America’s Neanderthal Moment

Oh, I don’t know.  Let’s begin with first down.

Two Sundays ago, the San Francisco 49ers ran 24 plays on first down.  San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo threw on only two of them.  Running 22 times on first down, the 9ers bludgeoned Green Bay for 134 yards – 6.1 yards a carry.  On a down where Green Bay knew they were going to run.

That, by the way, was just the first down yardage.  Across all of the NFL the average team ran for 112.9 yards per game.  The Packers ranked twenty-third in the league, surrendering 120.1 ground yards – per game.  In this game, San Francisco surpassed both of those totals on first down alone – on their way to a remarkable 285 rushing yards as San Francisco punched their ticket to Super Bowl LIV with a convincing 37-20 conquest of Green Bay (gamebook) (summary).

All of the running numbers for San Francisco were through the proverbial roof.  They ran 18 times when the Packers had 8 defenders “in the box.” They gained 120 yards on those carries (6.7 per) scoring a touchdown – they ran for four touchdowns that day.

Of the impressive statistics, this is the one that most stands out to me:

With 4:56 still left in the third quarter, San Fran faced a second-and-ten on the Green Bay 22-yard line.  Running back Raheem Mostert burst around left end nearly untouched for the touchdown that put the 49ers ahead 34-7, put their touchdown total to four for the game, and their yardage total to 304.

It was just their 36th offensive snap of the game.  Through the first three quarters, they had averaged 8.4 yards per play and a touchdown every 9 plays.  Of the 36 plays, this was the 29th run, bringing their rush yardage up to 264 – again through three quarters – an average of 9.1 yards per rush.

Back in the olden days of college football, you would see a powerhouse team – like, say, Oklahoma – line up against a lesser opponent (and the talent gap in college can sometimes be huge).  Since running the ball was king in college back in those days, it wouldn’t be at all uncommon to see the Oklahoma’s of the world rack up rushing totals of 200 – 300 yards on their overmatched opponents.

Two Sunday’s ago, San Francisco put an Oklahoma on Green Bay.

The Neanderthal Moment?

Toward the end of last season, I began documenting the rise of what I call Neanderthal football.  It was a handful of teams – led by Baltimore – that started returning to football’s roots.  These were teams that embraced the physicality of the running game.  I like the evocative term “Neanderthal” because it conveys the sense of the primordial – hearkening back to the days when the forward pass was considered sissified – almost an affront to the essential manhood necessary to compete in this arena.

The term also evokes a mindset.  If the new and exceedingly intricate passing games are like a room full of complex, high-tech electronic equipment, the Neanderthal is the caveman in the room with the club.  Paraphrasing Raven’s coach John Harbaugh after his team had battered New England, they decided to punch them in the mouth – seeing as no one had ever tried that.

Last year, two of the Neanderthal teams (Seattle and Baltimore) qualified for the playoffs.  This year’s tournament made room for two more (Tennessee and San Francisco – in addition to the Ravens and the Seahawks).  Two of the four made it to the Conference championship game, and now one – the 49ers – who averaged 144.1 yards per game on the ground, running 498 times during the regular season – will be representing not just the NFC, but a kind of new/old concept of football in the Super Bowl.  Both the attempts and the yardage totals were the second highest in football this season (behind only Baltimore).  Tomorrow all of America – casual fans included – will have their Neanderthal moment.

I, for one, applaud the rise of the Neanderthal.  This is not because I want to see a complete return to the olden days.  Rather, I welcome the stylistic diversity that Neanderthalism introduces into the sport.  Look at the fascinating contrast Super Bowl LIV will present between the Neanderthal 49ers and the high-flying pass-first offense of the Kansas City Chiefs engineered by one of the most electric young passers in the game today – Patrick Mahomes.

