I've posted a few times on the issues, but may as well make as long and exhaustive a post as I can because it's quiet at work. Long post incoming on what I think the issue is, TLDR - the problem is our type of offense installed by Roman and Harbaugh.
Ok what do we see and know of the Niners offense? It's a run first offense which I don't necessarily have an issue with, but it is worth noting that the rules now favour passing teams particularly with the Pass Interference calls spotted at the point of the foul. We know 2 or 3 calls are given by the Roman down to the huddle for Kap. Kap is then responsible to undertake a pre-snap read and stick with the primary play or audible into the play he thinks is best.
We then run a lot of motion and shifting formations to allow Kap to read the defense before the snap and then audible "Green Green Green" or "Kill Kill Kill".
The reason I state 2 or 3 calls is the "Kill Kill Kill" call you hear from Kap at the LOS prior to read, and occasionally he audibles something else with hand signals. This is where we get nervous on the play clock because he's calling that third play to the team. This one is different from the Kill Kill Kill because that second option is an easy shout, the third one seems to be where he's got to go to the TE's, WR's and the backs to tell them that it's option 3. That tells me that we have a primary play, a secondary play and in some cases a third option, though that third option is rarer.
Now we normally break from the huddle at around 15 seconds, as there's a delay getting those calls in from Roman while he consults whatever he's got in the game plan depending on yards, down and field position. We also have to get our personnel on the field, which I'll talk about first.
So we have 15seconds for the team to get to the line, do our shifts and formations to move the defense around and identify zone or man coverage, Kap to read the defense, identify where the Blitzer is coming from where appropriate and then audible into the right play. That's a lot of things to do correctly in the 10 seconds or so we have after taking the initial formation.
Now I am going to touch on the passing game briefly just now because I have mentioned the power run game, I also have to emphasise once again that our passing game is high school level. We are scheming to get one receiver open, and the others are running decoy routes or blocking for that receiver. Now some people have issues with this and want to go on about Kap missing open receivers. Let me point something out – how many receptions did Crabs have last season compared to the rest of the receiver core? Crabtree had 85 receptions last year, more than twice as many as anyone else – Manningham was second with 42:
This is for a number of reasons and not because Crab was Kap's favourite receiver. It was because we schemed him open using Moss, Vernon, Walker as decoys etc. You do not get that kind of discrepancy in numbers without aiming to do so. It was because Crabs is an excellent receiver, can get open and because of our preferred personnel grouping of 2TE's, 2Backs and 1WR where Crab was the WR and I'll cover that below.
Now because we are a run first team and run heavy time, we almost always have Bruce Miller on the field as a full back and lead blocker for Gore. We like to run 2 TE sets with 1TE functioning as the blocking TE.
This gives us our typical personnel set of 2TE's, 1 WR and 2 Backs. This means that of those 2 or 3 calls sent down to the huddle, we can only put in plays that match our personnel set.
Now as we are run first, we tend to use a blocking/lead FB an awful lot which means Bruce Miller is on the field very often. In addition, because we often use 2 TE's that means we've got Vernon on the field acting as a receiver, a blocking TE which is normally Celek or McDonald (was Walker) and 1 WR in Boldin.
This is where personnel starts to bleed into play calling, but essentially we value WR's who can block well like Boldin, Crabs, Baldwin as it gives us more scope in the run game and also assists if decide to do a read option play.
As Roman refers to his game plan, he then has to select personnel to match the plays he has lined up for down, distance and field position and then get the appropriate personnel on the field for those calls. Thus the personnel are dictated by the plays, as we are run heavy we've got Miller on the field a lot and thus the play options have to all be those executable with a full back.
Now as soon as we switch out Miller for a second WR, we start giving off the signal that it's a pass play. If we take Miller and Celek or McDonald off for a 3rd receiver it's definitely a pass play.
Problems in Personnel
When we start out with a run call as the primary, and we put the personnel in to match that call, this gives us less scope in the passing game with the 2TE, 1WR, 2 Backs set and thus if the defense shows they're going to stuff the box and we try to audible to a pass play we're in trouble immediately.
Boldin is an intermediate/short possession receiver. Boldin doesn't have the pace to stretch the field and struggles with separation from his cover. This is really where we miss Crabtree because Crabs is excellent at route running, quicker than Boldin, and thus when he makes his break or cut he gets separation because the CB cannot react quickly enough to adjust to the route. Boldin specialises in making catches while covered, but he cannot beat double coverage consistently to do so and throwing it into double coverage is an issue.
Currently, Vernon is our main deep threat and currently doing a role similar to that of Moss last season. The problem is for Vernon to go deep, he has to shed his block or get off the line and thus it takes longer for his route to develop. Remember last year Vernon occupied the middle of the field a lot sitting more in the zone.
People say Moss would not add anything to the offense now are missing the point, it is the threat of someone like him we miss. Remember his TD on MNF vs. the Cardinals? Remember his TD vs. the Pats? However Moss complained about his role on offense for a reason, and I'll come to that in play calling. Remember as well that we did use Ginn as well as a deep threat a few times to stretch the field. Let me ask you now, who on the 49ers receiving core at the moment has that ability??
