Posted January 16, 2013

Break It Down: Can Vernon Davis copy Zach Miller’s success?

Break It Down, NFL Playoffs, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks
Vernon Davis could be in line for a big day Sunday. (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Vernon Davis could be in line for a big day Sunday. (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers’ offense present a laundry list of issues for the Atlanta defense, not the least of which being Kaepernick’s dual-threat abilities — Falcons’ defensive coordinator Mike Nolan called him “a game-wrecker” this week.

But a potentially big problem arose for the Falcons in their win over Seattle: an inability to cover tight end Zach Miller.

Miller finished last Sunday’s game with eight catches for 142 yards (a 17.8 per-catch average). He also caught a wide-open 3-yard TD pass in the fourth quarter, as part of Seattle’s rally from 20 points down.

The Seahawks and 49ers do not run the exact same offenses, but the basics are similar. Like Seattle, San Francisco utilizes the pistol, some zone-read looks and relies on Kaepernick’s run/pass combo abilities to create plays. Atlanta struggled with Russell Wilson’s comparable skill set last week, especially during the second half.

And because of the extra attention the Falcons paid to Wilson, Miller continued to find cavernous gaps in the Atlanta defense.

San Francisco’s Vernon Davis had to be licking his chops while watching that — Davis made just 41 catches during the regular season (his lowest total since 2008), but he remains one of the most dangerous tight ends in the league.

Our first conference finals “Break It Down” looks back at how Miller hurt the Falcons, and how the 49ers and Davis might be able to take advantage of Atlanta, too.

Were it only so simple for Atlanta to point to Seattle’s pistol, zone-read looks and say, “OK, let’s adjust our tight end coverage there” …

But the truth is that Miller burned the Falcons’ secondary out of a variety of formations. On this first play we’ll look at, for example, the Seahawks lined up Wilson under center, with two tight ends (Miller and Anthony McCoy) plus WR Sidney Rice to his left.

The Falcons countered with a look they showed a lot Sunday. It was a 4-3 in personnel that looked a lot like a 5-2 set — linebacker Stephen Nicholas moved up tight to the right side of Atlanta’s line, while safety Thomas DeCoud (circled) dropped down to give the Falcons eight players within five yards of the line of scrimmage.

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Miller and Rice ran routes (Miller being the inside one), while McCoy shot across the line to pick up John Abraham. The use of McCoy there is similar to how the Vikings distributed players out of a trips (three-receiver) formation to run the zone-read vs. Green Bay. By doing it here, Seattle had Wilson protected after he faked a handoff to Marshawn Lynch and rolled to his right.

The difficulty for Atlanta, even though this play did not come out of the pistol or utilize the zone-read, is that the Falcons had to respect both the Lynch run and a potential Wilson rollout.

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As a result, Miller was able to slip into the gap between the linebackers and deep safety William Moore. Miller then ran his route to the sideline, where Rice had cleared out the remaining Atlanta defender.

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Over and over again, Miller shot into vacancies created either by Atlanta’s commitment to stopping the run or by a Falcons blitz. Here, the Seahawks again showed a run-heavy formation — three tight ends overloaded to the right side, with Lynch in a single-back set behind Wilson. Just as on our first example, Atlanta had five on the line and three in the traditional linebacker spots.

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Even with Lynch breaking out of the backfield immediately, Akeem Dent and Sean Weatherspoon froze, wary of Wilson’s ability to escape the pocket.

As they did that, Miller again cleared that linebacker level and shot free into the secondary. Wilson hit him for a 34-yard gain.

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Miller had multiple catches with Wilson in the shotgun with an empty backfield, too. There, the only ground threat was Wilson himself, yet Miller on at least three occasions found himself wide open immediately at the snap.

Even though most of Miller’s action came with Seattle in sets other than the pistol, the same deceptions were there the majority of the time. So long as the play-fakes, misdirection and potential of a QB run are prevalent in the defense’s mind, offenses can take advantage.

One more example, off a play-fake to Lynch. Wilson held the linebackers, a wide receiver cleared one side of the field and Miller sprinted to the opening.

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With the threat of a Kaepernick run in their back pockets, the 49ers also like to move Davis around.

The 49ers do use the pistol a great deal. Green Bay tried to counter it early in the NFC divisional round with a look similar to what Atlanta used vs. Seattle — five on the line, two linebackers five yards deep and a safety dropped down. The Packers did this out of their 3-4 personnel with Clay Matthews to Kaepernick’s blindside and another defender on the opposite side of the line.

But on pass plays, be it out of the pistol (as seen here) or another formation, that left Davis one-on-one.

