Even in the San Francisco 49ers’ 23-20 loss to the Arizona Cardinals the added mobility that quarterback Colin Kaepernick brings to Chip Kelly’s offense was clear to see. Yes, Kaepernick’s flaws were also on display, with his passes lacking any sort of touch and the fifth-year quarterback failing to consistently progress through his reads; taking off after his first option didn’t come open. However, it was still interesting to see the flexibility Kaepernick added to the offense with his scrambling ability, the greater threat he provides on rollouts that Kelly likes to utilize, and the danger he poses on read-option plays.
Carlos Hyde looked far from 100% in this game, with the running back clearly battling his shoulder injury. He gained just 14 yards on 13 carries. Hyde’s backup, DuJuan Harris, fared similarly with 14 yards on five carries. Kaepernick enjoyed more success, carrying 10 times for 55 yards and a touchdown. Without him, the 49ers’ dismal running game would have been even worse. As it was, Kelly attempted to take advantage of Kaepernick’s skillset with a few different plays.
Pistol Twins Tight End
When the 49ers came out in a Pistol formation it is very likely to be a run play. In fact, only once did they attempt to pass out of it — with a four verts play-action call fairly late in the game. The reason for this is probably that Kaepernick has been most effective in his career running the read-option out of the Pistol. They generally came out in the same Pistol Twins Tight End formation this game, except for one slightly different Pistol formation in the fourth quarter. Expect the 49ers to show more Pistol passing plays in order to avoid being predictable.
Running Backs Running the Ball out of Pistol Twins Tight End
When handing the ball off to the running back from the Pistol Twins Tight End formation, the side that Kaepernick had the option to run to did not stay static. Without motion, three handoffs to running backs gained a measly 2 yards.
2:08 Second Quarter, 1st and 10 on Arizona’s 34. Arizona Cardinals 17, San Francisco 49ers 7
The Cardinals come out in nickel personnel, a reaction to the 11 personnel of the offense. They play a 4-2 hybrid front, in an under guard alignment. Left defensive end, Josh Mauro (#97), plays the quarterback run nicely. Kaepernick reads this, and hands the ball off. If he had kept the football, he probably had the option to pass the football to Torrey Smith (#82), who ran a hitch play. The 49ers’ offensive line blocks this really nicely, creating two big holes for Harris (#32) to hit. However, Harris takes it up the middle rather than taking it to the left. This means that unblocked safety Tony Jefferson (#22), is close enough to make a good play; coming downhill to fill the gap and make the tackle, limiting the play to a 2-yard gain.
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Running Backs Running the Ball with Motion out of Pistol Twins Tight End
With motion, the defense was challenged more. While the only handoff to the man in motion, on the offense’s third series of the game, lost the offense 6 yards, it set up the threat of the jet sweep from either the flanker or slot wide receiver. San Francisco gained 15 yards on the three running back carries where wide receiver motion was present. The motion, by further stressing the defense horizontally and causing a moment of hesitation around the mesh point, makes life easier for the running back tasked with hitting the defense up the middle.
3:36 Second Quarter, 2nd and 11 on Arizona’s 49. Arizona Cardinals 17, San Francisco 49ers 7
Before the ball is snapped, Kaepernick motions flanker Smith into a Pistol Trips Tight End formation. This causes the Cardinals’ linebackers to shift to their right. With inside linebacker Kevin Minter (#51) taken out of the tackle box, hybrid linebacker Deone Bucannon (#20) is the sole second-level defender in the box. This makes a handoff to the running back favorable, whether the edge defender is crashing down or not. Again, the receivers run their routes, but, being on the backside, it is more likely a design to halt defenders and weaken their run support. Bucannon can not fill all of the gaps on his own, and is blocked off by the combination block of right guard Joshua Garnett (#65) and right tackle Trent Brown (#77). Brown even oozes onto Bucannon, making it impossible for the defender to make the tackle. As a result, the pursuing, unblocked left end Markus Golden (#44) has to bring Harris down — but not before the running back has gained 8 yards on the play.
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Kaepernick Running the Ball out of Pistol Twins Tight End
Kaepernick only decided to pull the ball from the belly of the running back and run on one occasion without wide receiver motion.