Miller is an excellent full back, but people also forget that essentially he is playing far more now because Delanie Walker moved on and Walker played in the FB position on a lot of calls. Walker was a substantial part of our offense last year because although he had questionable hands, he was much quicker than Bruce and could get downfield, and he could catch the occasional ball. We lined him up as the blocking TE or as the FB and we immediately got lots of flexibility in the play calling because we could audible between a run play or a pass play and have more threat in doing so.
Teams are not scared of Miller breaking deep from the FB position; they were of Walker though because he had pace and even with suspect hands you can't take a 50/50 that he catches it deep as a defense. It can't be understated how important he was because of that one simple fact. We could audible him from the blocking TE into the FB position and let him lead Gore or we could audible out of a run, let Gore block and put Walker downfield as a pass option. This is why we took Harper off the Seahawks and I'm bummed to have lost him. For our offense to operate as currently is, we need a player with that flexibility to be a FB, blocking TE or potential receiving threat downfield.
Now Harbaugh and Roman have recognised this and that's why Miller is starting to see passes, so that defences respect him in the passing game and to try and take some of the coverage away from Vernon and Boldin.
So in short, on the personnel front we are missing two vital pieces: the deep threat WR and the flexible TE/FB/WR that makes our 2 or 3 play calls more threatening.
As outlined above, Roman calls 2 or 3 play options down to the huddle via Harbaugh, and our personnel are on the field to match/execute. We then commence our formations, motions and shifts to move the defense about to try and reveal what defensive strategies are being used – e.g. man or zone coverage, or where the blitz is coming from.
The type of play we use is dictated by our Offensive philosophy and because Harbaugh is stubborn and wants a "punch you in the mouth" offense, it means our personnel sets and formations are aimed at this physical style.
Problems in Play Calling
Ok beyond the personnel issues above, this is really where I have my issues and why I think Roman should go and Harbaugh needs a kick in the nuts. I've established above for everyone why I think we are struggling, because we miss the deep threat and we miss that Walker type player who can offer us three roles and thus make things harder for the defense. However, the crux of it is that you have to game plan and call plays for the personnel you have. You have to adjust your philosophy because there is no point in continuing with something you do not have the personnel to execute well.
Now here is where I think that Roman starts to go full potato and I am struggling to articulate it because there is so much wrong. Our play book and game plan seems based on the personnel we used to have, not the guys we now do have playing.
There are so many issues here, but let's go back to the beginning. We have our personnel on the field, we've got lined up and we have 10-15 seconds of formation switching and motions to try and fool the defense. Now we have Kap reading the defense and trying to audible into the play he thinks will give him the best chance.
Unfortunately, defenses are now changing their looks at the last second and thus screwing up the audible. Kap is getting roasted on this forum for audibling into the wrong play, when in fact defense are showing him one thing early, waiting for the audible and then switching their look. That's why we're having so many issues with unsuccessful changed plays and why we're sailing so close to delay of game penalties. Opposing defense have opted for the fairly common sense approach of "If you're going to try and do a pre-snap read, we're going to disguise what we're doing and change the look last second".
Effectively we're now putting more pressure on Kap than if we just gave him the calls and let him make it without doing all our shifts and motions first.
As we are a run heavy team and we have no deep threat, only VD and Boldin as real threats downfield, the opposing defences are stuffing the box with 8. Even the Panthers moved to putting 8 in the box though I think that was largely down to VD going off injured. Now when Bruce Miller trots on the field it's almost always a run play as our first option. As pointed out by almost every commentator, follow Bruce Miller and you'll find the ball. Right away we're predictable.
Unfortunately, Roman is also calling run plays at the worst time and not calling run plays when we really should. He seems to have got into this mentality of 3rd and 8 and they're cramming the box and stuffing our runs, put Miller in and lets run it, or 5 yards from the end zone in the super Bowl when we're gashing them and their NT is out injured, let's pass it 4 times. It's some perverse idiocy that when he sees we're getting major success on something, at a critical juncture he deviates from that with a notion that the other team won't expect it.
We were 2nd and 24 in our own 20 against Carolina in the 3rd after a penalty and he calls a run up the gut for one yard and then at 3rd and 23 he calls a screen pass, it's beyond stupid. On 3rd and 1 v Carolina we put Hunter in to run it up the gut without Gore and Miller, the very situation when we should be using them on a short yardage call.
Our point of attack has also been figured out on game plan and you can see good defences swarming to it, normally following Miller.
In fact the only reason our run game has been as good as it is, is simply because of Frank Gore. His patience, vision and ability to cut back and find the smallest gaps is incredible, and he's ably assisted by the fact that Miller is an exceptional blocker but I'll say this, if we had an average running back Roman would have been exposed as worse than useless.