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That’s Tramon Williams with the red X there. He shifted out to cover a motioning Bruce Miller out of the backfield, leaving LB A.J. Hawk responsible for Davis on a pass.

Hawk actually did a decent job recognizing the play-fake Kaepernick made to Frank Gore, allowing him to stay with Davis early as Kaepernick completed a pass to Michael Crabtree instead. However, Davis had Hawk beaten deep in that hole between the linebacker and deep safety — exactly where Miller did most of his work last week vs. Atlanta.

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The 49ers will also slide Davis out to a flanker spot, if the matchups arise. With Green Bay blitzing Kaepernick, on the play pictured below, Davis drew a holding call on Williams.

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Davis’ one catch against the Packers was a 44-yard, on a deep ball from Kaepernick. Again, the 49ers lined up in a pretty traditional single-back set, while the Packers countered with that eight-up look.

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This left the Packers with a two-pronged problem when Kaepernick dropped to throw:

1. Davis had a juicy matchup with a linebacker again, which he exploited to make a play downfield.

2. Kaepernick had a clear running lane, if he had chosen to take it, because the Packers’ front five did not get home with pressure and the back six had to drop quickly in coverage.

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And lest you think we’ve forgotten about the zone-read: It will be there for the 49ers, though they most often use it as a run, as opposed to a play-action decoy. But the play-action might be there Sunday, if the 49ers opt to use it.

This is a shot from Kaepernick’s 56-yard TD run against the Packers. Miller came across to block the weak side — as McCoy did for Seattle above — while Davis stayed home to block. Had the 49ers adjusted their line assignments and used play-action here, though, Davis easily could have darted behind the linebackers for a substantial gain.

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The long and short of it is this: San Francisco’s offense, as Seattle’s did, will create mismatches against the Atlanta defense. The Seahawks were able to turn those mismatches into a big day for Miller.

Can the Falcons learn from that to slow down Davis, knowing that they’ll see a lot of similar looks from San Francisco? To do so will require better play recognition from the linebackers — and too much attention on Davis could leave the Falcons vulnerable elsewhere.

13 comments
T. Jefferson
T. Jefferson

weir6, just watch the game and then talk.  Calling a team "an utter suckoff"  that beat Green Bay twice, once at Lambeau, the Patriots at Foxboro and the Saints  in the Superdome is pretty blind homerism.  Football is a game of matchups and some teams just match up well against another team.  The wildcard Giants last season came into the playoffs with a pretty modest record yet went on to run the table.  To win the Super Bowl, a team just has to get hot in its final three games.

weir6
weir6

I've never seen such an utter suckoff of a team in the playoffs.  This is the same team who got blanked by Seattle, and couldn't beat the Rams in two tries.  Kapernick plays the game of his life, and now, they are unstoppable - even on the road.  He's just incapable of playing a bad game, isn't he??

 

Falcons are getting absolutely no respect - which is funny.  Falcons win at home, and advance to theSuperbowl.  The entire nation can suck it.

Ken14
Ken14

One variable, Miller caught just about every pass thrown to him----Davis has had some suspicious drops lately.  If Davis catches the first two passes early in the game, the rest of the day could be a nightmare for the Falcons.

wreckbuzz
wreckbuzz

I guess SF has no matchups to worry about, right?  Since when has a 4 loss team been such a mortal lock to win a road playoff game?

Phil9
Phil9

I have a real issue with the refs and their complete lack of calling holding penalties on Seattle's O-line. That was the proximate cause of Atlanta's lack of a pass rush (true, losing Abraham didn't help). Hopefully, the zebra crew will pay a bit more attention in the NFC championship.

Julie1
Julie1

[TonyPC] I like your breakdown of the Falcons troubles in coverage against the Seahawks, Chris, and agree the 49ers tight end, Davis, (or a receiver not afraid to go over the middle) might gouge them again on Sunday. I've never played football, so I don't know what is reasonable to consider, but I have two ideas that would at least try to address that challenge.

One, could they play more nickel to get a bit deeper in coverage? Even if that cleared space underneath, I'd think shorter completions would require more plays and therefore create more chances for mistakes. The way the Seahawks were moving was almost like hitting a bomb (three 25-yard passes in quick succession), even though they never got behind the safeties. Two, could the Falcons alter their defensive line plan. As SeldomFound correctly notes, they do not have the personnel to sack the quarterback very often. The problem I see is that, in selling out to try to sack him, all four tend to go wide, creating a big lane up the middle, which is where Wilson usually ran last Sunday. If they gave up trying so hard to sack Kaepernick (just try to pressure him and maybe knock down a pass or three, although he is ~6'4"), held formation in the middle, and focused on the ends holding the wings, it might take some of the pressure off of trying to contain Kaepernick as a runner. One question: I noticed that often when Wilson ran, there were Falcons cornerbacks and linebackers not so far away, but they were looking at the receivers they were covering, allowing Wilson to gain an extra five or so yards. I know it's loud in the dome, but isn't there some call or other signal the defenders have to break off coverage and turn and look back in the direction of the backfield? Thanks!  

