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The Return of Field Glasses: When Fire Nation attacks

Welcome to Field Glasses, a weekly semi-regular feature here on F.G. that breaks down Xs and Os. If you have anything you've been wondering about the team, please feel free to ask it in the comments section and give me an easy article for next time! Otherwise, random GIFs and insulting remarks are always welcome.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

As a long time Seahawks fan (yes, since even before 2012!) This has been a season of epicharikaky happiness. [Epicharikaky; noun, the joy felt when one's own success contributes to the demise of a rival]. There was the tip, the Super Bowl win, and just this last Sunday the 'Hawks managed to eliminate Santa Christmas from the playoffs, while claiming the drivers seat on Homefield advantage!

I thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at some game tape and figure out what the heck happened to our old foes. Are Greg Roman and Jim Harbaugh to blame? Has Frank Gore finally succumbed to the effects of father time? Does Kaep ever make a 3rd read? Heck, does he have enough fingers to count that high?

For this study, I've used the following games. Week 1 @ Cowboys. Week 7 @ Broncos. Week 9 vs Rams. Week 13 Vs Seahawks. Week 15 @ Seahawks. Note: This was written before last night's game vs. the Chargers.

One of the things that really jumped out at me during the Broncos game is that Kaepernick was doing an extremely poor job of reading the defense pre-snap. He did much better against Dallas, but the problem persisted in all the later games. This is an area worth some further investigation. Has he regressed in this area as the year worn on, or have I introduced selection bias by looking specifically at the games where the 9ers offense struggled? Inconclusive.

Here's an example of what I'm talking about.

Check out the game clock in the bottom corner. I didn't have to go very far in the game to find an example!

I really like this play. The trips alignment makes it very difficult to disguise the coverage, as opposed to a 2-2 split. All four of the routes are capable of picking up a first down with an accurate throw, and the combination concepts in the play make it effective against a wide variety of potential coverages. Also, while I don't have Felicia's playbook to confirm it; I'd bet my FG paycheck that the curl route automatically converts into a post against any form of zone that doesn't have a safety deep-middle (such as cover-2).

From a quarterback's perspective, here's how you go about reading the defense for this play:

First, you check the position of the cornerbacks. Based on how they're aligning over the trips side, this is probably a man coverage.

Then you look at the safeties. They're both 13+ yards deep, and 2-3 yards outside the hashes. It's not impossible to play Single-High (Man Free, Cover 3, etc) out of a look like this, but it's extremely difficult since the deep-center guy has a long way to go just to reach his zone. More likely, it's a 2-deep look with some variant of man underneath.

Next, you check the weakside LB. He's heads-up over the left guard and showing blitz. This confirms man coverage, at least on the left hand side of the formation. This is because there's no one in position to defend the hook zone against a running-back route.

On the trips side, there are three DBs lined up over three receivers, with the split end likely to get pressed. It's possible to play straight man here (in fact, the Broncos did). I personally mis-read this as being a pattern match. What that means is that to defend against potential "rub" routes, I'd expect the far inside defender to take the inside breaking route in man, regardless of which receiver runs it. Ditto for the outside-most defender, while the final route is left to the middle defender.

Kaepernick has often been accused, with good reason, of being a one read QB. His detractors often fail to realize that you can have a lot of success on only one read! After all, Kaep did make it to all those NFCCGs.

One of the primary reasons quarterbacks go through the process I just walked you through is that it reduces the number of reads they need to make once the ball is snapped. For example, on this play Kaep can eliminate both the Y and Z routes.

The Y is almost certainly going to be doubled up by the Free Safety, and the hook defender could get into the throwing lane as well. That's a lot of mess for a low percentage throw into double coverage. Don't even look at it.

The Z could reasonably be thrown, but the throwing lane is going to be ugly, and there's the potential for the Sam LB to drop into coverage and bracket the route.

Rather, Colin should be deciding between two possible routes. The X player's go route, or the F players shallow cross. To determine where he goes with the ball, he needs only to read a single defender. The strong safety.

The safety can either sit on the go, or work downhill to the cross. As soon as he commits to one, the other receiver will have a 1 on 1 situation where an accurate throw moves the sticks.

It turns out my pre-snap read was not entirely correct. The Broncos didn't pattern match on the right, nor did they play 2-eep! But, I was correct about the key component: The SS coming down on the cross leaves the X receiver 1 on 1. He has a step on his man and a 3-4 yard cushion towards the sideline. Kaep has to drop the ball in over the back shoulder, and trust his man to body out the defender and make the catch.

