Each day this week, Baltimore Sun reporter and blogger Matt Vensel will break down a key matchup from Sunday’s Super Bowl. Today, he looks at the challenge of defending Colin Kaepernick and the pistol offense.
In their stunning run to Super Bowl XLVII, the Ravens eliminated a pair of future Hall of Fame quarterbacks and also beat rookie Andrew Luck, whom many feel will blossom into the next Peyton Manning or Tom Brady.
But the young quarterback they must shut down on Super Sunday presents a unique challenge because he threatens the entire field after every snap. At 6 feet 4 and 230 pounds, Colin Kaepernick has the stature of the prototypical NFL quarterback -- you know, those Brady and Manning types. But with his rocket right arm and his breakaway speed, Kaepernick, a second-year signal-caller and first-year starter for the San Francisco 49ers, is one of a few exciting, triple-threat quarterbacks who are making their own mold and shaking up the NFL.
Often burning pro defenses with read-option plays in an offensive scheme that was developed in the college ranks (and mastered by Kaepernick before he arrived in the NFL), the San Francisco 49ers pistol-whipped their opponents -- scoring 73 points and averaging 476 yards -- as they rolled through the NFC side of the Super Bowl bracket. The Ravens know they will be next if they aren’t able to slow Kaepernick.
“We’re going to have to tackle him. We’re going to have to keep him inside and in front of our defense. We’re not going to be able to run past him,” coach John Harbaugh said last week. “He’s fully capable of putting 200 yards on you in a second, just as capable as Frank Gore is, or any of their running backs. So, he’s not just an integral part of their passing game; he’s a huge part of their run game. So, we’ll have a plan for it.”
Stopping San Francisco’s pistol offense -- the formation puts Kaepernick a 4-yard snap behind the center with a running back straight behind him -- is much different than dealing with Manning or Brady, but perhaps just as difficult.
PULLING THE TRIGGER
As the legend goes, former Nevada coach Chris Ault created the pistol in the spring of 2005. Looking to improve his pedestrian running game while also searching for something to differentiate his school from the rest of the NCAA pack, he thought up a radical idea. So around sunrise one morning, as Bruce Feldman of CBS reports in this piece, Ault dragged three assistants to the Wolfpack locker room to flush it out. Duct-taped lines on the carpet giving them a sense of dimension, they jogged through plays. Six hours later, the pistol offense was born out of brilliance and desperation, like most innovations in the sport.
Two (winning) seasons later, the Wolfpack started to mix in read-option elements, and after an injury knocked out his starting quarterback, Ault asked a gangly, athletic redshirt freshman to wield the pistol.
Replacing Nick Graziano in a loss to Fresno State, Kaepernick piled up 464 yards and five touchdowns combined with his elusive legs and powerful arm. He produced similar numbers the next week in a quadruple-overtime loss to Boise State. The Wolfpack finished 6-7 that season, but Kaepernick would later take them to new heights in the pistol. He became the only player in the Div. I-FBS history to pass for more than 10,000 yards and rush for more than 4,000 yards in his career. He threw 82 touchdown passes in four years and just 24 interceptions. And as a senior, he led the 13-1 Wolfpack to a WAC title.
“Every time he touched the ball, whether he gained yardage or not, you could just feel the electricity,” Ault recently told The New York Times. “With those long, loping legs of his, well, they haven’t caught him yet.”
The 49ers drafted Kaepernick in the second round of the 2011 NFL draft -- behind quarterbacks such as Cam Newton, Jake Locker, and Blaine Gabbert -- and 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh made him the backup. He saw limited action until Alex Smith was injured in a Week 10 tie against the St. Louis Rams this fall.
Kaepernick got the start eight days later for a Monday night showcase showdown against the Chicago Bears and played well, doing most of the damage with his arm in a 32-7 win. The huddle quickly became his, and the 49ers added pistol plays and more read-option to take advantage of his skill set. Kaepernick is 7-2 as a starter, including impressive playoff wins in which he ran through the Green Bay Packers and chucked the ball over the Atlanta Falcons.
In the regular season, Kaepernick completed 62.4 percent of his passes for 1,814 yards, 10 touchdowns and three interceptions. In the playoffs, he has completed 63.5 percent of his throws for 496 yards, three touchdowns and a pick.
Washington’s Robert Griffin III also had success in the pistol this season as the rookie led the Redskins to the postseason. But Kaepernick, thanks to his four years with Ault, is the more experienced triggerman.
A TRUE TRIPLE THREAT
Kaepernick made an emphatic statement that the pistol is not just a passing fad in the divisional-round win against the Packers. Often keeping the ball on read-option plays, he rushed for 181 yards, the most ever for a quarterback in any NFL game, on 16 carries. His 56-yard touchdown on an option run -- the lanky QB looked like a gazelle sprinting in the open field -- gave the 49ers the lead for good in the third quarter.
The following week, the Falcons emphasized containing Kaepernick in the pocket. After pistol snaps, one of their defensive ends would peel off towards the flat, refusing to let Kaepernick beat them around the edge like he did against the Packers. It worked, as Kaepernick rushed for 21 yards on just two carries, but he was quite content to instead hand the ball to his running back, who often had a wide running lane in the area that the defensive end had vacated. Running backs Frank Gore and LaMichael James combined for 124 yards and three touchdowns on 26 carries in the 28-24 comeback victory in Atlanta.
