All-22: Jim Schwartz’s ‘Achilles’ Heel’
It was just a 14-yard gain.
Frank Gore lined up in the backfield during Week 2 in 2012 as the 49ers hosted the Lions, and he picked up a first down. But, as Cris Collinsworth pointed out on the NBC broadcast, it was symptomatic of a larger problem Jim Schwartz’s defense was having.
“Almost amazing that the 49ers keep hitting the Lions on this play,” Collinsworth said. “That was the play, more than any other, in the game in Detroit last year that beat the Detroit Lions. You would think that after a year of looking at it, they would’ve had it figured out. A little variation there, but it still worked.”
Collinsworth was referring to Gore’s 55-yard run the previous season that contributed to San Francisco’s six-point win in Detroit. Schwartz was consistently hurt by these “wham” plays, which is similar to a traditional trap play, except the trap block comes from the H-back, and not a guard.
(According to James Light, a high school football coach and founder of an excellent X’s-and-O’s website who explained some of these concepts to us, the H-back who executes the “wham” block is often called a “sniffer” by defensive players.)
Schwartz preaches aggressiveness, but as with any other scheme, that style has it’s drawbacks. Because Schwartz emphasizes penetration and attacking the ball, defensive linemen can get out of their gaps and be susceptible to misdirection runs.
It didn’t take long for Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman, San Francisco’s head coach and offensive coordinator at the time, to exploit this. On the 49ers’ second run of the game, tight end Delanie Walker executed the “wham” block on defensive tackle Corey Williams.
The 49ers allowed Williams to get upfield to open up a big hole for Gore, who then eluded linebacker Justin Durant.
Early in the second quarter, San Francisco returned to this concept, with a slight variation. The 49ers used two trap blocks and one “wham” block to give the defensive linemen false keys, called an “influence wham,” according to Light.
A huge hole opened up for Gore and he picked up 12 yards.
“It just keeps working,” Collinsworth said, laughing. “It’s really remarkable, but one play has been the Achilles’ heel for this Lions defense against the 49ers.”
San Francisco ran traditional trap plays, too, with the guard executing the trap block.
Gore picked up 16 yards later in the second quarter on one such play as right guard Alex Boone executed the trap block against Williams.
And that was just the first half.
Overall, of San Francisco’s six rushes that went at least 12 yards, four were some type of trap play. The 49ers totaled 148 rushing yards on 5.5 yards per carry for one touchdown, with much of their success coming from a trap or “wham” concept.
San Francisco primarily ran these plays out of 12 personnel, which Light said a lot of teams would respond to by putting eight guys in the box because of the second tight end on the field.
Chris Brown, the outstanding X’s-and-O’s writer who founded Smart Football and also helped explain some of these ideas to us, opined that the Lions’ secondary “was never quite there” under Schwartz, which is why “his defenses with Detroit were always a step or two behind the great Tennessee and Buffalo defenses.”
Because of that, perhaps Schwartz didn’t want to go to an eight-man front, which would have put more pressure on a potentially vulnerable back end.
Light added that he also thought the Lions were “middle of the pack” on defense because of personnel. Although they had some excellent players, such as Ndamukong Suh, Light said they simply “never had enough of them” because they were always tight against the salary cap.
SWITCHING GAPS ON THE FLY
Although San Francisco used a lot of trap plays, Harbaugh took advantage of Schwartz’s aggressiveness in other ways, such as a 29-yard end around on their second play from scrimmage. However, sometimes it doesn’t matter much how often Schwartz’s defensive linemen get out of their gaps, if he has the right personnel.
In Tennessee, linebacker Keith Bullock’s job was to essentially fill whichever hole defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth didn’t occupy.
“Haynesworth couldn’t stay in his gap at all, but he could knock the sh-t out of guys once he got that 350 [pounds] north-south in a hurry,” Schwartz said at a coaching clinic last year. “And we had Keith Bullock that played behind him most of the time. And we just told Keith, ‘Okay, look. Well, you’ve got the ‘B’ gap, but if Albert is in the ‘B’ gap, just take the ‘A.’ And for Keith, that was perfect.”
Schwartz also discussed how the wide nine sometimes makes up for defensive linemen getting out of their gaps. According to Schwartz, the wide nine really helps backside defenders versus a wide zone, or stretch.
“When Edgerrin [James] was running stretch, and we didn’t have an edge [before the wide nine], Albert was out of the play. He didn’t exist; he was gone,” Schwartz said. “So we found out that by setting that hard edge [with the wide nine], we let Albert Haynesworth play.
“And I’ve been very fortunate to be around guys like Ndamukong Suh, Corey Williams, Nick Fairley, Sammy Hill in Detroit. Last year with Kyle Williams and Marcel Dareus. We needed to find a way to keep those guys alive, and keep them in the play. Even if they were out of their gap, you couldn’t trick block them because that ball was cutting back really fast [due to the hard edge the wide nine creates].”