Clarification of Terms

In grouping these teams (Seattle, Baltimore, Tennessee and San Francisco) in the Neanderthal family, I am not claiming that their offenses are at all the same.  Only that they share a common emphasis on running the football.  All of the members of this phylum go about this process with their own unique style.  Seattle’s emphasis on the run has – as much as anything else – the goal of setting up the devastating play-action passing game of Russell Wilson.  Tennessee is, perhaps, the most old school of the teams.  Their offense revolves around pounding the opposing defense with enormous tailback Derrick Henry.  Baltimore’s running attack is speed-based.  Founded on the other-worldy running skills of its quarterback, Lamar Jackson, this is a running attack that defenses fear from the moment they see Baltimore pop up on the schedule.

Of all the Neanderthals, San Francisco is the most high tech and the cleverest.  More than the other Neanderthals, San Francisco optimizes all of its assets and schemes its way to big plays.  In particular, against Green Bay, they used misdirection in the running game to influence the defense in the same way that play-action opens up the passing game.  This was never more evident than in the two runs by wide receiver Deebo Samuel.

There is 7:18 left in the third quarter, the 49ers on their own 33 with a first-and-ten.  They are ahead 27-7 at this point.  Garoppolo extended the ball toward Mostert, and the entire defense reacted to presumed up-the-middle run.  But Jimmy play-faked the run just as he would on a play-action pass and tossed the ball instead to Samuel who was circling behind the play.  Deebo carried the ball around the left end that had been left open when Za’Darius Smith bit on the run fake.  That play gained 11 yards.

Two plays later and San Fran is on their own 46 with a second-and-eight.  It’s the exact same play, except this time Samuel is running left-to-right.  The edge was secured when wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders sealed Preston Smith inside, and fullback Kyle Juszczyk swept around the end, locked up with cornerback Tramon Williams and rode him off the field of play.  That run was good for 32 more yards.

Sanders, by the way, made no catches during the game (Garoppolo only threw the ball eight times) but made a couple of important blocks, including a bone-rattling hit on safety Darnell Savage during the first quarter.

This drive was pretty important as Green Bay had just scored.  The 49ers, now at the Packer 22, were in position to answer.  Two plays later Mostert was sweeping to the left.  When he was almost to the corner, he made the subtlest of moves – nothing more than one step really – indicating he was cutting the run back to the inside.  It was enough to pull safety Will Redman into Juszczyk’s path.  Immediately, Raheem bent the run back around the now-vacated corner and sprinted nearly untouched for the answering score.

Mostert, by the way, has sprinter speed and has blossomed this season, emerging from nowhere to become San Francisco’s leading rusher.  Through the season’s first eleven games, Raheem was lightly used.  In spite of the fact that he averaged 5.4 yards per carry, he averaged only 6.6 carries and 35.7 yards per game.  Beginning with the Baltimore game in Week 13, Mostert averaged 12.8 carries and 75.8 yards per game – averaging 5.9 yards per carry.  In this game he was the break-away back in the middle of all of the 49er ground success.  Raheem finished the contest with 29 carries for 220 yards and all 4 touchdowns.  He averaged 21.3 yards on his touchdown runs.

While the 49ers ran at will in every direction, given the difficulties that Tennessee had in getting around the corner on the Chiefs, it is worth noting that the edges were available to San Francisco all evening.  They ran 10 times around left end for 67 yards, 4 first downs, and 2 touchdowns.  They went around right end 7 times for 67 more yards.  Many times the 49ers took advantage of Za’Darius Smith.  One of the premier pass rushers in the league, Za’Darius found himself frequently beset by two of the more unique pieces in the 49ers’ toolkit – George Kittle, arguably the best run-blocking tight end in football, and Juszczyk, a rarely seen fullback.  In the era of the three-wide-receiver offense, the fullback has become almost a relic of football’s ancient past.  But the fullback in San Francisco, Kyle Juszczyk, was voted to the Pro Bowl in spite of the fact that he carried the ball only three times all year (for 7 yards) and caught just 20 passes.  He scored one touchdown this season.

