Jets offensive coordinator John Morton is a bit of an open book. He doesn't have a lot of experience running an offense. He has, however, worked under a number of big name offensive minds. This is the first post in a series that will look at some of the philosophies of the coaches who have been influences for Morton. Today we look at Jim Harbaugh.
Harbaugh has emerged as one of the most colorful and successful coaches in major college football and the NFL over the last decade. Many think of Harbaugh's offensive philosophy as a throwback smashmouth style. There is quite a bit of truth to that, but there also are a lot of new twists and creativity.
In modern football there has been a continual push for offenses to get smaller and more spread out to create more opportunities in the passing game. Harbaugh's offense has gone in the opposite direction. In Harbaugh's final season with the 49ers of 2014, he did make some changes adopting more modern spread formations, but his tenure is generally remembered for old school traditional alignments.
The Football Outsiders 2015 Almanac noted that Harbaugh's second to last season in 2013 saw the 49ers have three or more receivers on only 22% of their snaps. That was fewest in the league. Meanwhile, they used two or more tight ends on 52% of their snaps, third most in the league. 78% of their runs came from two back formations.
That season fullback Bruce Miller participated in 52% of the team's offensive snaps, only one of two fullbacks in the entire league to crack the 50% mark. Meanwhile, tight end Vernon Davis participated in over 80% of snaps, and their second tight end, Vance McDonald played in just under half.
This might be traditional in one sense, but in another it creates an advantage. Offenses find success by taking defenses out of their comfort zones and forcing them to do unfamiliar things. With the way multi-receiver offenses have spread, teams now spend most of their time operating with five or more defensive backs on the field.
% Nickel D in NFL— Andy Furman (@UltimateNYG) April 4, 2016
By going with traditional alignments using fullbacks and tight ends, Harbaugh's offenses force defenses to go with four defensive back personnel packages they don't play as frequently. Meanwhile, the Harbaugh offense is in its comfort zone since it is running its regular system.
There also are advantages in roster building by zigging when everybody else is zagging.
In a power run offense, an effective lead blocking fullback can have a lot of value. Today's pass happy offenses mean the fullback is obsolete for some teams and playing limited snaps on other, reducing the premium teams are willing to pay at the position.
The highest paid fullback in the NFL only makes an average annual salary of $2.1 million. This system is a pretty cost-effective way to add a create player at a cheap rate.
It is fair to say the 49ers committed to the run under Harbaugh. In all four of his seasons in San Francisco, his team finished in the top six in run to pass ratio. While it is true the success of his teams likely contributed to this (Teams that are ahead run it more often to keep the clock moving.), it is worth noting his last team finished 8-8 and still ran it at a relatively high rate.
There are a few things that stuck out about Harbaugh's commitment to the run. The first is that the 49ers utilized an expansive playbook. They also used many classic run plays but made subtle adjustments to further expand the playbook.
One play Harbaugh runs is Power. Some writer had a piece about this play when discussing Harbaugh's 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman a few months back. I'm just going to steal what that writer had to say.
There are five basic rules for blocking on power.
First, if a guy is in front of you, you try to drive him forward.
Second, if a guy is lined up off your shoulder on the backside of the run play, you block down on him.
The backside of a run play is the side away from where the run play is going. If a run is going right, the backside is left. If the play is going left, the backside is right.
Third, if you don't have anybody either across from you or on your shoulder, you can help out for a bit on the closest lineman on your backside then head to the second level (linebacker closest to you on the backside.)
There are two exceptions, and they make up our fourth and fifth rules.
Fourth, the fullback has to block the guy on the line farthest on the play side.
Fifth, the backside guard pulls and blocks the second level linebacker furthest on the play side.
Here's what it might look like on a basic graphic. I apologize for not using one of our normal hi-tech GGN graphics here.
It is an old school play.
But Harbaugh builds in much more to these old school plays than your basic 1950's era offense.
New formations are incorporated and wrinkles to take advantage of his players' skills. After the 49ers moved to Colin Kaepernick at quarterback in 2012, his ability to run added a dimension to the offense.
Here's Power run out of the shotgun. The fullback on this play isn't in the backfield. He's already at the end of the line right across from the defender at the end he's going to block.
You have your basic alignment set otherwise with the pulling guard taking the playside linebacker and everybody else blocking to the backside.
There's a catch here, though. The right tackle doesn't block his man at the snap. Instead he heads downfield, leaving one defender unblocked.
