Steel Blue Strategy Session - Breaking Down The San Francisco 49ers' Offense

In some ways, Texans Nation, we are blessed.  We get to watch a Hall of Fame wide receiver week-in and week-out, we have a classy and unusual...well...character for a running back, and our offense has been in the top four in total yardage over the last few seasons.  I won't go into the defense because we all know about those thorns on this rose.

The point is that it could be a lot worse for us.  We could have to watch our upcoming opponent, the San Francisco 49ers, play offense.  Their offensive playbook last season was ostensibly the greatest work of fiction since vows of fidelity were included in Tiger Woods' wedding ceremony. Even our resident Niners fan, TexansDC, called it "an undirected hodge-podge…flipping from a vertical spread to a power run game...just a mess."

Since this is the one preseason game all year that will even vaguely resemble a regular-season game, I looked through all of the Niners' box scores from last season to see if they had any tendencies on offense which the Houston Texans could possibly exploit.

You can check out my findings by clicking this here jump below.

I recognize that the Niners have gone through some changes from last season.  Mike Singletary is gone (much to the relief of Niners fans and consternation of Seahawks fans), and in his place is former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh.  We'll get more into how that will affect the Niners later. 

First, since Alex Smith will likely be starting in this game, we'll take a look at his throwing preferences.

Short-range Passes, Left Side
(10 Yards or Less)

45/85
1 TD 3 INT

Short-range Passes, Middle
(10 Yards or Less)

16/25
2 TD 1 INT

Short-range Passes, Right Side
(10 Yards or Less)

69/111
1 TD 2 INT

Mid-range Passes, Left Side
(11-20 Yards)

20/20 1 TD 0 INT

Mid-range Passes, Middle
(11-20 Yards)

15/16 0 TD 1 INT

Mid-range Passes, Right Side
(11-20 Yards)

18/18 3 TD 0 INT

Long-range Passes, Left Side
(21 Yards or More)

7/14 0 TD 1 INT

Long-range Passes, Middle
(21 Yards or More)

11/18 2 TD 0 INT

Long-range Passes, Right Side
(21 Yards or More)

12/31 0 TD 2 INT

 

As you can see, these are not the kind of stats a quarterback wants to write home about.  Smith tends to throw mostly short passes to the left and right sides of the field.  Most of these short passes went to running back Frank Gore and tight end Vernon Davis.  Also, a majority of those completions in the mid-range were less than 15 yards per completion.  What I found particularly interesting is how incredibly inaccurate he is throwing anything farther than 20 yards.  A lot of the long-range passes he made are actually passes he dumped off which went for a lot of yardage.  If I'm Wade Phillips, I'm going to try and force Alex Smith to try and beat the defense with the deep ball.  If the Texans can take away Smith's ability to throw short passes, it'll be a long day for the Niners offense.

Speaking of their offense, let's take a look at the key cog in their offense, and someone who I think is going to be a handful in Saturday's game:  Frank Gore.

Here's a chart of Gore's runs from last season, sorted by the direction he ran.

Left End

17 rushes 112 yards 1 fumble lost

6.6 YPC

Left Tackle

15 rushes 83 yards

5.5 YPC

Left Guard

21 rushes 70 yards 1 TD

3.3 YPC

Middle

85 rushes 312 yards 1 TD

3.7 YPC

Right Guard

26 rushes 75 yards 1 TD 1 fumble lost

2.8 YPC

Right Tackle

24 rushes 132 yards 1 fumble lost

5.5 YPC

Right End

12 rushes 82 yards

6.8 YPC

 

Last season, Gore did most of his running behind the center in the offensive line; in fact, the overwhelming number of his rushes came between the tackles, specifically between the guards.  Whether this trend holds true under the other Harbaugh brother remains to be seen.  If it does, then Shaun Cody, THIS IS YOUR MOMENT.  Earl Mitchell probably won't play much, if at all, tomorrow due to a knee injury.  Last year's center David Baas signed with the Giants, so the NT may be lined up against versatile offensive lineman Adam Snyder, who has never played center before; Snyder could be flanked by the same guards who played all of last season.  If Cody struggles again as he has in previous games or comes out lackadaisical as he did during training camp under these circumstances, then this ought to be the last we hear of Shaun Cody as a viable option as the Texans' starting nose tackle.

Now, let's look at how many times Smith targeted his receivers last year, sorted in order of whichever receiver I see on my notes first.

Frank Gore

32/48 2 TD

Michael Crabtree

32/60 2 TD

Vernon Davis

39/60 4 TD

Ted Ginn

10/20 1 TD

Delanie Walker

14/23 0 TD

Moran Norris

3/5 0 TD

Josh Morgan

33/50 2 TD

Brian Westbrook

14/21 1 TD

Dominique Zeigler

8/11 0 TD

Nate Bynham

5/6 0 TD

Anthony Dixon

3/3 0 TD

 

What concerns me about this is the way that the defense has played so far against tight ends and running backs.  Gore and Davis were Smith's top targets in short yardage, and Crabtree was his primary target for deep passes.  I have no doubt that Johnathan Joseph will be on Crabtree like white on rice and a glass of milk on a paper plate in a snow storm.  What concerns me is that, as we've said in the past, the big weaknesses in Wade's system are covering tight ends and a power running game.  To counteract that, I expect to see a greater degree of pass rush than we've seen in other games.  Sure it'll be vanilla (I really hate that word now; damn you, Frank Bush), but they have to scare the life out of Alex Smith.  And considering the Niners' O-line gave up 44 sacks and well over 100 QB hits last season, I wouldn't be surprised to see Wade tee off on the oft-supine quarterback.  If not, then I expect Connor Barwin to try and bottle up Vernon Davis, Smith's favorite and most reliable target, and Brian Cushing to step up and shut down Gore.

Now there's one wild card in all of this:  Jim Harbaugh.  Unlike Singletary, Harbaugh has an offense.  Specifically he runs a West Coast offense.  Unlike many others, though, Harbaugh's tends to be more run-oriented and uses a lot of tight end sets.  So we'll probably see more Frank Gore and less Alex Smith, but not for the reasons you might think. 

Here's a breakdown of the run/pass ratio of the 49ers from last season:

281 rushes/495 passes (63.8/36.2 split)

And here's the split from Harbaugh's last couple of seasons at Stanford (courtesy of Niners Nation):

514 rushes/379 passes (57.6/42.4 split)

If this holds true, Gore will become even more integral to the Niners success than he already is.

So to summarize:

1.  Force Alex Smith to throw deep passes, where he is incredibly inaccurate.

2.  Shaun Cody and the other nose tackles will have their hands full with the middle of the offensive line.

3.  Crabtree will be locked down by Johnathan Joseph in our free agent corner's first preseason appearance.

4.  Expect to see more pass rushing in this game than usual, and keep an eye on how Barwin does covering Vernon Davis and Cushing against Gore.

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