Break It Down, Super Bowl XLVII: Contrasting the passing attacks
Both the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers have found ways to score in bunches this postseason.
Those offensive outbursts are pretty far removed from what everyone expected from the two Super Bowl XLVII finalists earlier this season — the Ravens and 49ers boasted plenty of talent, but they were teams that appeared to be built around defense, running games and an ability to grind out victories.
The run games, of course, remain a huge part of each team’s success; the 49ers finished fourth in the league in rushing yards, and the Ravens 11th. It is their passing attacks, though, that have been so key during the postseason.
The Ravens have found success with a fairly traditional attack that predicates itself on stretching the field vertically. The 49ers, helping to lead the way into the pistol/zone-read world, do most of their work horizontally.
A closer look at what that all means in this Super Bowl edition of “Break It Down” …
KING: Super Bowl XLVII storylines to watch
We’ll start with the basics. The Ravens frequently set up shop with two wide receivers (Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin), a running back (Ray Rice or Bernard Pierce) and either two tight ends or one tight end and fullback Vonta Leach — Leach has seen the field on a little more than 40 percent of the Ravens’ snaps this year, compared to around 50 and 60 percent for TEs Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, respectively.
What you could consider the Ravens’ base set often looks like this, here with Pitta motioning behind QB Joe Flacco.
The other look the Ravens utilize most often is three-receiver, one-back set with a tight end on the field as well. Baltimore went to that setup almost exclusively in the second half against the Patriots, with New England cornerback Aqib Talib sidelined.
In the AFC title game, Baltimore dropped Flacco into the shotgun for most of the final 30 minutes, with Rice to his left and Pitta to his right in a split-back set. Jacoby Jones joined Smith and Boldin out wide.
When Flacco is under center, as he usually is at least early on in games, the Ravens bring the tight end back up to the line.
The 49ers place their quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, under center on occasion, too. Their more famous (and more effective) sets, however, find Kaepernick in the pistol.
There are a number of variations the 49ers use with Kaepernick set in that pistol formation, but the three most basic are …
1. A “full house” backfield look — three players wrapped around Kaepernick in an inverted wishbone. Usually there, the 49ers will use Frank Gore as the deep back, then mix and match in the other two spots, with Delanie Walker, Bruce Miller and even Vernon Davis sliding back there.
2. A heavy one-back set with Gore or LaMichael James behind Kaepernick, two tight ends on the line and a pair of receivers split wide.
3. Another one-back set, where Gore lines up next to Kaepernick and the 49ers spread the field with Davis and three receivers.
It’s that final formation that tends to prove most dangerous for opposing defenses, because it allows the 49ers to utilize misdirection. “Break It Down” went further in-depth on why Davis succeeds in the 49ers’ passing attack here, and looked more at the San Francisco zone-read during the run-up to 49ers-Packers.
The goal of San Francisco’s offense (and, essentially, of all spread offenses, in general): get the ball to your playmakers in space.
Sounds simple — so simple that it might leave you asking the question, “Well, don’t all offenses want to do that?”
Yes and no.
When the Ravens take to the air, they like to get their receivers downfield. They usually accomplish this with some combination of vertical routes run by three players, with a fourth option for Flacco staying underneath.
For the Ravens, the belief is that their top players can beat coverage deep — and if not, something will be open short, because of how the defense has to react.
Off that picture just above, this was the result, with Leach sliding out into open space.
While that short option can be Rice, Leach, Pitta or Dickson, the Ravens also like to drop Boldin into the slot and run slant patterns with him. When he does that, the Ravens can fire out a tight end as a deep route.
Here, Flacco threw long to Pitta, who rolled out of the backfield and up the sideline.
Defenses have to respect the run with Rice and, unless they accept allowing moderate completions, must deal with whichever player the Ravens break over the middle. Eventually, if the Ravens execute properly, defenses have no choice but to vacate an area.
They’ll take the short stuff — Boldin, for example, has had 124 passes thrown his way this season, but only 23 deeper than 20 yards … and 63 within 10 yards of the line.
The 49ers also will take their deep shots, but the main goal for them is to get the ball on the move as quickly as possible.
When I spoke with University of Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez prior to the 2012 season about a potential “next wave” of NFL offenses, he repeatedly harped on the benefits of the spread — namely, that it is more designed to give playmakers a chance to make plays than in a traditional pro-style offense.
Which brings us back to the notion of San Francisco spreading the field horizontally.
On this play pictured below, Kaepernick hits Davis for a 19-yard gain. Davis is circled in yellow; the four white Xs are Kaepernick’s other eligible receivers.
That’s a five-man passing play, with five staying in to block. And yet, Davis is easily the deepest of San Francisco’s receivers on the play, curling back to the ball about 15 yards downfield.
In reality, what the 49ers and Ravens do through the air is not all that different. Except, the 49ers tend to cut off their routes much quicker.
Case in point: This play below, which sets up almost exactly like the Flacco-to-Pitta deep ball discussed above. The 49ers ran three players on deeper routes, with Davis slanting across the middle, as Boldin did for the Ravens.
However, again, the 49ers keep everyone within a 20-yard window.
At the heart of everything San Francisco does on offense is that zone-read, and the misdirection created therein. And there, we get an even better idea for how San Francisco tries to get the ball out of Kaepernick’s hands (unless he’s running it himself) and into the possession of a receiver.
That’s an inside screen to Michael Crabtree, with Randy Moss as the lead blocker. But San Francisco also had Davis run a slant route on the play, faked a handoff to Gore, then had Gore roll out left as a decoy receiver.
The focus here is to confuse the defense — you’ll notice eight Falcons defenders with their eyes in the backfield, and a favorable matchup outside where Crabtree got the ball.
This is the spread offense in a nutshell. “Spread” the field from sideline to sideline, so whichever player winds up with the ball has as close to a one-on-one scenario as possible.
Super Bowl XLVII will be billed as a matchup of old-school offense vs. the new school. That does some injustice to the Ravens, who have opened up their playbook late in the year and have plenty of capable athletes.
Still, the approaches of the Ravens and 49ers show a clear difference. Baltimore probably will take more shots downfield; San Francisco will break out a bevy of quick-hit passes.
Which defense will respond forcefully enough to bring home the Vince Lombardi Trophy?