What the heck is going on here?
The 49ers understand that Kaepernick's athleticism give them an advantage so they built a little extra something into this play.
They have decided to leave that defender at the end of the line unblocked and let Kaepernick read him. If he crashes too far inside, Kapernick's job is to pull the ball back and beat him around the corner. Suddenly you've got Kapernick in the open field with a head of steam. Oh, and you have that right tackle you set loose ahead of him to steamroll somebody and spring a huge run with a block.
Ultimately that defender doesn't chase too far inside so Kapernick hands to Frank Gore. The 49ers block it fairly well, but Vince Wilfork eats up a double team, preventing one of the blockers from meeting his assigned linebacker, who slows him up but misses a tackle. The defender at the end of the line gets himself back into the play and cleans up, but the way Kaepernick forced him to stay out wide prevented him from cleaning up said tackle until 7 yards were gained.
There is creativity here in the use of the modern formation to run an old play but also in the way a player's unique skills are utilized to make a play more effective. There was a second option built in for this play that could have resulted in an even bigger play had New England made an error.
Iso is another play utilized by Harbaugh offenses. It is a smashmouth run play. At the risk of oversimplifying, it is rather basic. The offensive linemen block the players in front of them. If nobody is in front of a lineman, he can help put a combo block with the teammate to his side and then move to a linebacker. There is one exception. One linebacker isn't blocked by an offensive lineman. This is the guy who is closest to where the ball carrier is going. He is isolated, and the fullback is supposed to block him.
Again, you see bells and whistles off old concepts. You can run a similar old school concept out of a modern shotgun formation.
There are a dizzying array of run plays within the offense with all types of blocks.
An edge guy like Clay Matthews might get used to being blocked by the guy in front of him. His goal might be to get up the field to shut down the run and set the edge.
To combat this, the offense might pull the playside guard and have him block Matthews from the side, sealing him. By aggressively trying to get up the field, Matthews helps to take himself out of the play.
There are a lot of different things people call this type of block. G-block is one of them. It is a reminder that the Harbaugh run game is unpredictable. Blockers can come from all different angles.
There are plenty of man to man blocking plays, where each offensive lineman is assigned a specific defender to block, but Harbaugh likes zone blocking plays too, where each blocker is assigned an area of the field or zone to block.
A writer touched upon this a few months back when discussing the Seahawks' heavy use of zone blocking. Many teams run zone plays. I'm just going to steal what that writer had to say.
On a typical zone play, the offensive linemen move laterally at the snap in the direction the run is going. To block a play well, you have to move defensive linemen. Against big and talented 300 pounders like Muhammad Wilkerson and Leonard Williams, driving them out of the way with a block is easier said than done. If the blockers move laterally, however, the linemen will have to follow or risk being run out of the play. The play itself naturally moves them and creates an opportunity to set up those holes in gaps.
The fact these linemen are moving laterally makes hitting the right angles on blocks more important than power in many cases. Sometimes it means beating a guy to the spot and just getting in his way. This is why around Draft time, you might hear an analyst describe an athletic but undersized lineman as a perfect fit for a zone scheme.
Generally speaking on the offensive line, if nobody is lined up across from you, you are responsible as a blocker for the guy closest to you on the line in the direction the runner is going. If a guy is lined up on your outside shoulder (direction the play is going), he's yours. If somebody is lined up directly in front of you or on your inside shoulder (direction away from the run), you might start out with the guy next to you as part of a double team. Then you get to the second level and find the guy closest to you on the side the play is going.
There are many different varieties of zone blocking plays.
Part of the difference simply deals with how the back is angled as he receives the handoff.
If he is angled to the tight end, it is an outside zone play.
If he is angled between the tackle and the guard, it is an inside zone play.
You can also vary the assignments of tight ends and fullbacks to create new plays off this.
On this particular play, you have outside zone with the tight end blocking down. This changes assignments accordingly.
As the play develops, linemen have to be able to adapt. Sometimes your assignment shifts depending on the flow of the play because there is an easier blocker to pick up. The main idea of a zone play isn't necessarily to drive the defender back. It is to create lanes for the back to find. So even if you appear to be losing leverage, you can throw a successful block just by throwing your body at the proper angle to create a lane. Instead of the play being called to go to a specific hole as most man blocking plays are, the back's job is to read the blocks and pick the proper hole.
