We’ve taken an in-depth look at the 49ers’ Pistol offense and know the fundamentals behind their option running game. Now, it’s time to figure out what the Ravens’ defense will need to do to stop it.
In the two playoff games the 49ers have played, their offense has averaged 476 yards of total offense. The Green Bay Packers’ defense tried just about everything to slow them down but were unable to slow down Colin Kaepernick. The Atlanta Falcons focused their attention on Kaepernick, allowing the San Francisco running backs to run wild, gaining almost 130 yards on the ground while Kaepernick continued to get big gains through the air.
While the 49ers’ offense is very unique, the Ravens have a huge advantage in seeing a similar type of offense earlier this season when they faced the Washington Redskins. Because of this, we will be looking a lot at the film from that game as it reveals many clues as to why the Ravens weren’t successful in stopping RGIII and Alfred Morris. However, it must be noted that the Ravens were without linebackers Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe in that game, as well as outside linebacker Terrell Suggs. Jameel McClain, now out for the season with injury, was playing in that game.
The 49ers’ pistol offense will put a lot of stress on the Ravens’ ends and linebackers. As we saw in part two, the main reason for the read option’s success was the lack of presence by the inside linebackers. This worries me for a few reasons. Both Dannell Ellerbe and Ray Lewis are limited by their speed and will have to be quick to fill holes and running lanes. We’ve also seen Ray Lewis struggle at times to fight off of blocks, something he will have to do to stop the read option. Paul Kruger, Terrell Suggs, and Courtney Upshaw will be the reads the majority of the time for options plays, and are therefore eliminated from the play, assuming the quarterback makes the right read. Because of this, it’s imperative for the interior defensive players to beat their man and stop plays early in the backfield.
In this first play, RGIII and the Redskins line up in the pistol with a fullback in the backfield, just like we’ve seen the 49ers do countless times. Paul Kruger is the read and Haloti Ngata will get double teamed by the center and right guard.
Kruger does the right thing in staying outside, forcing RGIII to give the ball to Morris. The fullback makes a mistake in going outside instead of leading the way up the hole to block McClain. This presents a golden opportunity for McClain, who should have stepped up into the hole to make the tackle. Morris sees this and cuts back into a wide open running lane that was vacated by Ngata. The other linebacker, Albert McClellan, is caught up in the wash and fails to cover the cutback, allowing Morris to run freely downfield.
Ed Reed is the one who ends up making the tackle after a huge pickup. The big flaws on this play were the Ravens’ failure to remain disciplined and cover the cutback. The defensive tackles were blown off the line by the Redskins’ offensive line and allowed too much space for Morris to run through.
This next play is similar to the previous one as it shows the failure of the linebackers to fill the hole, and the ineptitude of the defensive lineman to clog up the running lanes. The Redskins put a wide receiver in motion behind the deep back to become the pitch man in a triple option. The reads stay outside to play RGIII and the pitch man, leaving Morris as the ball carrier on the dive.
The linebackers need to recognize the option and quickly step up into the running lane. Doing so will prevent the fullback from blocking them out of the play and at the very least, clog the hole. Brendon Ayanbadejo is too slow on this play at gets blocked out by the fullback, allowing Morris to get the first down and then some.
Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe are an upgrade over Ayanbadejo, McClellan, and Josh Bynes, so you can expect them to better recognize these types of plays with their veteran experience. Also, Ngata is healthier than he was when the Ravens played the Redskins so he should be a bigger factor in the run game than we saw here.
In the passing game, there are a few things the Ravens’ defense needs to do and avoid doing in order to stop Kaepernick. To start, let’s detail what the Ravens must avoid doing.
The most important thing is to keep Kaepernick in the pocket. With mobile quarterbacks, this is especially difficult. The outside rushers must make sure not to over pursue the quarterback, creating running lanes between the guard and tackle. The interior defensive line is what the Ravens will need to rely on for the main pass rush as it will prevent Kaepernick from stepping up in the pocket and throwing lasers down field. Additionally, the Ravens would be best off playing more zone than man for a couple of reasons. The Packers played mainly man against the 49ers and were torn apart on the ground by Kaepernick. Because the corners were in man coverage on the outside, they ended up turning their backs to the quarterback downfield, allowing Kaepernick to pick up big gains on the outside.
Zone coverage will also benefit the Ravens as it will keep the linebackers evenly dispersed across the middle of the field, preventing Kaepernick from scrambling and gaining big yardage. The Ravens’ defensive backs have been excellent this season and play very instinctively. While playing zone will open up some holes in the secondary for Kaepernick to exploit, a second year quarterback with only 10 starts is likely to eventually make a mistake that the experienced Ravens’ secondary can exploit at some point.
The 49ers made the Packers and Falcons look pretty pathetic on defense. As we’ve seen, their pistol offense is extremely effective, but the Ravens have all of the tools to stop it. As we saw during the AFC Championship, the Ravens’ hard-hitting style had an effect on the Patriots as dropped passes became an issue and Tom Brady showed a tendency to shy away from hits. I expect Colin Kaepernick to become rattled at some point by the Ravens’ fierce defense and make a mistake that the Ravens can take advantage of.