Notice in the picture above Kaep isn't even looking at the SS! Instead he's staring down the Z route. Why?

I think it's because Kaep skipped a step and didn't notice the weakside LB during the pre-snap phase. He misdiagnosed the defense as a cover-2 zone, and was expecting the Z route to convert into a post for an easy first down. Against a defender playing man with inside leverage, that was never going to happen. Kaep stared down the Z route until the pass rush got to him for a sack.

This leads me to my second observation. The 49ers fans I know personally are clamoring for Greg Roman to be fired. They're very wrong in my opinion. Roman is less innovative than Darrell Bevell in how he uses his talent. But Roman is exceptionally good at working around his QB's limitations. Almost the entire Niners' passing game can be executed on two reads or less, and the concepts are not simple, easy to defend nonsense either. This is a legitimate passing offense designed around a single read without a field stretching deep threat!

If Bevell finally leaves Seattle this year to get a head coaching job elsewhere, I'd be thrilled to see Greg Roman in the Hawks booth next year. He's still a top 5 NFL OC in my book, and he's doing a brilliant job with the talent available to him.

The other area of primary concern for the 49ers offense is in the trenches. In fact, the Niners have not one, but three separate problems along the OL that are compounding to destroy what was once one of the NFL's most unstoppable rushing attacks.

The easiest OL problem to isolate is that the Niners simply don't have an NFL capable right tackle. Seattle fans like to rag on Justin Britt, but Britt is still light years ahead of Jonathan Martin.  Martin doesn't have the feet to reliably handle speed rushers, or the power and mean streak needed to be a bully in the running game.  Prior to his injury, Anthony Davis looked better, but honestly not much. I wonder if perhaps he wasn't concealing a nagging toe, ankle, or knee injury that was slowing him down and costing him some core power.

The Niners are also struggling with line communication. Much like the children's game "telephone" it's difficult to trace exactly where things are breaking down, although it's plain to see the end result doesn't line up with the initial message, even without knowing what the actual playcall was!

To the best of my ability to process what I'm seeing on tape, the issue seems to mostly be with C. Marcus Martin and RG Alex Boone. Early in the season, Daniel Kilgore was the 49ers starting center. A career guard, he wasn't ready for the position physically or mentally. He struggled to see the whole box. The resulting line-checks, particularly in pass protection, were often ill-suited to what the defense was showing.

Eventually, Kilgore was injured and Martin took over. Center is one of the more cerebral jobs on an NFL team, and it's a lot to throw on a mid-round rookie. Especially a rookie who was a collegiate guard until his final year! While I suspect Martin will develop into a quality lineman, he needs a lot of time in the classroom before he's ready to excel as a professional swingman.

Compounding Martin's problems is the fact that Alex Boone appears to be freelancing. It's very tough to describe what I mean qualitatively, so instead I'll show you an example.

In the picture above, Seattle is showing a 5-man pressure. Martin, recognizing the threat checked the protection to a half-slide left. Without spending an entire article on the intricacies of pass blocking; this will leave the LT, LG, and C all blocking an area, and taking whatever defender enters it. The RG and RT are both playing man, blocking Michael Bennett (#4) and Cliff Avril (#5) respectively.

For some inexplicable reason, Boone decided to add himself to the slide. Usually the backside guard only slides if told to do so by the center, and does so in response to the defense showing an overload blitz. But watching the replay, it's clear (Collinsworth even commented on it) that Boone slid on his own initiative and the original line-call had him staying on Bennett.

The result?

Bennett gets a free run into the backfield for an easy sack.  It takes a special kind of awful to not even try and block an opposing 3 tech!

Overall, I think it's difficult to determine how much of the 49ers offensive issues are fixable, and how much they need to cut guys loose and try again.  Certainly Marcus Martin is fixable and will improve, while Jonathan Martin isn't and won't.  Kaepenick may get better with the new coach next year, but they may try to install a complex passing scheme that leaves him over his head.

I don't know what the cap situation is like, but if he can I think it would be prudent for Baalke to cut ties with both Jonathan Martin and Alex Boone.   He should also take a long hard look at a QB as early as the second or 3rd round of next years draft.  Even if Kaep hits the books and fixes his pre snap issues, the 49ers current backup QB situation is Blaine Gabbert and Josh Johnson.  Having a talented backup on the roster with room to grow is something that would help that franchise tremendously.