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Film Break Down: San Francisco's Defense

What Miami's Offense Should Expect On Sunday

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Hello Phinsiders.  First, let me apologize for not posting last week.  Work kicked my ass.  Between travel back and forth out west (Phoenix and Las Vegas), actual site time, and having to do my regular work load, I simply didn't have time to have any fun like breaking down film and writing these posts.

This week we are going to take look at the 49ers Defense.  To put it mildly, the 49ers Defense sucks.  The 49ers as a team have lost 9 games in a row and their defense in that stretch hasn't allowed less than 23 points in any of those games.  They rank 32nd in the league in total yards (431.1 yards / game), rushing yards (179.5 yards / game), and points (31.3 points / game) allowed.  They are 31st in the league in allowing big plays (10+ yards running and 25+ yards passing), trailing only the Cleveland Browns.  The only area that they are respectable on defense is passing yards (251.6 yards / game) in which they rank 15th in the league.  But I believe that is a function of offenses being able to run at will on them as opposed to them being OK stopping the pass.

You may want to ask the question, why is San Francisco so bad on defense?  The answer, in my opinion, is numbers.  To state in bluntly, the 49ers Defense doesn't line up correctly a lot of the time and that gives the opposing offense an advantage.  That, plus the fact that the SF players routinely lose their individual battles, makes for a long day on defense.  Here are just a few examples of what I'm seeing, numbers wise, on film.

In this play the Saints are in 21 personnel (2 RB, 1 TE).  The 49ers are in their Base Defense.  The Saints come out of the huddle in TE Right, Offset I-Right, Twins Left Formation.  They motion the outside WR from left to right prior to the snap of the ball.  A CB for the 49ers follows the WR in motion across the formation telling Drew Brees that the 49ers are in Man Coverage (Cover 1 -€” man free).  This is what the formation and defense look like prior to the snap of the ball.

Now, as a QB, you count to see if you have an advantage.  The Blue Line is what we call the Center Line.  It represents the center of the formation.  If a player is on that line, that player represents 0.5 players to the right and 0.5 players to the left of the formation.  On offense, for this play, the C, QB, and RB all count as 0.5 players (1.5 total) to be applied to the count for either side of the formation.  If you are not on the Center Line, you are counted as a full player (1.0) to that side.

Let's now count the personnel on each side of the formation.  To the left side, left of the Center Line, the Saints have 4.5 players.  The defense has 5.5 (NT is counted like the C, 0.5 to each side).  This count tells Brees that the defense has a 1.0 man advantage to his left.  But if we count the right side, the Saints have 6.5 players and the defense has only 5.5 players.  That gives the Saints a full man advantage to that side of the field.  Take a wild guess which side of the field the Saints run the play?

The Saints can run the ball or pass to the right and have an advantage over the defense.  In this case, they decide to pass (this is the Saints with Drew Brees, not all that surprising).  Let's look at the advantages that the Saints have in the passing game to that side of the field.

Can you see the issue on defense?  The 49ers have 3 defenders in position to cover 3 receivers.  But who is going to cover the 0.5 RB as a receiver?  The LB on the LOS?  The MLB who is already at least 1 yard out of position compared to the Center Line?  Basically, the receivers labeled 1, 2, & 3 run inside routes.  The RB flares to the outside and no defender is in a position to defend this route.

This is an easy pitch and catch that gained 18 yards.  The reason this was easy was because the 49ers defense didn't align properly to the formation.  As a defense, you can't allow the offense to have a numbers advantage.  The defense needs to cancel out any player advantage the formation gives the offense.  If the MLB lines up over the RG instead of the LG, the advantage would be negated and it would have allowed him to better cover the RB in the route.

A full player advantage based on formation is HUGE for the offense and with a QB like Brees, he is going to take full advantage of the defense being misaligned.  This is just my opinion, but I think the Saints and Sean Payton saw this on film leading up to the game and designed this play to attack this defense.  As an outsider not knowing the Saints playbook, based on the personnel package, the initial formation, the motion, and the expected coverage, this play has all the hallmarks of film study.

The play above is just 1 aspect of the numbers game QB's play.  The other, and I've talked about this before, is how many defenders are in the box.  I've said that to be a good running team, you need to be able to run against a stacked box.  Well, how about running against a light box?

In this play the Saints are in 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE).  The 49ers are in their Nickel Defense.  The Saints come out of the huddle in Pro Right, Twins Left Formation.

