re particularly so during the playoffs when opponents make it a point to take away the deep ball at all costs,” wrote Brooks on NFL.com.
The Ravens faced one read-option offense this season in the Washington Redskins, with Robert Griffin III, with mixed results. Washington and Griffin ran wild early, but then Baltimore knocked Griffin from the game.
That experience, plus two weeks of preparation, might enable the Ravens to get a handle on the Pistol and Kaepernick. The Ravens are a well-coached, disciplined, experienced defense, and they may well be able to maintain their responsibilities and not bite on any of Kaepernick’s fakes – the way the Packers were burned. The past two weeks, former Oregon option QB Dennis Dixon has been running the 49ers offense against the Ravens in practice.
Former NFL quarterback and ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski told the Baltimore Sun that he believes the Ravens could be the team to stop Kaepernick.
“It’s all about playing with tremendous discipline and focus,” he told the paper. “And I’m sure if you’re hearing it in every one of those defensive meetings, every single one, it’s about discipline. ‘React to that mesh point (in the flat, outside the offensive tackle). Don’t try to be a hero. Do what you’re supposed to do. Play the defense.’ I can hear those coaches’ voices resonating as I say those words, because the teams that lack discipline when you play these option teams get shredded.”
Wrote Brooks: “The multiplicity of the 49ers’ Pistol attack will provide the Ravens with their biggest challenge of the season.”