And it requires the back to be patient and read his blocks. Sometimes the correct hole takes time to develop. For example, the least obvious hole in the picture above is probably the orange one, but it eventually opens for a big gain.
I know this is a lot to digest so I'll show you the play, and hopefully it all clicks. You'll see that the original blocking assignments switch in a few places due to how they read the play developing. The blocks thrown create lanes. And the correct hole emerges late only because the back has patience.
With Kaeperick, the 49ers under Harbaugh also built in read option plays. The most basic of these reads the guy at the end of the line, who was generally left unblocked by design. A read was built in with two different options as we discussed in the play above.
At the risk of oversimplifying, sometimes Kaepernick was supposed to run inside or hand to the back for an outside run. Sometimes the option was to hand off to the back for the inside run or keep it and break outside.
If the defenders played too far outside, either Kaepernick kept it and ran inside or handed off the to the back for an inside run. If he got caught inside, Kaepernick either kept it and took off outside or handed it to the back for an outside run.
Here's one such play. The defender at the end of the line was unblocked.
Generally speaking, one option is to either hand the ball off for an inside run if he stays too far outside.
The other one would be for Kaepernick to keep it and break outside if the defender gets sucked in too far inside going for the back.
Of course, running this play too frequently means defenses will catch up so of course wrinkles are necessary.
While this particular play is made to look like a designed read option, it isn't. The edge defender sits outside to force the inside handoff, trusting his teammates to make the play.
But the 49ers are pulling the rullback to block the edge defender and spring Kaepernick. This play ends up looking like more of a designed run for Kaepernick than it does an option play. It just disguised.
The only defender with a chance to stop him (red circle) is sucked inside by the fake, allowing Kaepernick to get to the edge with a head of steam and open field in front of him.
I almost hesitate to use so many examples of the 49ers building in quarterback runs because I fear you might miss the point. It isn't essential to have a mobile quarterback to run the ball effectively in this system.
There are two more important things to focus on.
A. The willingness to adjust an offense to take advantage of unique skillsets.
B. The ability to throw in wrinkles to plays to stay one step ahead of the defense.
There is a play Harbaugh ran at Michigan this year that has gone viral.
Wisconsin's players know how to defend this play against this formation. They have done it plenty of times before.
But by placing his players in such a radical alignment initially and then shifting, it created an advantage. The Wisconsin players might know how to defend this play out of this formation, but the disguise only gave them one to two seconds to identify the formation and get lined up in the correct spot opposed to the regular way where Michigan would have made no secret of the formation, and it would have been easy to get lined up correctly.
These little things create big advantages on gameday.
When we talk about Morton, the 49ers passing game under Harbaugh should draw particular focus with the Jets because as Albert Breer noted, John Morton had quite a bit of authority over it.
He was Pete Carroll’s coordinator at USC before becoming receivers coach for Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco. There, with the Niners, Morton became a de facto pass-game coordinator over his four years and, by the end, became involved in calling pass plays.
Just as the great Bill Walsh did, Harbaugh jumped in his career from head coach of Stanford to the San Francisco 49ers. At the start of his professional head coaching career, he did his best to nod to his franchise's tradition.
At a press conference Friday night, the 49ers formally introduced Jim Harbaugh as their new head coach alongside new general manager Trent Baalke. After the formalities were over, the San Francisco media asked Harbaugh what sort of offense he’s bringing to the Bay Area.
"We will install the West Coast offense in San Francisco, birthplace of the West Coast offense," he answered.
To the delight of 49ers fans, Jim Harbaugh wants to bring the identity of the West Coast offense back to San Francisco. Bill Walsh endorsed Harbaugh for the Stanford job back in 2007, and Harbaugh has made it his mission to bring Walsh’s principles back to the franchise.
Matt Maiocco of Comcast Bay Area reports the 49ers recently received a "shipment of tapes and DVDs from NFL Films" that contains Walsh installing the offense over the years.
As we discussed in the Sean Payton portion of this series, Walsh devised an offense based on short, timing passes to stretch a defense horizontally.
Harbaugh's offense is a little different philosophically. He based his offense on the power run game.
When it comes to the passing playbook, however, there is a lot of overlap in the playbook despite the philosophical differences. The end goal remains the same, to produce on offense and score points.
While many offenses described as West Coast rely heavily on modern spread formations and personnel groupings with lots of receivers, Harbaugh's tendencies of playing fullbacks and tight ends meant his passing attack looked more like Walsh's pure version than most teams. There still were points where the Niners would spread the field, but this was relatively less than you see elsewhere.