But, he was on the field for 73% of the 49er offensive plays two Sunday’s ago, and was almost always at the point of attack for most of the 285 rushing yards that San Francisco racked up that evening.

The primary takeaway in all of this is that the Green Bay defense was unable to handle San Francisco in any way, shape or form.  Regardless of anything else, the Packers were probably going to lose this game.  They were just too dominated on the defensive side of the ball.

Not All Roses for San Fran

I say this because, from a 27-0 halftime deficit, the Packer offense made a game of things in the second half.  From the third quarter on, Green Bay roiled up 265 yards and 15 first downs.  Up until he threw a desperation pass for an interception with two minutes left in the game, Packer quarterback Aaron Rodgers had completed 21 of his prior 24 passes (87.5%) for 245 yards and 2 touchdowns – a 136.98 passer rating.  Green Bay scored three second half touchdowns.

Now, if you are a Pollyanna 49er fan, you have probably shrugged that off.  We were ahead by almost four touchdowns, the boys were just going through the motions, waiting for the clock to tick down.  It’s a comforting thought, but one not borne out by the game I saw.  Kyle Shanahan is far too good a coach to take anything for granted, and the 49er defense played their starters right up to the final play.

Moreover, a lot of the plays Green Bay was having success with in the second half were successful concepts in the first half as well.  But in a nightmarish first thirty minutes, the Packers couldn’t get out of their own way.

As I look over this game, I keep going back to the Packer’s fourth series, which began with 9:12 left in the second quarter.  In spite of the fact that they already trailed 17-0, Green Bay was bringing its running game to bear against San Francisco.

Rodgers caught San Fran in a blitz on first down and fired a 23-yard completion to Jake Kumerow.  Thereafter Aaron Jones ran the ball on four consecutive plays – stretch plays (mostly) where his offensive line provided him with cutback lanes that were comparable in width to those Mostert enjoyed for the other side.  On the first of those plays, tackle Brian Bulaga rode defensive end Solomon Thomas all the way across the formation from right-to-left leaving a gaping space to the right side.  That run gained 11 yards.  Then the Pack went to the left side as left tackle David Bakhtiari sealed Anthony Zettel to the inside while tight end Robert Tonyan pushed linebacker Kwon Alexander outside.  That run netted 7 more yards.

The next two runs came back to the right side.  Bulaga and another tight end, Marcedes Lewis drove end Nick Bosa inside while wide receiver Allen Lazard provided the cutback lane by taking Williams out of the play.  That run added 4 more yards.

Instead of another stretch play, Green Bay went off right guard old school fashion on the next play with a pair of double-team blocks.  Center Corey Linsley and guard Billy Turner collapsed tackle Sheldon Day one way while Bakhtiari and guard Elgton Jenkins doubled tackle DeForest Buckner the other way.  That run was good for five more yards.

There is still 5:45 left in the second and the Packers are 25 yards from making this a game again.

And then Rodgers fumbled the snap.

This began a series of three critical mistakes in a row for the Packer offense and special teams.  After San Francisco recovered the fumble, they added a field goal at the two-minute warning.  Then Tyler Ervin’s muff of the ensuing kickoff (which he recovered) left Green Bay starting from their own 8 with 1:51 left before halftime.  Three plays later, Rodgers badly missed Geronimo Allison with a pass that instead went directly into the arms of cornerback Emmanuel Moseley.  The 49ers turned that into a touchdown as well, and suddenly it was a 27-0 game.

When your defense is floundering, your offense and special teams just cannot afford to make unforced errors.  And Green Bay’s did just that at a critical juncture of the Championship Game.  The mistakes are, of course, a part of the game.  But they don’t negate the success that Green Bay was having before their errors changed the tenor of the contest.

Even more relevant was Green Bay’s second half comeback.  Down by four scores, they ran the ball very little (5 times after the intermission) and focused on the advantages they found in the passing game.  As Kansas City is a pass first team, the second half struggles that San Fran had against Green Bay are liable to be issues for them this coming Sunday as well.

