By Chris Murray
for the Chris Murray Report
In many respects, Super Bowl XLVII will be a matchup of two distinct offensive philosophies. It’s the San Francisco 49ers new fangled Pistol read-option offense, which is taking the NFL by storm, versus the Baltimore Ravens conventional drop-back passer style of offense.
If the 49ers win this game, there will be a radical rethinking of how teams run their offense in the NFL run their offenses in the way Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense did back in the 1980s.
There are already teams around the league-the Washington Redskins, Seattle Seahawks and the Carolina Panthers- that use a version of this read-option offense. New Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly is looking to install his version of that offense as well.
In the Pistol read option formation, the quarterback is lined up about four yards behind the center while the running back lines up directly behind the quarterback so that the defense doesn’t see the running back while the quarterback can either run, handoff to the running back or even throw a play-action pass.
The 49ers, led by athletic quarterback Colin Kaepernick, have averaged 476 yards in their two playoff games using their Pistol read-option offense. Perhaps the biggest splash that Kaepernick and the read-option have made thus far was the 49ers divisional playoff win over the Green Bay Packers.
In that game, Kaepernick literally ran the Packers out of the playoffs with a record-setting performance. He rushed for NFL- record 181 yards (most ever by a quarterback regular season or playoffs) and scored two touchdowns. He passed for 263 yards and a pair of touchdown passes. The 49ers compiled 579 yards of offense.
Against the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship, so much attention was on Kaepernick keeping the ball and running it that the Falcons forgot about Frank Gore, who gained 90 yards rushing on 21 carries, and tight end Vernon Davis caught five passes for 106 yards. Kaepernick was an efficient 16-of-21 passing for 233 yards and one touchdown pass.
So what is it about the read-option that keeps defensive coordinators and the players the coach up late at night?
“They can do so much and do so many things,” said Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs. “They can pass out of it. They hand the ball off. There are so many things they can do with it. They can even bring in the trick plays. You have to stay fundamentally sound to defend so many things and play.”
That’s because the read option makes teams have to defend the entire field. In effect, it’s 11-on-11 football where the quarterback serves as an extra blocker by reading where the defender is going to go. In the 49ers read option, Kaepernick can read the ends and linebackers. If those ends and line backers converge on him, the ball is going to the running back or it might go downfield on a pass play.
“It can force a defense to play certain ways that they might not play,” said 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman. “It is another way to put pressure on the defense. That is what we want to do. We want to try to put pressure on 11 people on the field. Make it a bad day for them.”
Added Kaepernick: “You’re actually blocking the defender by reading him.”
Even worse for the defense if the offense doesn’t the run ball, the other option for the quarterback is to pass the ball.
“It freezes them a little bit. It gives you a little bit more time,” Kaepernick said of his running ability. “If it’s just a split second, that’s an advantage for the offense.”
In a Dec. 4, the Ravens had trouble stopping the Washington Redskins and Robert Griffith III and their version of the read option. The Redskins rolled up 469 yards of total offense. RGIII passed for 242 yards and one touchdown and also ran for 34 yards.
Meanwhile, rookie running back Alfred Morris gained 129 yards rushing and the Redskins came from behind to beat Baltimore in overtime. There was something the Ravens learned from that experience that could serve them well against the 49ers on Sunday.
“It’s really hard to play that type of package as individuals,” Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said. “You have to play it as a group. I said that if you were to try to slow it down, that is the only way to slow it down, is to play it as a group. Make sure before the ball is snapped, everybody is on the same page.”