San Francisco’s offense vs. Washington’s defense
Colin Kaepernick is the West Coast version of Robert Griffin III. He has sensational athleticism and raw talent, but uncultivated quarterbacking skills. Quarterbacks like this regularly get exposed in their second year. And yet people are baffled to see Kaepernick floundering. But what else can be expected when defenses force someone with no pocket poise to stay in the pocket? Kaepernick is a half-field reader who doesn’t yet know how to respond when his first progression is covered. If he doesn’t have room to run, the play is going to get ugly.
Exacerbating matters is that Kaepernick’s first progression has almost always been covered this season. Last season, the Niners made great use of man-beater route designs to create defined reads for the quarterback (pick routes, wheel routes, deep play-action, etc.). Those concepts, for whatever reason, haven’t completely vanished but have faded from this offense. None of San Francisco’s wideouts are capable of creating their own separation. Perhaps that will change when Michael Crabtree (Achilles) returns, but that won’t be in time for this game.
San Francisco has the most diverse power run scheme in the NFL, but even though the stats are similar to last year (156 rushing yards per game in 2012; 141 in 2013) it doesn’t seem as unstoppable like it once did (especially this week with left guard Mike Iupati out).
Washington nose tackle Barry Cofield and end Stephen Bowen are destructive run defenders. Behind them, London Fletcher is slowing down but can still usually get from point A to point B. Fletcher’s sidekick, Perry Riley, has blossomed into a fine hunter. Coordinator Jim Haslett knows his secondary is nothing special, but assuming DeAngelo Hall isn’t baited into 5,000 penalties against Anquan Boldin, Haslett should be comfortable going man-to-man on the back end and having safety Reed Doughty be an extra body in the box. With the running lanes bound to be constricted at least part of the time, Kaepernick will have to conjure some big plays in the passing game. Yes, from the pocket.
Washington’s offense vs. San Francisco’s defense
While Kaepernick’s recent struggles have occupied most of the spotlight, RG3 has continued to be an uneven pocket passer as well. He was frenetic in last week’s loss at Philadelphia, failing to consistently read coverages smoothly. This included the pre-snap phase, such as the 3rd-and-one interception to Brandon Boykin, when Griffin didn’t recognize that a quick slant to Pierre Garcon would be wide open.
Philadelphia’s underneath defenders consistently took away Washington’s short play-action routes. San Francisco linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman both have quick-twitch reaction skills and multidirectional speed; as long as they’re patient early in their reads, they should be able to account for the run and still retreat smoothly after identifying pass.
The Niners are predominantly a man-based team, though coordinator Vic Fangio has employed increasingly more zone concepts in recent weeks. Will he continue this trend in order to keep eyes on Griffin? Or, will he stick with man-to-man and have his guys be physical in order to disrupt the timing of Washington’s routes? That can be a great response to the prominent crossing patterns in Washington’s system, but it’s not without risk. If a man-defender fails to disrupt a crossing receiver’s timing, that man defender is liable to be get burned.
Fangio’s coverage tactics might be determined by how things go on the ground. Griffin and tailback Alfred Morris offer a superb perimeter run game behind Washington’s stretch zone-blocking. If they move the ball effectively on first and second down, the Niners will be compelled to play man-to-man on 3rd-and-short.
For Washington, running effectively usually involves running behind left tackle Trent Williams, who might be the most athletic blocker in the NFC. (It’s either him or the Cowboys’ Tyron Smith.) This season, 403 of Morris’s 918 rushing yards have come on “wide left” runs. However, don’t be surprised Monday night if Morris runs more to the right. Not only would he avoid San Fran’s menacing run-anchor, Justin Smith, he’d also get a chance to attack either banged-up end Ray McDonald, who is playing with a biceps injury and sat last week with a sprained ankle, or backup end Tony Jerod-Eddie, who is not great at the point of attack.