San Francisco’s Defense

Seven games into the 2019 season, San Francisco sat at 7-0 and featured a defense that had allowed 7 touchdowns over the 7 games.  They were allowing just 95.7 rushing yards a game, and opposing quarterbacks were completing just 54.5% of their passes against them, tossing 10 interceptions against 5 touchdown passes.  The 49er pass rush piled up 27 sacks (almost 4 a game) and held these passers to a 58.0 rating.

As teams began to understand the San Francisco defense, they realized that what made them special was the defensive line – especially Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner.  Beginning with their Week Nine, 28-25 win over Arizona, the league began constructing game plans that would minimize the impact of the defensive line, and force the linebackers and defensive back to beat them. 

Opponents began to run the ball with more commitment, and when they threw the ball they kept more blockers in the backfield to block.  Or, noting that the 49ers run a predominantly zone defense, they resorted to shorter, quicker passes and a more ball-control concept.

The upturn in offense through the rest of the season was notable.  Over the season’s final 9 weeks, 27 touchdowns were scored against San Fran’s defense.  The run defense allowed 125.8 yards a game and 4.5 yards per rush.  Meanwhile the sacks dwindled to 21 over those nine games (2.3 per) while the completion percentage against rose to 65.6%.  The 18 touchdown passes tossed against them were offset by only 2 interceptions.  Over the back end of the season, opposing passers finished with a rating of 98.8 against San Francisco.

Green Bay did all of those to some extent, but focused principally on quick zone-beating passes.  Frequently the ball was leaving Rodgers’ hand as soon as it reached him.

Green Bay made little attempt to move Aaron out of the pocket, as he stayed there for 38 of his 42 drop-backs.  And as to pressure, in spite of the fact that he suffered 3 sacks, Aaron only saw notable pressure on 10 of those drop-backs – just 24%.

Facing zone defenses 31 times, Rodgers was sacked twice, but completed 21 of 29 passes – most of them excruciatingly short.  Of his 39 passes, 24 were thrown less than ten yards from the line of scrimmage.  He completed 23 of those passes.   That includes 9-9 on screen passes for 48 yards and a touchdown – a 125.93 rating.  Playing under very similar circumstances, Kansas City’s Pat Mahomes went 14 for 18 against the Tennessee zone defenses.

Even more interesting, in the 11 plays when San Francisco switched to man coverage, Rodgers was 10 for 10 (with one sack) for 136 yards and a touchdown.

Predictions for Sunday

I strongly believe that San Fran will have profound difficulty matching up with Kansas City’s receivers – whether they play zone or man.  In the Divisional Round win against Minnesota, Emmanuel Moseley replaced the shaky K’Waun Williams at right cornerback.  But he was no match for Davante Adams, who enjoyed a 138 yard receiving day mostly as Moseley’s expense.  Moreover, Williams hasn’t disappeared from the scene.  He is now their third cornerback, playing the dangerous slot receivers.  K’Waun played 84% of San Francisco’s defensive snaps against Green Bay.

This secondary had enough difficulty with a Packer team that had only one reliable receiver (Adams).  How they will fare against KC’s stable of explosive receivers is a concern I would have if I were a 49er fan.

San Francisco’s under-regarded offense and Kansas City’s much improved defense are about a wash in this one.  Both will have their moments.  This game will come down to the irresistible force (the Chiefs’ offense) against the sometimes immovable object (the 49er defense).  And that battle will come down to the San Francisco defensive line.

If Kansas City can’t come up with an answer for Bosa and company, then Nicky and his friends will be kissing the trophy at the end of the game.  But if Andy Reid employs some of the same ideas that Green Bay used – or comes up with a few new wrinkles – and gives his playmakers a chance with the ball in their hands, then that will bode very well for the long-suffering fans in Kansas City, Missouri.

Prediction: Kansas City 37 – San Francisco 24.

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