When wide receiver Cole Beasley came in motion (left-to-right) behind the formation, it caused a ripple of hand gestures throughout the San Francisco defense – most of it centering around middle linebacker Fred Warner. Prominent among this flurry of hand signals was the one where the player points the index finger from each hand to the opposite sides of his helmet. This common signal (that seems to suggest the other players think about what’s about to happen) is universally used by both offenses and defenses to replace the first play called in the huddle with the backup play. By the time the snap occurred, the San Francisco defense seemed to think it was on the same page.
There was 9:56 left in a semi-critical game against the Buffalo Bills – a game the 49ers were currently trailing by a 27-17 score. The Bills were sitting on the San Francisco 28, facing a second-and-ten.
Since the ensuing defensive play appeared to be a mish-mash of both plays called – and after watching this through several times – I will give you my best guess as to the original defense called, and what it should have changed into.
As Buffalo originally lined up with Beasley on the left, San Francisco walked Dontae Johnson to line up across from him. As the game progressed, the 49ers made increasing efforts to try to fool the Buffalo offense – largely with no success. Here they were going to be in zone again, but wanted the Bills to think it would be a man coverage with Johnson giving the appearance that he had Beasley. In this setup, I believe that Johnson was to be responsible for the underneath zone on that side (the offensive left), and that the defensive end on that side (Kerry Hyder) would rush the passer, with the end on the other side (Arik Armstead) dropping into the underneath zone to the other side.
When Cole came across the formation, Johnson followed him – again, as he would in man coverage. This was when all the “chatter” occurred among the defense. The switch now would have Johnson taking the underneath zone on the offensive right side (the side that Beasley was now on), with Armstead now free to rush the passer and Hyder dropping off in coverage. Warner would be joining the rush, so there would still be four coming after quarterback Josh Allen.
What actually happened at the snap was that both ends dropped into coverage, leaving only three rushers. Bad enough, but Beasley’s presence on the right side of the formation caused a kind of fascination among the 49er defenders. When Cole ran his short little curl route, he had three sets of eyes riveted on him. Armstead was on his inside shoulder, and Johnson on the outside. Needless to say, Cole Beasley’s curl route was taken away.
Now, all of this is what I’m pretty sure was (and wasn’t) supposed to happen. What I’m very sure wasn’t supposed to happen was that Beasley’s curl should also capture the rapt attention of cornerback Richard Sherman, who stared intently at Beasley’s route while the receiver who lined up to his side (Gabriel Davis) soared unaccompanied up that sideline.
During his 4-touchdown performance, Allen had more than one easy touchdown pass. This was his longest of the night, and his easiest. With no defenders in the area, this was just pitch and catch.
From his gesture to the safety to his side (Tarvarius Moore) it’s clear that Sherman expected him to have the deep zone – so somehow Richard must have thought that the changing of the plays also involved a switch from the cover-four (each defensive back being responsible for one fourth of the field) that everyone else was playing, to a cover-three, where each of the other defensive backs would have deep coverage over each third of the field, keeping him (Sherman) in the underneath zone. There is no reason given why San Francisco should need three defenders in the same zone, defending against the same short curl pattern.
Needless to say, this was the play that broke the 49ers back and solidified the Buffalo victory. It was not – by a long shot – the only play that the 49er defense turned into a clown show.
Let me be clear about this. Nothing I’m about to write in any way diminishes the performance of the Buffalo quarterback. Josh Allen was terrific last Monday night against the vagabond 49ers (exiled to Arizona for a while, at least). Allen threw the ball with great anticipation and fabulous accuracy. Throughout he was confident and in complete command of the offense – to the point where he seemed two steps a head of the defense all night. This dominance is thoroughly reflected in his numbers. He finished the game a withering 32 of 40 (80%) for 375 yards and the 4 touchdowns (that would be a passer rating of 139.1 – one of four games this year in which his passer rating was higher than 125).
He was 8-for-8 on all throws over ten yards (for 189 yards), including 4-for-4 on all throws over twenty yards (for 114 yards). Josh, by any evaluation method, was all that Buffalo could have hoped for.
That all being said, I don’t recall the last time I saw a San Francisco team so error prone in their coverages.
