Tag:Ray McDonald
Posted on: December 14, 2011 1:06 pm
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Film Room: 49ers vs. Steelers preview

Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit


At 10-3, the San Francisco 49ers are fighting for the No. 2 seed in the NFC. With two losses in their last three outings, questions are starting to lurk. Are the Niners indeed a top-tier club with a powerhouse defense and limited-but-fundamentally sound offense? Or are they, like the ’08 Dolphins or 08 Titans, just another middle-tier team that happened to rack up a lot of wins thanks to the good fortunes of turnover differential? (The Niners are currently first in the league at +21).

San Fran’s recent two losses have been to quality 3-4 defenses (Baltimore and Arizona). The Monday night matchup against Pittsburgh could provide the “moment of truth” for Jim Harbaugh’s club.


1. Niners’ protection woes
The Cardinals defense, led by former Steelers assistant Ray Horton, came after Alex Smith & Co. with fervidity and dimension. Horton’s panoply of blitzes brought rushers from all four linebacking spots and, on a few occasions, the secondary. San Francisco’s offensive line, particularly inside with LG Mike Iupati, C Jonathan Goodwin and RG Adam Snyder, floundered in their identification and reaction speed. Two weeks before, those three linemen, along with backup guard Chilo Rachal, were physically manhandled by Haloti Ngata and the tough Ravens front three.

The Niners spend most of their time in base offensive personnel, which has them line up against base defensive personnel. The Steelers are less aggressive than the Cardinals when it comes to blitzing out of base personnel (most of Dick LeBeau’s blitzes come from nickel and dime packages). And, physically, the Steelers defensive front three is not as powerful as the Ravens’.

That said, the trenches mismatch will still be glaring and hard for the Niners to avoid (see items 2 and 3).

2. Niners run game
Jim Harbaugh’s is a run-oriented offense in the purist form. On first and second downs, the 49ers align almost exclusively in 21 or 22 personnel (i.e. two backs and one or two tight ends). The Steelers, at times, even in their base defense with vociferous nose tackle Casey Hampton, have uncharacteristically struggled in run defense this season. But those struggles have come against zone-blocking teams like the Texans, Ravens or Bengals.

The 49ers are a power-blocking team. Their ground game is predicated on size and force, double-teams and interior pulls (Iupati is very mobile; Snyder is often ineffective off movement but can at least physically execute the plays). Power-blocking is not a good formula when facing the Steelers. Their defensive line cannot be consistently driven, and inside linebackers Lawrence Timmons and James Farrior play too fast for slow developing pull blocks to work.

3. Niners pass game
If the Niners do try to stick with their power ground game, they’ll inevitably face a handful of third-and-long situations. That will compel Harbaugh to spread into three-receiver sets. That’s when LeBeau will take advantage of San Francisco’s interior pass protection issues.

One of the hallmark blitzes in LeBeau’s portfolio is the Fire-X, which is when both inside linebackers crisscross and attack the A-gaps. The Steelers execute Fire-X’s better than any team in football. James Farrior is brilliant in timing his blitzes and setting up pass-rushing lanes for teammates. Lawrence Timmons is more explosive than Acetone Peroxide when firing downhill.

What’s more, Troy Polamalu’s versatility becomes more pronounced in passing situations. That’s problematic given how much trouble Adrian Wilson (a poor man’s Polamalu) gave the Niners last week.

Because rushing yards could be tough to come by, it’s very likely that the Niners will throw on early downs out of base personnel (they had success with this formula against the Giants a few weeks ago). To help Alex Smith thrive in these scenarios, Harbaugh has implemented several changes this season – such as using play-action and specific route designs that allow for one-read throws, eliminating sight adjustment routes to ensure that the receivers and quarterback are always on the same page and being very judicious in calling “shot plays” downfield.

But in most games, there are points when a quarterback and his receivers simply have to make things happen. Smith doesn’t have the dynamic tools to consistently do that against a D like Pittsburgh’s. His primary wide receivers don’t have the speed and quickness to regularly separate outside (especially against a star cornerback like Ike Taylor). And, most concerning, his offensive tackles, particularly lackluster second-year pro Anthony Davis, are not formidable enough in pass protection to stave off LaMarr Woodley or even Jason Worilds.