There still are a few wrinkles thrown in. At the risk of oversimplifying, Walsh's offense threw first to stretch the defense horizontally. With the defense stretched, it opened up gaps inside to run. Harbaugh's offense runs first to get the defense to commit players to the middle of the field, opening up the outside for passes.
Harbaugh's 49ers teams were particularly adept at utilizing play action, and some of the passing concepts could be more modern.
Here you have a wide receiver and a tight end running across the field in opposite direction. The Walsh playbook did have this, but this is more of a modern trend. You're creating traffic against man to man coverage and creating the potential for a pick freeing a receiver.
Without diving too deep into the weeds, that tight end is setting up a three man triangle on this side of the field with the fullback heading into the flat, and the wide receiver heading deeper down the field. Walsh's West Coast Offense made extensive use of creating these reads putting three players on one side of the field with a well-spaced triangle to stretch the defense out. Usually it created an option no matter whether the defense was man or zone.
In this case, however, it truly is the run setting up the pass by drawing the defenders inside to open up the horizontal passing game.
You end up with a linebacker looking to get around the fullback. On a pass play, he probably would be responsible for taking the fullback, but he's selling out on the run on this play action so he's looking to get around the block of the fullback.
So he attacks the back and brings him to the ground (orange) as the fullback slips out uncovered (yellow). You can see how the threat of the run has led defenders to clog the middle of the field (red), which opens up the horizontal passing game.
Harbaugh's offense also utilizes the conventional passing attack using a lot of West Coast concepts.
You have two backs, a tight end, and a wide receiver here. The tight end and the receiver to the top of the picture are running slants, where they take three to five steps forward and cut in. So is the receiver on the bottom of the picture. The fullback is running into the flat. The tailback is there to help with protection before he releases into a pattern.
It is worth noting that there are receivers left, center, and right on the field. The defense has to cover the entire field horizontally.
This is a quick three step drop, and the cornerback here is going to dictate where the ball goes.
If he is in zone coverage, odds are he will drop short to take away the fullback in the flat, allowing the receiver on the slot to be open in a hole in the zone behind the linebackers but in front of the safeties.
If the corner is in man coverage, the receiver will run him out of the area, and it is up to the fullback to beat the linebacker to the flat for a completion. Of course, the receiver still might be open. He needs to get the ball because he's the primary read.
Ultimately he defense plays man to man but the corner allows too much cushion, creating a big window to hit the slant to the receiver for a nice gain.
That is the West Coast offense working. The defense blitzed on this play, but the three step drop beat it because a quick and correct read was made. Even though the coverage was man to man, there was an opening.
I could go on, but this post would go on forever, and we have another topic to discuss. Perhaps we can come back to West Coast passing concepts some other time.
Simplifying the Game
The expression, "Victory has a thousand fathers," comes to mind quite frequently when a quarterback improves in the NFL. Fans of a team with a struggling offense want to hire the head coach, coordinator, quarterbacks coach, assistant quarterbacks coach, waterboy who gave the quarterback Gatorade, etc. If that guy had something to do with the quarterback's success, he must be pretty good.
Frequently credit is overstated, but Harbaugh deserves legitimate credit for improving Alex Smith during his time in San Francisco.
If nothing else, Smith has become a quality game manager. His career interception rate prior to Harbaugh coaching him was 3.5%. For reference, Ryan Fitzpatrick's career rate is 3.4%. Since working with Harbaugh, it has fallen to a miniscule 1.5%.
You cannot limit it completely to one reason, but in Harbaugh's first year the great Chris Brown of the now defunct Grantland offered one astute observation.
Harbaugh has made the passing game easier for Smith, particularly when it comes to beating the blitz. Of course, coaches often say they are "simplifying the playbook," but Harbaugh has been able to do it coherently and in a way that actually aids his quarterback’s ability to succeed rather than simply removes options.
One reason for this is that many NFL plays simply duplicate each other; you only need so many ways to throw the same pass to the flat or run off tackle. You might as well perfect the plays you have rather than keep adding new ones every week. But Harbaugh has also changed the entire theory behind how Smith and his offense approach the blitz, and this is where Smith’s greatest improvement has come. That’s because Harbaugh eliminated "sight adjustments" from the 49ers playbook.
