The Bay Area is rocking once again, as the San Francisco 49ers have started their path back to glory this season with four wins in their first five games. The team is rejuvenated by new head coach Jim Harbaugh and quarterback Alex Smith, who is finally playing up to his billing as the No. 1 overall pick of the 2005 draft. Smith has thrown only one interception this year and has seven touchdown passes along with a passer rating over 100. The million-dollar question: How is Smith playing so well? What has changed?
A significant factor in Smith’s success this season has been Harbaugh, who’s known as a quarterback guru. The former NFL pivot played for six teams, most notably the Indianapolis Colts. He coached future top pick Andrew Luck at Stanford and previously developed Josh Johnson at the University of San Diego. Now, he’s in charge of turning Smith’s career around, it’s safe to say he’s done a good job thus far.
One of the ways he’s helped Smith improve is by installing three- and five-step drops on the majority of Smith’s dropbacks. These dropbacks allow Smith to get rid of the ball as soon as possible and let his receivers make plays after the catch. What this does is cut down the chances of him making a mistake by allowing him to make a quick decision, which is his strength, as well as simplifying his reads. In the pre-snap phase of a play with a three step dropback, Smith goes through his keys and determines which side he will throw the ball at.
Furthermore, from these three- and five-step drops, Harbaugh has called quite a few screen passes and quick passes that allow players to create yardage after the catch. This has been a significant factor in the improvement of Smith’s yards-per-attempt average, which has gone up from 6.9 to 7.7 early on.
Some of the quick passes out of a three-step drop that the 49ers have gone to include double slants and the slant/flat concept. The double slants concept is a quality Cover 2 beater, and it is something that we saw a lot of against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this past week. As many know, the Bucs are a traditional Tampa 2 coverage team, which is something that the double slants concept also works against.
This concept attacks the outside linebacker with the slant by the No. 2 wide receiver (the one on the left). The receiver’s goal is to run the slant in front of the outside linebacker and draw his attention, which frees up the slant by the No. 1 receiver (the one on the right). This allows Smith to hit the slant furthest outside and allow the receiver to pick up yards after the catch. Smith’s goal on this concept is to throw the ball one yard in front of the numbers of the receiver, which allows him to catch it and progress forward in stride.
The next concept the 49ers run often is the slant/flat concept, which is commonly used against man coverage such as Cover 1 (Man-Free) and was seen against the Eagles. This concept is similar to the one above, except that the inside receiver (second one from the right) runs a flat route. At the snap of the ball, he immediately shoots for the flat, drawing the attention of the defender assigned to him, and the outside receiver then takes one step forward and runs the slant. The slant route ends up “picking” the outside defender (the one covering the slant), which frees up the outside receiver to catch the ball after running the slant route.
(credit to shakinthesouthland.com for the image)
Along with these quick passes that are used to set up other plays, Harbaugh has brought over his West Coast Offense principles from the University of Stanford. This includes motion, shift, a multitude of formations, play-action rollouts, the Stick concept, Snag concept, and the Y-Sail concept.
The various motions and shifts that are used by Harbaugh in his offense allow him to be in control by forcing the defense to react and make coverage checks to defend the threats presented. By forcing them to make coverage checks the defense is also forced to move out of its base by checking to various coverages based off of their keys.
Furthermore, the play-action rollouts are set up by the running game, which is the key to the offense. The running game is currently ranked 12th in the NFL, and is led by running back Frank Gore and rookie Kendall Hunter. Along with the running game there are various formations that Harbaugh will use to call his core passing concepts, which are often Hi-Lo reads and horizontal stretches.
The first passing concept that is used is the Stick concept. The Stick route is run by a slot receiver with a vertical stem of five-to-six yards and then outside (or inside, depending on the coaching staff and how they teach it), toward the quarterback. Meanwhile, the running back will run a flat route which will grab the attention of the outside linebacker, thus stretching him horizontally as he goes toward the flat route. With the outside linebacker moving out with the running back a throwing lane between the quarterback and slot receiver is opened up.
The 49ers will run this with a tight end or a slot receiver, along with the running back out of the backfield. If there is a Twins set alignment, like in the image below, the outside receiver will run a fade route, which serves as a clearout for the flat route. This concept is a simple read for Smith, as he eyes the outside linebacker and throws it where the linebacker isn’t. If the linebacker goes out with the running back, Smith throws it to the Stick route. If the outside linebacker stays with the Stick route, Smith throws to the flat route ran by the running back. These two routes help make up the Stick concept.
(credit to spreadoffense.com for the image)
The next concept that needs to be discussed is the Snag concept. This is another concept that the 49ers like to run quite a bit of, and it works similar to the aforementioned Stick concept. On this concept, the outside receiver will run a snag route, which is a diagonal stem of about five-to-six yards. He’ll then sit down in a zone once the outside linebacker crosses (or passes) his face. While he runs the snag route, the running back will run a flat route, which again stretches the linebacker (B) horizontally, thus creating an open throwing lane for Smith.
The final concept that the 49ers run is the Y-Sail concept, which was seen against the the Cincinnati Bengals. This is a commonly used concept and serves as a Hi-Lo read that puts the defender in a bind. On this concept, the outside receiver runs a Go route (or sometimes a Fade route) while the tight end (“Y”) will run a Sail route which is based off of coverage, and the running back serves as a check down underneath with the Flat route. This creates a Hi-Lo read for the quarterback, and it puts the defender–the play-side linebacker–in a bind by as he’s stuck in between the Sail and Flat route. On this concept, Smith will read the Go route to the Sail route, then the Flat route. If no targets are available, he looks to the backside Dig and Flat routes.
(credit to bruceeien.com for the image of the Y-Sail concept which is on the right)
Harbaugh has relied on these passing concepts out of various formations to get the offense moving and improve Smith. These concepts are simple reads for Smith, and they allow his receivers to make plays after the catch.
Even though Smith has improved some parts of his game–like ball placement and decision making–there are still issues that need to be ironed out over the course of this season. He needs more consistency in his footwork as well as his mechanics. He has to step through his throws and bring his shoulder over as Drew Brees does. Lastly, he needs to minimize fumbles by keeping both hands on the football while in the pocket.
As the season goes on, I expect Smith to show more improvement under Harbaugh, who does a great job of designing his offense around his players’ strengths.