4. Niners defensive line vs. Steelers O-line
The good news for Harbaugh is his defense is capable of posing nearly just as many problems for the Steelers offense. Obviously, Ben Roethlisberger’s health will have a significant impact on this game. You already know the advantages Big Ben gives the Steelers.

Almost as important is the health of center Maurkice Pouncey. Like Roethlisberger, he’s battling a Grade 1 high ankle sprain. Pouncey could not finish the game against Cleveland but says he’ll play Monday night. That’s huge. Without Pouncey, the Steelers would have to slide Doug Legursky from left guard to center, which poses a substantial drop-off in mobility and strength (even if Legursky has been somewhat of an overachiever the last year).

What’s more, Chris Kemoeatu would be forced back into the lineup at left guard. Kemoeatu has been a top ten player at his position the past few years. But for whatever reason, he’s fallen flat on his face this season – mainly in pass protection, where he’s shown poor lateral agility and a proclivity for holding.

Even at full strength, the Steelers offensive line is average and, thus, incapable of completely neutralizing the 49ers front line over four quarters. Left end Justin Smith is as good as they get. Nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga has blossomed into a plugger who’s mobile enough to make plays anywhere in the box.

Right end Ray McDonald is healthy again and flashing uncommon initial quickness. And on passing downs, Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith are lightning fast, supple edge-rushers with versatile short-area explosiveness. It’s highly doubtful the Steeler tackles can contain them one-on-one.

5. San Francisco’s defensive back seven
Even if Patrick Willis’ hamstring keeps him out a third-straight game, the Niners have enough speed and burst with NaVorro Bowman and strong safety Donte Whitner to answer Pittsburgh’s methodical rushing attack. The key will be whether San Francisco can hold up in pass defense. The Niners like to play zone in base D and man in nickel or dime.

Without Willis, San Francisco’s zones become somewhat vulnerable inside (we saw this on Early Doucet’s 60-yard touchdown last week). In man, Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver are all capable of hanging with Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Mike Wallace, but not if Roethlisberger is able to extend the play (Brown is simply too good at making late adjustments to his route, Sanders is similar and Wallace obviously has lethal speed if he can get downfield).

So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all Week 15 games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
Posted on: November 9, 2011 10:54 am
 

Film Room: 49ers vs. Giants preview

Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit


The NFC’s top team from the East will travel some 3,000 miles to face the top team from the West in a game that could ultimately decide the No. 2 playoff seed. Here’s a five-point look at this matchup between two overachieving clubs.



1. Old School offenses
If not for HD quality picture and the first-down line, you could fool yourself into thinking the year is 1990 when watching these two offenses line up on Sunday. Both are built around traditional rushing attacks, operating predominantly out of classic 12, 21 or 22 personnel (12 personnel = 1 back, two tight ends; 21 personnel = two backs, one tight end; you can guess what 22 personnel equals).

The difference is that the Niners this season have successfully run the ball, while the Giants have not (San Francisco ranks sixth in the NFL with 137.6 yards rushing per game; New York ranks 29th with 88.8).

Jim Harbaugh has good horses in Frank Gore and the more dynamic but less experienced Kendall Hunter, but it’s not a glistening backfield like those found in Philadelphia, Houston or Oakland. To compensate, Harbaugh has done a masterful job manufacturing rushing yards through formation variations, motion and subtle subterfuge. The Niners show opponents a lot of different looks with their running back and tight end alignments. And with mobile guards like Mike Iupati and, to an extent, Adam Snyder, they can frequently change up their movement-oriented run-blocking techniques. They have the most variegated ground game in the NFL.
 
The Giants would like to mimic this, but Ahmad Bradshaw hasn’t been healthy and Brandon Jacobs hasn’t been impactful. More encumbering has been the shakiness of the offensive line. The center position has been particularly problematic. David Baas has battled injuries and struggled with gap-shooting defensive tackles against Miami two weeks ago; when Baas has been out, Kevin Boothe has looked how you’d expect a career backup tackle to look at center. Most telling is that recently, offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride has been almost exclusively aerial in his late-game play-calls.

2. The Quarterbacks
The Giants have managed six wins despite a sputtering ground game. The reason? Eli Manning has played the best football of his career. Herein lays the difference between New York and San Francisco. Both teams have former No. 1 overall drafted quarterbacks, but only one can put the game on its quarterback’s shoulders.