Now for some reason Roman keeps trying to persist with the pistol read option and normally at the worst times. Good defensive teams have figured it out in terms of playing disciplined def, not crashing down on the run, putting a spy on the QB and the scrape exchange and going to zone coverage because we don't play action out of it. Although Kap has scored on the read against Jacksonville, we were lucky in that Gore managed to cut block 2 guys on the first TD.
If the idiot actually started calling play action out of the read option for us we'd be making some nice gains, but no he sticks with the default that defences have figured out using the QB that made it famous. I mean as soon as they see Kap in the read option they are immediately thinking to counter it because he's such an obvious threat. By not including the play action out of the read option we make it easy for the other team, it should be noted that this is something Washington get good success with.
Now onto the meat of everyone's gripe at the moment, the passing game. Our passing game is really hamstrung by what I have outlined previously; our personnel groupings and our lack of flexible threat like Walker and lack of deep threat.
Our passing attack worked incredibly well last season, even though it was the same philosophy, simply because of the personnel. We had Walker who enabled us to put 2TE's, 2WR and 1 back on the field and then use plays designed for 2 backs or 3 WRs. His versatility meant that the alternate play options were more varied, and that the play was better disguised.
Further to this, we are actually only scheming to get a designated receiver open who is the first read. That's why Kap is getting labelled as a one read QB, because his first read every time is the designated receiver. Last season it was mainly Crabs and our offense worked because Moss was still considered a deep threat, he ran the clearing route, and the defense had to figure out how to cover Crabs, Moss, Vernon and Delanie or Crabs, Moss, Vernon and Manningham. I referenced Crab's receptions last season and this was indicative of him being the designated receiver on most plays, because he could get separation and had great hands.
Watch our offense now and you'll see the WR's are running decoy routes or blocking where they are not the designated receiver (almost always Vernon or Boldin) and the thing that underlines this is that the receivers are not breaking off routes, coming back to assist Kap or trying to get separation. If they were considered true receiving options they'd be coached to do this. This is why we're struggling so much versus man coverage in the secondary as well, they know they are not the designated receiver so getting open is secondary to their assignment on running a decoy or blocking.
Further evidence of this beyond the tape, is the comments of Randy Moss where he complained about his role last season. He wasn't complaining that Kap never threw to him, he was complaining because he was being used to run a deep decoy and ensure Crabs was in single coverage, i.e. Moss was not 2nd or 3rd read.
A few people on the forum like to post still frames from the games showing open receivers and claim Kap is missing them. In some he is I think, but in most those guys are assigned decoys or Kap is looking to the other side of the field. It's been pointed out a number of times that the timing of when a receiver is open is more important. If a decoy is open after Kap has looked that way then it's too late, Kap will have likely taken off. The only way you can go through reads and come back to WR's is if your pocket holds or you are scrambling. If you are scrambling then you're limited mostly to receivers open on the side of the field you have scrambled to. So that leaves hanging in the pocket....
Finally, and unfortunately our O-Line is actually terrible in pass blocking. If you want to challenge this, I will point you to that Panther's game where Kap was blitzed constantly, had less than 2 seconds before the pocket was breached on almost every throw and was actually sacked by the Panthers on a 3 man rush. That is inexcusable from a 5 man OLine. Pressure was coming down the middle and from the sides. Frankly Goodwin has always been suspect on pass blocking for me, and Iupati seems to have really gone backwards this season, maybe because of injury.
What makes Roman even more potato though is his situational play calling and complete and utter lack of adjustment to what the defense is doing.
We're gashing the Colts in the run game, and the first few carries for Gore of the second half. They can't stop us, but he moves to pass first... with Vernon Davis out with a hamstring injury. Pass first with Boldin, Williams, Patton (no fault he's a rookie) and Moore...
When we had to move the chains against Carolina he was still going for 5 or 7 step drop backs with Vernon off the field and no deep threat whilst the Oline are a revolving door. We ran 2 screens that worked really well, far too late in the game, and he abandoned it after the first success and didn't call it again until our last drive where we start off inside our 1 yard line and he calls a passing play with a 7 step drop and Kap has to throw it away. Then we run Gore up the gut on 2nd and 9 and he barely escapes a safety. Finally we run our second screen to Manningham and we get the first down.
In all our embarrassing and frustrating losses against Seattle, the Rams, the Colts, the Ravens and the Giants Roman has crapped the bed, called things that didn't work and made no adjustments and even moved away from things that were working well. We get heavily blitzed and the OLine shows it can't hold and we don't bring in short, quick screens which will force the defense not to over commit.
The entire world knows that when we pass it's going to Vernon or Boldin, but we don't try and use Vance more. We don't try and use Vance in the red zone and instead keep him as the blocking TE.
In short our offensive scheme has been figured out, good defences will play man on the secondary, stuff 8 in the box and blitz the hell out of us. If we look to go to the read option they switch to Zone coverage knowing we won't do a play action, and they play disciplined on Kap. We bring on 2 WR's and they immediately double up Boldin or Vernon.
Edited for typos on the read option section related to use of play action.
[ Edited by Buchy on Nov 12, 2013 at 8:49 AM ]