With 6:54 left in the first half and the game tied at 7, Buffalo was at the 49er 42, facing first-and-ten. The Bills flanked three receivers out to its right, and San Fran answered with three defensive backs and man coverage. Problem – one of those defensive backs (Johnson, again) was blitzing on the play. No one accounted for the receiver (Beasley) that he was supposed to be covering. Adjusting to the gaffe, Warner stepped over and tried to provide coverage, but I very much doubt that the design of the defense was to leave a linebacker in single man coverage on a wide receiver.
That would have been an easy completion, but Josh had an even easier one before him. Three crossing patterns created a lot of congestion in the secondary, allowing tight end Dawson Knox ample separation from cornerback Jason Verrett. Allen tossed him the ball for an 8-yard gain.
But Josh didn’t even take full advantage of San Francisco’s worst mess-up.
With 14:21 left in the second quarter, and Buffalo trailing 7-0, tight end Lee Smith ran a fly pattern straight up that right sideline. No one covered him. At all. Sherman doesn’t blitz much, but he came on that play. And he was the only defender on that side of the hash-mark. Many of the few fans in the stand were closer to Lee than the nearest defender. Josh didn’t see him (obviously). He completed a more difficult pass into a tighter window (22 yards to Davis). He no doubt kicked himself when he saw the film.
These last two mistakes occurred when the 49ers were trying to mix in a blitz with their man coverage. Far more constant and damaging were their blunders in zone defense.
Coming out of the half, ESPN confronted America with an eyebrow-raising graphic. Throwing against the San Francisco zones, in the first half alone, Allen was 14 of 15 for 190 yards and one of his touchdowns. The 49er zones didn’t get any better in the second half. The week before, in their defensive domination of the Rams, they moved away from their zones after Los Angeles had early success against them, and became a predominantly man coverage team. Last Monday night, they sprinkled in occasional man coverage. But they never laid aside their zones, and continually paid the price for that.
The struggles that San Francisco has in zone coverage seems to be general – with all members of the secondary experiencing some issues with the concept. But zone defense is a particular challenge for slot corner Dontae Johnson, who seemed to be at the epicenter of almost all of the breakdowns.
With 26 seconds left before halftime, the 49ers put a bit of a pass rush on Allen for one of the few times all night. Almost everywhere up field, the 49er defense was sitting in their disciplined zones waiting for Josh – under more stress than usual on this evening – to try to force a throw in somewhere. But Johnson – who had the underneath zone to the defensive right sideline just never widened into his zone. There was no other receiver drawing his attention. He got sufficient depth on his drop. But for some reason, he never widened out. Perhaps, not seeing a receiver threatening the area, he thought he was more valuable taking away the middle?
Anyway, Diggs came on a long, deep crossing pattern all the way behind Dontae all the way over from the other side of the field to take up residence in Johnson’s vacated zone. A relieved Allen fired him the ball for 18 yards.
On the very next play, the rush flushed Allen from the pocket and had him running to his right. This time, Dontae (playing on the other side, now) widened his zone all the way to the sideline, but couldn’t get any depth. As Diggs’ sprint up the field pulled the top of the zone ever deeper, Johnson stayed shallow – providing Beasley oceans of room between the levels of the defense on his deep out. That pass accounted for 20 more yards and set up the field goal that stretched Buffalo’s lead to 10 points at the half.
Now there is 6:08 left in the game, Buffalo leading 34-17. The Bills were deep in their own territory – at their six-yard line, facing a third-and-six.
Trying to fool Allen to the very end, the 49ers lined six potential rushers along the line of scrimmage, and placed their defensive backs directly across from the receivers in a position that would suggest bump-and-run coverage. This would be zone again, but dressed up to look like a big blitz.
At the snap, all the linebackers and defensive backs backed off and hunted up their zones. Again, Johnson – responsible for the underneath zone to the offensive left – didn’t widen out. Beasley ran past him up the field, but only one yard past him – apparently enough for Dontae to think he was someone else’s problem. When he had barely passed Johnson, Cole floated wide open into the zone that Johnson never widened into – good for 11 yards and another first down.
Wide open was the theme of the night. According to Next Gen stats, Buffalo receivers averaged 3.64 yards of separation from their nearest defender at the time of the pass. And that only counts the receivers that Josh threw to. That doesn’t take into account the receivers like Smith (cited earlier) who were also wide, wide open but didn’t get the ball thrown their way.
The NFL average is 2.86 yards of separation, that one yard being the NFL difference between “open” and “wide open.”
Then again, this is the COVID-19 season, so can you really blame the San Francisco pass defenders for practicing their social distancing?