A "sight adjustment" by a receiver refers to the concept that, if a defense blitzes, the quarterback and receiver must both — on the fly and after the snap — recognize it and adjust routes accordingly. For example, if the receiver’s original assignment was to run, say, 12 yards upfield before breaking outside, when he saw a blitz he might instead run five yards upfield and then break inside on a quick slant, presumably away from a man-to-man defender or to a spot left open by the blitzers. The theory behind this is sound: You simply must have answers against the blitz, and you need receivers to break off their routes to give the quarterback someplace to quickly pass the ball.
The quarterback still needs an anti-blitz option or two, and these are known as "hot" routes. The difference between Harbaugh’s "hot routes" and the sight adjustment is that he builds them into the receivers’ regular routes. In short, every play has at least one hot route — a quick out, shallow cross, or slant — so if Alex Smith sees a blitz, no complex ballet of synchronized adjustments is necessary; he just looks for a different receiver.
So for example, on this play the defense blitzed Smith with a pair of linebackers leaving the circled part of the field open.
Thiis might normally call for the tight end, the closest receiver in the area to make a sight adjustment and carry his route into the area where blitzers could vacate.
Instead, the ball goes to the predetermined receiver out the outside for a completion.
It is the classic question of simplicity vs. complication. If it's simpler for the offense, it simpler for the defense to figure out. On the other hand, if it's more complicated for the offense, it is also more complicated for the defense.
In an ideal world, having sight adjustments might be better. These are built to take routes into the most vulnerable part of the defense, but everything needs to be able to make these complex reads and be on the same page. It isn't easy. If everybody isn't capable, the offense is better off keeping it simple, even if it ultimately runs a lower upside play. Everybody being on the same page is important.
Ultimately the complexity you put on a quarterback goes beyond simply dealing with the blitz. These postsnap reads sometimes are built into the playbook in the form of option routes.
At one extreme is a system known as the run 'n shoot, which relies a ton of what are known as option routes.
Here are some examples of routes from a run 'n shoot playbook.
The receiver has to read the coverage. Every type of coverage is susceptible to one route. It is up to the receiver to read the coverage correctly and take his route into the open part of the field.
What makes this tricky is the quarterback has to do the same. He has to read the coverage the same way and know which option the receiver is going to take.
The upside is there is an option in every play that can beat the coverage. The downside is everybody has to be on the same page. Even if the quarterback makes the correct read and throws the ball to the correct spot, if the receiver makes the wrong read, you have the pass traveling to a spot where there are only defenders.
This was a play where our old friend Jeremy Kerley appeared to have an option route with our old friend Mark Sanchez.
Our even better old friend, Wayne Hunter, gets beaten. Sanchez is under pressure and has to decide quickly. Based on the way he throws it, it seems like he's expecting Kerley to continue his route up the field, but Kerley sat down. There is nobody near the throw to prevent catastrophe.
Granted, this was the Schottenheimer/Sanchez offense so it is possible this was just a huge case of brainlock, but the point stands. This is the danger of allowing options. If the throw is short to Kerley, it might not be a completion, but he's at least there to contest it and prevent an interception.
If it was an option route, I think Kerley is more to blame for this, but that's the danger. The quarterback and the receiver both must make the proper read. One of the two isn't enough.
Partially because of the complexity, no team runs the pure run 'n shoot at this stage, but teams have these routes built in.
You might hear from time to time about how wide receivers have a tough time picking up the New England Patriots offense. The large number of option routes is one reason, albeit not the entire explanation.
While Brown talks about sight adjustments after the snap, the latitude a quarterback has to adjust things based on a presnap read can also be valuable.
You can see how much of a cushion Brandon Marshall is being given.
Note the hand signal Ryan Fitzpatrick makes with his left hand before the snap. He's signaling to Marshall to adjust his route to take advantage of the cushion and catch a short pass. These types of reads help, but it also helps to have experience.
With Morton potentially looking to start a young, inexperienced quarterback, it will be interesting to see how much complexity he's willing to build into his offense.
While it can be very effective to build in extra options for the sake of answering defensive looks, there is also a lot of danger when the wrong read is made. Perhaps the way the 49ers simplified things for Smith is an indication a very basic approach is at hand for the Jets. This is just speculation, but it might not be the worst thing in the world.
As with Sean Payton, just working for Jim Harbaugh does not turn a coach into Harbaugh. It will be worth watching to see whether Morton is willing to adopt some of the traits of Harbaugh, though.