Playbook mailbag: 49ers hunting for the SB?

This time of year, everyone is starting to line up their teams as ponies in an NFL derby race toward the Super Bowl. You have the usual steeds – the Packers, Steelers, and the Patriots – but a few interesting names are starting to enter the mix.

Cam Milliken, via the NFL Network’s Facebook page, had the gumption to predict a slightly more unorthodox matchup:

Do you see a repeat of two of the 1980s Super Bowls, Bengals vs. 49ers, happening this year?

A Bengals-49ers Super Bowl? We are being asked to prognosticate whether two teams who had a combined 10-22 record last year can mimic the 1980s showdowns of Joe Montana vs. Boomer Esiason? Andy Dalton vs. Alex Smith?

Then again, we are getting more and more questions about all sorts of teams that you wouldn’t have imagined would so strongly be in this conversation at this point.

Let us look at  a couple teams:

San Francisco

We have to like the 49ers’ chances of entering the playoffs out of the NFC West. In fact, they are real close to clinching the division already. To answer your question, Cam, the Bengals have yet to play AFC North foes Pittsburgh and Baltimore … let’s wait on them.

More importantly, we love the 49ers’ style of play. Jim Harbuagh has fashioned his offense around the running game and won’t ask much of his quarterback. They are a defensive football team first and are equipped with one of, if not the best, front seven in football.

And we love watching the 49ers’ smash-mouth offense, which runs formations with two receivers or less (12, 21 and 22 personnel) 76 percent of the time on first down. That doesn’t include the three or four times a game they sub in defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga into the game for some extra muscle.

To illustrate Harbaugh’s commitment to the run to open up the pass, here’s an interesting wrinkle from last week:

Going along with all of the other option fakes quarterback Alex Smith carries out to sway edge defenders outside of Frank Gore’s running lane, the 49ers added a counter sweep versus the Redskins, with Smith running by Gore and faking a handoff back to the quarterback. They only ran this play twice for 14 yards, but if you took a look at the “All-22,” you could see that the wide receiver carrying out a fake dig route and then blocking downfield, Kyle Williams, was open over the middle both times. Taking this play-call a step further, we could see San Fran trying to catch some defense sleeping down the road and actually handing it back to Smith for a pass.

This is just one play we saw on tape, but it is emblematic of their commitment to the run and Harbaugh putting his team in positions to win with the personnel he was given in his first year. If the 49ers can remain efficient and creative, we like their chances to be in every game.

A Super Bowl contender? Let’s not jump the gun in Week 10, but we still love to watch them on tape – and that’s good enough in our book.

Houston Texans

Does anyone think that the Houston Texans can make a strong run in the playoffs? Do you guys think they have all the keys to make it to the Super Bowl? — Kardarylro T Cheatham

The Texans running game is probably the best in the league, and once they get Andre Johnson back, they should have a really complete and versatile offense.

Right now, their passing game doesn’t really have a threat on the outside. Their tight ends, however, give them a potent threat in the middle of the field, which was on display last week:

In last week’s game versus the Browns’ Cover 1 defense, Matt Schaub only completed 14 passes, 11 of which were to running backs and tight ends. At the same time, he protected the ball; Schaub had five checkdowns and had five throwaways, which is more missed throws (four) than he had.

The Houston coaching staff clearly emphasized the importance of protecting the football and avoiding mistakes, because they know they can win this game on the ground. Houston even had great success running away from the strength of their formation, running to the weak side 16 times for 146 yards (9.13 yard per carry).

They were still successful running to the strength of their formations (15 carries for 93 yards, 6.2 YPC), but they clearly planned on attacking the weak side of the Cleveland defense,  lining up in some bunch sets to draw extra defenders over, and then ran back to the weak side.

With their running game in-tact, we are excited to see what the Texans can become with a healthy Johnson.

Stay tuned.

New  York Jets

The New York Jets have made two straight AFC championship game runs. What can Rex do to get to the Super Bowl, even with the older offense? – Zach Reyes

We wouldn’t call this a “surprise” coming into the season, but the way their defense played at the beginning of the season – ranking near the bottom in run defense – probably scared a few people off of Rex Ryan’s bandwagon until last week’s win over the Bills; they held Buffalo to 96 yards rushing, the second game in a row their defense has limited an offense to under 100 yard on the ground.

While the offense has been up and down, as well, versus the Bills, the Jets seem to have found a friend in the play-action pass game:

Of Mark Sanchez’s 230 yards on Sunday, 129 of them came off of a perfect 11-of-11 on play-action throws. And nearly half of those 11 throws targeted a tight end. The Jets made an effort to target their big pass catchers underneath the Bills’ defense, having wide receivers clear out, lifting the coverage while Dustin Keller, who had four catches for 64 yards off play-action passes, settled into the void with drags and outs. And on Sanchez’s five throws to wide receivers on play-action – two to Plaxico Burress and three to Santonio Holmes – every catch came in the middle of the field off of slants or digs attacking the middle of Buffalo’s pass defense.

Along with their offense, if the Jets have returned to form …  look out. While they have some more age on offense, their success will rest with the defense and being efficient on offense. And they were efficient versus the Bills.

“Playbook” — the ultimate football Xs and Os show — airs Friday at 8 p.m. ET (AFC) and 9 p.m. ET (NFC) on NFL Network. Check the NFL Network broadcast schedule for further details. Follow “Playbook” on Twitter @NFLN_Playbook.

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