As you can see, the 49ers on defense have 6 defenders in the Box.  The offense has 6 blockers.  Drew Brees sees this, but he also notices that the CB in the slot to his left is blitzing (he shows it pretty early on the film) and the Safety over the top is moving to cover for the blitzing CB.  Brees then changes the play at the LOS to a run, away from the blitz.  Here is a look at Box from the All-22.

This is a simple run to the right.  The yellow lines represent the hole.  For the OL, it is a simple blocking assignment, block the player in front of you.  It doesn't get much easier than this in the run game.

The LG (highlighted in the Gray circle) dominates his man.  The rest of the OL just puts a "hat on a hat" (blocks the man in front of them) and the WR blocks the CB and the blitzing CB from the other side can't get there because he had to far to go.  This allows the RB to have nothing but green field all the way to the FS.  On this play, the FS takes a bad angle and the RB scores, untouched, on a 75 yard run.

Here, again, is another example of the offense taking advantage of numbers, this time the number of defenders in the box.  The Saints had a blocker for every defender in the box.  All they had to do was put a "hat on a hat" and the defense is blocked.  If the 49ers are going to run this type of defense, having a light box, you better have players win their individual match-ups.  If they don't, any reasonable offense will take advantage and create a big play.


Since the theme of this post is "numbers", I'm sticking to a numbers play for the Old School Play Of The Week.

Back in the day, there were no such things as "light boxes".  As an offense running the ball, you had to run against stacked boxes.  You had to get creative to find advantages in the run game.  And that is exactly what the Bills did on this play.

In this play the Bills are in 21 personnel (2 RB, 1 TE).  The 49ers are in their Base Defense.  The Bills come out in Pistol, Offset I-Left, Twins Right, Tackle Over Right Formation.  The Bills are in an unbalanced line to the right having moved the LT over to a right TE set.  With the FB, the Bills have 7 blockers.  The 49ers on defense counter by moving 9 men in the box.  How do you run against a stacked box like this?  You look for an advantage by breaking the box down.

Looking at the box from the QB perspective, he now sees some possibilities.  Counting from the Center Line, he sees he has a 0.5 man advantage to the left and is at a 0.5 man disadvantage to the right.  He has options.

To the left, his offense is outflanked even with the 0.5 man advantage.  There is going to be an unblocked defender if he runs that direction, unless he runs an option and uses himself as a blocker for the edge defender.  You option the end defender.  If the defender takes QB, you pitch to the RB.  If the defender takes the RB, you keep.  With Tyrod Taylor at QB for the Bills, this is a real possibility.

But the Bills decide to run to the right, into the side of the defense that has the 0.5 man advantage.  If you do that on offense, how do you gain an advantage?  You pull players from the back side of the formation to the front side.  You run an Old School Counter Trey with the LG and FB.

The front side, with 2 OT's, set the edge by blocking down to the left.  The LG pulls to kick out the DE.  The FB follows the LG, goes up through the hole, and blocks the LB.  The TE to the left seals the back side.  The RB follows the FB through the hole.

The back side seal blocks does just OK.  There is a little too much leakage on the back side for my taste.  But the front side, with both OT's, create the edge big time.  That creates space for the LG pull block on the right DE and allows a pretty good size hole for the FB to climb to the LB.  All Shady McCoy has to do is outrun the backside (unblocked) defender and follow the FB and he is going to get to the 2nd level of the defense.

Look at all that green in front of McCoy.  That's a thing of beauty.  This play ended up being a 38 yard gain that I'll bet if you asked McCoy he would have said it should have been a TD.  The player in the Gray Circle is the one who ends up tripping up McCoy.

So why is this play Old School?  This play is a variation of the Counter Trey (or Train) that was made famous by Washington in the ‘70's and ‘80's.  They used to pull the back side OG and OT, but it has the same effect using the FB.  John Riggins, HOF RB for Washington, killed Miami in Super Bowl 17 running this play.

Well, there you have it.  The 49ers defense sucks.  Miami's offense should have a big day.  A lot of that will depend on Ryan Tannehill counting the defense and getting Miami's offense into plays to take advantage of those counts.  This is especially true in the running game.  Once Jay Ajayi gets to the 2nd level of the defense, the 49ers safeties take horrible angles to the football and don't tackle well.  I'm going to anticipate that Ajayi will have at least 3 runs of 20+ yards in this game.  SF is that bad.

As an aside, I'll be attending my first game this year.  Because of work, I've been traveling to Las Vegas weekly on Sundays (returning home either Wednesday or Thursday nights).  Last week was the first Sunday I've been home to watch a game since the Patriots game week #2.  I can't wait to see the new and improved stadium for the 1st time and to watch the Dolphins continue their winning streak.  It's a good time to be a Dolphins fan!!