SeldomFound
SeldomFound

Brilliant play design or just a sickly pass rush?  Atlanta could not get close to Wilson to rush any of those throws.  In many cases there were multiple receivers open after what seemed an eternity.  The bottom line is that Atlanta lost John Abraham in the third quarter and could generate no pass rush. I give credit where credit is due - Seattle's OLine did a wonderful job.

JamieBreslow
JamieBreslow

 @weir6 Take it easy, sport. The Niners lost exactly one more game than the Falcons. They beat New England in Foxboro, and beat what was the best defense at the time in Chicago. Spin it anyway you want, but there are a very good reasons SF is favored in this game

p.kerney24
p.kerney24

 churrr guy. settle down. SF had one of the toughest schedules this year and they won some big games on the road while playing in one of the toughest divisions . ATL lost  3. How many did they win buy 1 point or OT? They deserve the credit, but  That's why the say "any given Sunday", anything can happen in this game.

ArthurVandelay
ArthurVandelay

 @Phil9 Do you have some specific instances of holding?  I've still got the game on DVR and can review.

Ken14
Ken14

 @Julie1 Reasonably thought out Julie, but allow me to "punch a few holes" in some of your suggestions.  1) As SeldomFound has pointed out, (correctly), the pass rush is critical to breaking up the timing of all pass plays---Kaepernick can throw accurately, possibly even a little better than Wilson.  If, as you suggest, that the defensive line concentrate on only stopping the QB from running, this leaves precious extra seconds for 49er wide receivers to get open.  2) And this is a big distinction, Russel Wilson's running plays were mostly the third option, after he determined his receivers were not open/clear.  In man to man coverage this leaves lanes open for Wilson to run through.  In the 49's case, a high percentage of  Kaepernick's runs are by design, when the defense allows the situation.  And, because it's by design, even when Kap starts to run, his tight ends (and even Frank Gore) become open targets when the linebackers or up safeties commit to stopping Kaepernick.  3), Breaking off coverage of receivers to stop a running QB is not an easy task to perform when the QB's have the speed of the fastest man on the team.  In my opinion, Wilson and Kaepernick possess this level of speed, which is a big difference from just a "scrambling" quarterback who sees an open lane.

 

Finally, it is my opinion that the defenses of both teams may determine who stays on the field longer to score points.  Both offenses are potent and capable.  Time of possession, drive management, field position all factor into who goes to the Superbowl.  (And there's always the wild card---special teams)   

Julie1
Julie1

[TonyPC] Both the offensive and defensive lines are areas in which I hope the Falcons continue to improve. If they could add time for Matt Ryan and take it away from the opposing QB, that alone would substantially improve their performance. I used to follow just skill players, but when I saw how much better the Hogs (Redskins, c.1980s) made their QBs, it gave me a real appreciation of how much the offensive lineman mean to a team. (Same could apply to the Alabama O line on the college level this year.) More time to make a play without pressure makes almost any good player better and less time makes even a superior player mess up more often.

Julie1
Julie1

 @Ken14  @Julie1  [TonyPC] I appreciate your thoughtful response, Ken14. Allow me to clarify a couple of my original points: 1) I'm not suggesting that the Falcons not pressure Kaepernick, just that they not sell out trying to do so. If the DEs can get the corner, then by all means they should go for him. Also, a QB needn't be about to be almost in the grasp for the D-line to "win," just being close enough to make him run around in a smaller area (like the pocket) would have a big effect. I'm just saying they need to hold the center of the line and maybe throw in an occasional blitz to keep him off-balance. 2) Although you're right about breaking off coverage too early allowing receivers to get open, this doesn't matter once he hits the line of scrimmage. As you say, Kaepernick may be more of a run-first mentaliity QB than Wilson, but this might allow the Falcons DBs to get that extra-second jump in anticipation of a run. Catching and tackling him will be another thing, but so far I've seen him rely mostly on straight ahead speed. I don't know how good his open field moves are. Finally, I recall well when Mike Vick was the Falcon's QB. There may never have been a better running QB, but he eventually got the stuffing knocked out of him going on runs. If San Fran plays well on Sunday, it'll be very tough for the Falcons to beat them. Still, few gave them much chance against Seattle, either. Here's hoping that lightning strikes twice in the dome.