Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers have a number of defensive coordinators going to extra lengths to stop the read option offense. Some, such as Dom Capers of the Green Bay Packers, have gone to college coaches to help figure out how to stop the bleeding. There have been a variety of new ways to supposedly limit quarterbacks like Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick from terrorizing opposing defenses.
The popular conclusion has been to hit the quarterback and pressure him into making a quick decision by having their defensive ends crash the edge. In essence, the defensive end has the quarterback as his assignment. At the same time, the linebackers will draw the running backs as their assignments. This is an effective way to stop the running part of the read option.
There will be times however, when the fullback will blow up the linebacker as he tries to fill the hole and a big gain will be the result. Additionally, the defensive end may crash too hard and that will allow the quarterback to get outside of them to break off a long run. The kind of defense that is required to stop the running portion of the read option requires discipline. The players need to trust each other and maintain their assignments. A slight breakdown will lead to an explosive play.
Again, it takes a very disciplined mindset to defend the read option when teams are looking to run the ball. There is however, another dimension that Greg Roman and the 49ers have done a great job of incorporating into the offense. That dimension is the ability to pass out of the read option.
They know that the end will be looking to rush the mesh point in the read option and force the quarterback to make a decision quickly. Most of the passing plays from the read option for the 49ers include a one or two read progression. This forces the quarterback to get the ball out quickly before anyone is there to sack him.
Ladainian Tomlinson was on NFL Network recently and he spoke about how the 49ers are that much harder to defend in the read option because of how good Kaepernick is at passing the ball. He is the ultimate dual threat. There aren’t many quarterbacks that possess both the ability to out run defensive backs and throw the ball on a rope into tight spots. Colin Kaepernick is that guy.
The 49ers do a good job of using the linebacker’s assignments against them. This is done by a hard play action fake when executing the read option plays. The play action will freeze the linebackers because their assignment is the running back and they are always reading run first.
That small delay will allow a fast tight end such as Vernon Davis to have a nice crease to settle into behind the linebackers. The play fake pulls the linebackers up and allows Kaepernick to hit his target in stride as they slip behind the linebackers and before the safety is able to come up.
The Baltimore Ravens made it a point to limit the 49ers’ running game from the read option. As a result, Vernon Davis got matched up against Ray Lewis, who was simply not fast enough to keep up with him. Davis tormented the Ravens and caused them to rethink how they lined up defensively. Let’s look at a few screenshots to see how this happened:
Here you have Kaepernick executing a play fake with Frank Gore. Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbee are both focused on the backfield. The play fake freezes both linebackers while the tight ends release to their routes.
As you see, the play fake causes Lewis and Ellerbee to be flat footed. This sets Delanie Walker and Vernon Davis up perfectly for their route combo (shallow cross and dagger). Walker creates a wide open passing lane for Kaepernick to hit Davis as he simply out runs the slow footed Ray Lewis.
Vernon Davis is not the only player that will gain from this. Vance McDonald will also get the opportunity to work in space when the 49ers use the pistol offense. He will at times line up in the backfield flexed to the side of Kaepernick. The success of the running game will cause the linebacker to focus on the running back as McDonald sneaks out of the backfield into the flat.
McDonald has already shown the agility to jump over a defender as he did in the preseason against the Minnesota Vikings. At 6’4″ 267 pounds, he surely has the size to bowl over defenders as well. That is yet another plus for passing out of the read option.
Many so called experts are predicting that the defenses will catch up with the read option because their coordinators have had a full off season to game plan against it. The thing that they continuously overlook is how this is the first full season that Greg Roman has had to focus on the read option as a large part of the offense. Let’s not forget that Alex Smith was the starting quarterback at this time last year and the 49ers didn’t use as much of the read option.
Roman is on record saying that he has devised more ways to operate out of the read option. The 49ers have already taken a unique step towards ensuring that they will be prepared for what these new defenses will bring. They have done so by hiring Eric Mangini as an offensive assistant. Mangini’s role will be to help forecast how defenses are likely to try to contain their offense.
The focus of many defenses has been to stop the running portion of the read option. A precise passer such as Colin Kaepernick will present a new dimension to be concerned about. The 49ers have the perfect recipe to take advantage of how defenses will try to stop them. Look for a very productive season from Vernon Davis as a result of this.