Manning is seeing the field clearer than ever (fortunately for him, New York’s front line struggles have not been in pass protection). His command of the offense and sound decision-making have propagated the eruptions of tight end Jake Ballard and slot receiver Victor Cruz. Ballard is an enhanced version of Kevin Boss; Cruz, with his unique body control and sticky hands, is a more explosive – though less stable – version of Steve Smith.

Something that’s not talked about often enough is Manning’s arm strength. He’s among the small handful of quarterbacks who truly can make all the throws; and he doesn’t need to be on balance or in perfect pocket conditions to do it.

Alex Smith, on the other hand, does need perfect pocket conditions. Smith is not functional with bodies around him. When he does have room, the throw usually has to target his first or second read, as he’s never had the poise to work deep in his progressions. This is one reason the Niners have spent so much time in 12 or 21 or 22 formations. When there are only three receivers running routes, defenses are more inclined to bring an eighth defender in the box, thus allowing for more one-on-one coverage concepts outside. This makes things simpler for the quarterback.

The Giants, on the other hand, are able to split into three, and sometimes four, receiver formations for long stretches and let Manning run the show.

3. Pass-rushes
These are two of the best pure pass-rushing defenses in the NFL. Pure meaning both are willing but not compelled to blitz. When they do blitz, it’s often primarily in an effort to command isolated matchups for rushers on the edge. For these defenses, those matchups will almost always be favorable.
 
For the Giants, Osi Umenyiora augments his incredible speed by being the league’s best snap-count anticipators in obvious passing situations. Opposite him, a healthy Justin Tuck is a versatile, fundamentally sharp force, and a rising Jason Pierre-Paul has willowy power and speed that make him a potentially more explosive version of Tuck. And don’t forget that linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka is a former first-round defensive end who can turn the corner.

You already know all this, though. What you may not know is that San Francisco’s pass-rushers are not too many rungs behind New York’s. Sixth-year pro Ahmad Brooks has finally learned how to apply his startling speed and fluidity on an everydown basis (even against the run, which close observers two years ago would not have predicted).

Rookie Aldon Smith plays with Manny Pacquiao-like hand-quickness to go with natural leverage that punctuates his first-round athleticism. What’s more, most 3-4 defenses don’t bank on getting pressure from their ends. But they don’t have a weapon like Justin Smith. He wears opponents out and makes three or four splash plays a week. Opposite Smith, Ray McDonald, when healthy (he injured his hamstring in Week 8) has been equally dynamic this season.

Both defenses have the versatility to create pass-rushing mismatches through position relocation and group concepts. All of the men mentioned above are outside players who can align inside, stand up as de facto blitzing linebackers or properly set up and execute crashes and stunts with teammates.

4. The Coverage Effect
These difficult-to-block four-man pass-rushes force quarterbacks to throw under duress into seven-man coverages. As they showed at New England last week, the Giants linebackers and safeties are getting more comfortable recognizing and attacking passing lanes. It helps that their cornerbacks, though inconsistent early in the season, can play press-man coverage outside.

Corey Webster has been particularly impressive in recent weeks, often shadowing the opposing team’s top receiver. He’s well equipped to defend the lithe but inexplosive Michael Crabtree.

The Niners love to play two-man out of their nickel defense. This puts cornerbacks Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver man-to-man on the wideouts and allows the two safeties, Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson, to roam free over the top. Rogers, who starts outside but plays the slot in nickel, is having a career-year. Brown blends into the scheme in a good way. Culliver, a precocious third-round rookie, always plays with a great sense for his surroundings.

Even if Hakeem Nicks, discreetly a top-10 NFL receiver, returns from his hamstring injury this week, the Giants are going to have a tough time consistently getting wideouts open against this Niners secondary.

5. The inside linebackers
We saved the best for last: San Francisco’s inside linebackers (and just San Francisco’s – New York’s entire linebacking corps is very mediocre).

Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman form the best inside linebacking duo in football. The past few years, Willis has rightfully been regarded as the best in the business. This season, he may be the second best on his own team, as Bowman, a 2010 third-round pick, leads San Fran in tackles.

Setting these two apart is the fact that they both play all three downs. That’s incredible in this day and age of spread offenses. In nickel and dime defense, Willis and Bowman perform coverage assignments normally reserved for defensive backs. They have the speed, change-of-direction prowess and awareness to do it. Both are quick-closing tacklers, instinctive run-defenders and innate playmakers.

So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all Week 10 games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
 
 
 
 
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com