If Bill Walsh was alive today, he’d be proud of the San Francisco 49ers being in the Super Bowl. He’d probably be pissed too.
The former is because he coached them to multiple championships, and the latter simply because he’s no longer doing it. This matchup against the Baltimore Ravens is one that he probably would have liked, as his famed West Coast Offense — now altered for the postmodern era of football — would have a great chance of attacking the seam, something that it does better than any other scheme. Fortunately, the 49ers still do this, and they do it with many of Walsh’s old concepts, which will come in handy against the Ravens’ slow cover linebackers.
This Sunday the 49ers’ tight ends have a good opportunity to make similar plays to the ones they made against the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship game. Like the Falcons, the Ravens linebackers lack range, as they are quite stiff in the hips and they overall lack foot speed, whereas the 49ers tight ends are nearly the opposite. Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker do a very good job of running crossing patterns and working through the seam, which they were able to do against the Falcons when they combined for 126 yards and one touchdown.
One of the plays that stood out during the NFC Championship game — and was Walshian — was a deep left pass for 31 yards to Davis in the third quarter.
Davis lined up in-line as the “Y” tight end on the play as part of the “12″ personnel. Initially, he was the only pass-catching threat lined up to the short side of the field, but a quick tap of the left foot by quarterback Colin Kaepernick saw fullback Bruce Miller jog up and out to his left, forcing Falcons strong safety William Moore to expand outside with him.
When Miller shifted outside, the Falcons manned up across the board, and a late shift into the middle of the field by weak safety Thomas DeCoud created a single-high shell. This is what the 49ers wanted.
At the snap, Miller ran a five-yard vertical stem and stood still, completing a hitch route. Simultaneously, Davis beat bump-and-run coverage from defensive end Jonathan Babineaux and outside linebacker Stephen Nicholas and released outside.
While Davis ran vertically, Miller noticed that the safety was playing with a short cushion that could potentially enable him to drop deep and defend Davis. In response, Miller started running again towards the middle of the field, forcing the safety to run with him. This enabled Davis to have more space to work with deep, which he took advantage of by breaking off his vertical stem and pulling away from Nicholas.
The only defender who could stop Davis was DeCoud, the deep safety, and he didn’t have enough range to get there.
In combination, the routes run by Davis and Miller formed the Smash concept, a staple of the old West Coast Offense under Walsh. This is a play that we could see this upcoming weekend when the 49ers look to attack the Ravens’ weaknesses in the middle of the field.
Another play that the 49ers could look to hit is a play-action pass (Walsh called it “play-pass”) with Delanie Walker running down the seam. Walker is an inconsistent pass-catcher, but is a true “F” tight end that can effectively attack across the width of the field. In the third quarter against the Falcons, he registered a 20-yard reception by beating outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon in the middle of the field.
After shifting from the formation’s left to its right, Walker became a “wing”. Across from him were two linebackers, John Abraham and Weatherspoon. Abraham was running into the trenches when the ball was snapped, leaving Walker and Weatherspoon one-on-one. This was an interesting matchup because both have good athleticism, but the linebacker has been known to be a bit undisciplined at times, and that cost him here.
When Walker neared the linebacker, he was met with contact; Weatherspoon tried to reroute the tight end, but he didn’t knock him off his route (because of his poor footwork) and consequently was left in a trail position with a larger cushion than what should have been there.
After trailing the entire time, Weatherspoon finally got to Walker — after the 20-yard reception.
Going into this weekend’s game, the 49ers are going to look to attack the Ravens’ linebackers in similar ways.
They’ll specifically have opportunities to take advantage of the defenders when they call play action. Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe, the two inside linebackers, are stiff in the hips and ankles, thus creating opportunities for Davis and Walker to run across them and force them to run the entire field.
The Ravens will likely try to counter this by playing zone coverage and immediately tackling the tight ends to prevent yards after the catch. However, the linebackers can only do so much of that before being forced into man coverage, which the 49ers can do through motions, shifts, and formations.