14:08 Second Quarter, 2nd and 5 on San Francisco’s 30. Arizona Cardinals 14, San Francisco 49ers 0
This is a perfect example of how this fairly simple read-option play can confuse a defense. Again the defense is in a 4-2 hybrid front, in an under guard alignment. Yet this time, safety Jefferson is down in the box as a strong safety. The defender responsible for outside contain, defensive lineman Josh Mauro (#97), crashes down and plays the running back. Kaepernick reads this, and keeps the football: Gaining 10 yards on the play. His yardage could have been limited, but Jefferson is halted from playing the run and outside contain by his pass coverage responsibilities on tight end Hakeem Valles (#89), who has run slightly inside to block the middle of the field–specifically free-safety Donte Johnson (#36). This creates even more space outside for Kaepernick.
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Kaepernick Running the Ball with Motion out of Pistol Twins Tight End
Kaepernick kept the ball twice when wide receiver motion was present, running for 6 yards. The motion helps a quarterback running the football in a number of aspects. One of these is that it can provide Kaepernick with a lead blocker, depending on which way he runs. The second advantage of having a wide receiver go in motion pre-snap is the potential man it takes away from the side Kaepernick wants to run to. For instance, if the defense is in man coverage, the cornerback is likely to follow the wide receiver, taking him away from being able to provide run support if Kaepernick runs to that side of the field.
9:25 Fourth Quarter, 3rd and 6 on San Francisco’s 48. Arizona Cardinals 20, San Francisco 49ers 13
The same motion witnessed in the second video is utilized by the 49ers again in this example. Flanker Quinton Patton (#11) is motioned into a Pistol Trips Tight End formation. However, this time, Minter does not shift as dramatically. Furthermore, right defensive end Chandler Jones (#55) plays the run more firmly. Observed by Kaepernick, the quarterback pulls the ball away from the running back and runs left. Jefferson does a good job diagnosing the play, forcing him out of bounds for a 4-yard gain.
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Designed Quarterback Run
It is reasonable to expect the read-option to have a fair bit of success against the Cardinals, a defense which has had issues with over pursuit. Certain quarterback runs, when timed correctly, can also exploit this issue of over-pursuit and bad angles. The most crucial usage of Kaepernick’s legs in this game came from a shotgun formation. This was the only designed quarterback run of the entire matchup, and it nearly resulted in the 49ers completing their comeback from down 20-10.
2:00 Fourth Quarter, 3rd and 2 on Arizona’s 4. Arizona Cardinals 20, San Francisco 49ers 13
This play takes brilliant advantage of the bad pursuit angles that the Cardinals sometimes take. The trips bunch at the top of the screen changes into a stack, as Patton motions into a wingback position. The Cardinals are showing, pre-snap, a cover zero look with what is almost a seven-man defensive line. They blitz six, with man coverage on every single eligible receiver. Left wingback Patton blocks the blitzing Minter, and tight end Garrett Celek (#88) takes Jefferson downfield with him as he goes to block the other safety in Johnson. This means that Kaepernick, rolling out right on a designed run, has one man to beat to the corner and the waiting end zone. This is the blitzing Bucannon, who Hyde (#28) can not get around to block in time. Bucannon, with a clear path to Kaepernick, takes a bad angle on the quarterback. Kaepernick uses his speed to get around the blitzing defender, and Hyde blocks the attempted pursuit of Bucannon out of the play. The result is a 4-yard rushing touchdown. It is a play call which clearly surprises the defense, coming on 3rd and 2 in the red zone.
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Part of the problem for the 49ers run game against the Cardinals was poor vision from Harris. Once Hyde is fully recovered, he will provide greater ability at the position and more of a threat to receive the ball. This, combined with Kaepernick’s proficiency at running the football and an offensive line that is clearing some nice holes, should see the 49ers improve in the rushing department. They really need to, because relying on the pass with Kaepernick at the helm and one of the league’s worst wide receiver corps is not a good idea. With their run defense appearing to be better against the Cardinals, where David Johnson was held to 2.9 yards per carry and 55 rushing yards, the 49ers may be able to actually win a game.
Follow Matthew on Twitter @mattyfbrown. Check out Matt’s other work here, such as what RBs to watch in the SEC, the Pac 12, and the Big 12, and The Mountaineers Red Zone Creativity.
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