Playbook: 49ers use their ‘other’ dimension

In the NFL, defensive coordinators wish stopping a team was as simple as stopping one guy.

The Giants obviously felt they needed to limit 49ers running back Frank Gore on Sunday, dedicating eight men or more to the box on 10 of San Francisco’s 14 designed run plays. They even brought defensive end Dave Tollefson into the game as a stand-up linebacker on the strong side of the 49ers’ offensive formations on eight occasions. That’s five guys dedicated toward taking away Gore’s running lanes.

And they did their job, holding the 49ers to 77 yards on the ground. Tollefson held the edge, linebacker/edge rusher Mathias Kiwanuka would blitz the A-gap, and Gore was dead to rights off the snap. But the 49ers won, 27-20, which begs the questions: How did San Francisco recover with its centerpiece running back pretty much removed from the playbook?

Passing is pretty easy when a defense isn’t designed to stop it.

Alex Smith flourished on Sunday versus a single deep safety 84 percent of the time (on 25 of 32 drop backs). Because the Giants were stacking the box, putting an extra safety near the line of scrimmage, they played basic “man-free” and Cover 3 behind it, which simplified Smith’s reads.

Smith stressed the second level of the Giants’ coverage, the linebackers, running digs and crossing patterns behind them. The 49ers also completed five of six passes off of play-action for 63 of Smith’s 242 yards.

San Francisco was still opportunistic in running the ball, recognizing the strength of the Giants’ defense with Tollefson on the line and running weak four times for 37 yards and a touchdown (Kendall Hunter’s 17-yard score).

Give Smith credit. He did an excellent job commanding San Fran’s offense. But at the same time, give Gore a lot of credit for diverting the Giants’ attention coming into the game.

And from an unimpressive stat line to a back that everyone has been waiting to break out …

Chris Johnson didn’t have a great first half against the Panthers (10 carries for 26 yards), but, in the second half, the Titans made a concerted effort to get their franchise player going.

Tennessee ran him to the perimeter, lining fullback Ahmad Hall up to the weak-side of the formation and leading with him across formation and pulling weak-side guards around. That gave Johnson a convoy of blockers to the edge, an advantage which he only enhanced by using a counter step off the snap to get linebackers flowing in the wrong direction.

Breaking down the efficiency of these pulling plays:

  • With left guard Leroy Harris, FB Hall leading: four carries for 30 yards
  • With right guard Jake Scott, Hall leading: two carries for 14 yards
  • With the right and left guard pulling: one carry for 4 yards
  • Total:  Seven carries, 48 yards (6.86 per carry)

While it was an impressive stat line for Johnson, 130 yards and a touchdown, you can still see on tape a lack of explosiveness, elusiveness and physicality. A nice game plan by the Titans against a porous Carolina run defense, however.

And from a successful running day, let’s move to a team that didn’t even need to pass …

After running DeMarco Murray for 135 yards versus the Bills, the Cowboys didn’t need to go to the air much in the second half. In fact, they only ran a pass play seven times in the second half – all in the third quarter.

More importantly, Tony Romo was able to convert on third downs. He threw for 100 yards and a touchdown, completing 8-of-9 third down passes, which kept the Cowboys offense on the field and the Bills offense off of it.

“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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