While trying to stop read-option runs, whether they come from the pistol or the standard shotgun, edge defenders are forced to make a snap decision at the “mesh point,” which is when the quarterback sticks the ball into the belly of his running back. The offense purposely leaves an unblocked defender on the play side, instead using the blocker to outnumber the opposition elsewhere. If the edge defender -- in the Ravens’ case, it would likely be an outside linebacker like Terrell Suggs or Courtney Upshaw -- goes wide to contain the quarterback, Kaepernick will hand off to Gore, a physical between-the-tackles runner. If the edge defender chooses to crash inside, Kaepernick will keep the ball and can run around the edge.
“We have a need for a lot of rushing yards every week. We’ll take them every week,” 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman told San Francisco area reporters last week. “But who does it? It doesn’t matter to us, as long as we’re getting production. So, as far as Kaep running the ball, it may happen. It may not.”
According to ESPN Stats and Info, the 49ers have run option plays 29 times in the playoffs after using them just 26 times in Kaepernick’s seven regular-season starts. The 49ers are averaging 8.4 yards per carry on option runs in the playoffs, according to ESPN Stats and Info, and scored four times on them.
But what makes Kaepernick so dangerous -- and why he is much more feared than the player Tim Tebow was in Denver, for example -- is a right arm that can short-circuit a radar gun. The 25-year-old might not have the strongest arm in Sunday’s Super Bowl, but analysts say he is in Joe Flacco’s neighborhood.
Instead of running on these read-option plays, Kaepernick also has the option to throw the ball down the field, making the read-option much more difficult to defend than the Wildcat, which does not have a true passing threat. That threat of the pass, along with the ability to throw on the run and the savvy to know when to hand the ball off and when to keep it, makes Kaepernick a true triple threat at quarterback.
WHIPPING THE PISTOL
The Ravens have six more days to install a game plan that might render Kaepernick one-dimensional.
The good news is that the Ravens got valuable experience defending the pistol in their Week 14 loss to the Redskins, though results in that game were mixed. The Redskins averaged 6.2 yards per carry on option plays that game, according to ESPN Stats and Info, and Griffin and running back Alfred Morris carried the Redskins on two first-quarter touchdown drives. But the Ravens -- who were without starting linebackers Ray Lewis, Dannell Ellerbe and Terrell Suggs that day -- soon produced some answers.
“They struggled early, but then they started to kick their butts later,” Greg Cosell of NFL Films said.
The Ravens lost in overtime, but the Ravens hit Griffin several times before he was eventually knocked him out of the game after defensive tackle Haloti Ngata slammed awkwardly into his knee on a scramble.
Harbaugh was probably playing coy this week when he said that he wasn’t sure if there was anything to be gained from going back and looking at the tape from the Redskins game because “the foundation of the offense is different.” True, Griffin and Kaepernick are both good but in different ways -- safety Ed Reed said he also dusted off tape of Michael Vick from back in Week 2 -- and the Redskins are a zone-blocking running team while the 49ers use more of a downhill power run game. The 49ers might also put an extra back in their pistol to be a blocker, a unique tweak in their scheme.
But Ron Jaworski of ESPN believes the experience from the Redskins game will help the Ravens prepare.
“The more you see this option, the better off you’re prepared to stop it, so I know the fact that they’ve seen it once clearly will be an advantage to them,” Jaworski said. “And it really is, it’s all about playing with tremendous discipline and focus. And I’m sure you’re hearing it in every one of those defensive meetings, every single one, it’s about discipline. ‘React to that mesh point. Don’t try to be a hero. Do what you’re supposed to do. Play the defense.’ I can hear those coaches’ voices resonating as I say those words, because the teams that lack discipline when you play these option teams get shredded.”
Last week, Ravens players and coaches tossed around clichés, optioning between mantras about being disciplined and lines about “assignment football.” Outside linebacker Paul Kruger simply said, “You’ve got to be focused on your job and only your job.” There is good reason for it, because if one defender tries to freelance, Kaepernick is quite capable of burning the Ravens for six points on any given option play.
But just because they are preaching discipline doesn’t mean the Ravens won’t be aggressive on Sunday.
Cosell believes the Ravens defense will attack the 49ers when they run their read-option plays, and take advantage of their unblocked defender, the one the 49ers will ask Kaepernick to read. Instead of waiting to diagnose the play then acting, that defender might barge into the backfield and force the quarterback to speed up “all the backfield action,” Cosell said, snapping his fingers together faster and faster for effect.
“What does a defense want? An unblocked defender,” Cosell said. “So I think they’re going to attack with that unblocked defender. That’s what they did with the Redskins, and after some early struggles, they had pretty good success with it. So I think you’re going to see that. … The Ravens have always had that attitude as an organization that we’re going to kick your butt and I don’t think they’re going to sit and wait. Now they might get burnt a couple of times -- the 49ers are in the Super Bowl for a reason -- but I don’t see them playing passively and letting it happen. That’s not their personality as an organization.”
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