By Shawn Maher (@ShawnBenMaher)
Cold Hard Football Facts’ Heavy-Handed Herald of Hogs
As the countdown to the all-Harbaugh Super Bowl ticks down, the Hog Report looks forward to a smash-mouth championship game whose essence is in the trenches. This week’s edition is focused on the offensive side of the ball, where Jim Harbaugh and Jim Caldwell cultivate a run-heavy culture that focuses on winning the battle of the bulge.
Both teams, while breaking from more recent trends of a focus on the passing game, have the fingerprints of history all over their game plans.
San Francisco’s O-Hogs Show that Everything New is Old
The Hog Report talked last week about the similarities between the introduction of the pistol offense and read-option running game having similarities between George Halas’ 1940 Chicago Bears’ Wing T offense.
Now the new smash mouth movement has found another similarity with an offense that added brains to brawn, albeit in a different way.
In the history of playoff football, only two teams have rushed for over 6 YPA and 7 rushing touchdowns throughout the playoffs: the 1940 Bears and the 2012 49ers. Through two games, San Francisco has racked up 72 attempts for 472 yards and 6.56 YPA.
In only one game, the NFL championship, the Sid-Luckman-led Chicago team had 53 attempts for 381 yards at 7.19 YPA. While the Bears had five different ball carriers in that game, the 49ers have seen four different players tote the ball in their two contests.
But, like any great power offense, the 49ers are predicated on winning the one-on-one matchups in the trenches. While teams like the Redskins and their nouveau rush use more zone-blocking principles in their read-option attack, the 49ers serve it as icing on the cake to a power-blocking scheme.
The 49ers’ offensive line is a very talented and physically-dominating group, but they could only take the team as far as the quarterback allowed. Both Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick racked up 218 pass attempts this season, but while Smith took 24 sacks and threw 5 interceptions for a 11.98 NPP%, Kaepernick only had 16 sacks, 3 interceptions and a 8.12 NPP%.
Kaepernick thew for 13.3 yards per completion while Smith only 11.4. With Smith, teams could overload blitz the 49ers’ o-hogs, playing man coverage and daring Smith to beat them with his arm. A numerical advantage of that magnitude makes life difficult on even the best o-line, and Kaepernick has made life easier for the San Fran unit with not only his Howitzer arm, but his blazing speed.
The numerical advantage now works in the 49ers’ advantage, as defenses have to respect the new quarterback’s arm strength and running. With the read-option, the quarterback serves as a de facto blocker, using up another defender.
Both Frank Gore touchdowns against the Falcons took advantage of a defender shadowing Kaepernick, who was fresh off a playoff record for quarterback rushing yards with 16 carries for 181 yards for an 11.31 average. In Gore’s second touchdown run, shown in the picture, Stephen Nicholas (circled) was assigned to spy Kaepernick, and that allowed Gore to stroll to the end zone with his hogs winning their mano-a-hog matchups.
In fact, Kaepernick served more as a decoy against Atlanta, following up his monster game with only two carries for 21 yards, which included one for 23 yards and one for -2. Gore rushed for 90 yards and LaMichael James had 34. Even better: every player that carried the ball had at least 4 YPA.
That illustrates how the hogs serve as more of a key than a cog in the system. Throw in the fact that left tackle Joe Staley shut down the Falcons’ John Abraham while gutting through an injury and 49ers’ offensive line was the NFC Championship game MVP.
While Smith was under center, the 49ers’ running game was basically a barometer of the offensive line. Great, but not spectacular. The zone-option icing only served to add a big-play element at the second level after the o-hogs already won their battles. In the first half of the season, before Kaepernick took the reins, the 49ers did have three runs of over 30 yards, but one of those was Kaepernick, and 10 over 20 yards, but two of those were Mario Manningham end-arounds.
After Kaepernick, the team saw only two over 30, though both of those were 50-yard chunks by Kaepernick, and had 6 runs of over 20 yards, compared to the previous seven by the running backs. They were 18th-ranked in the Offensive Hog Index in 2012, and although ranked third in rushing with 5.07 YPA, they finished 25th with a 10.27 NPP%. In the playoffs, however, their 6.56 YPA would rank first-overall and the 5.56 NPP% would be third in the final Hog Index.
Kaepernick’s dual-threat ability that has racked up three passing touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns in the playoffs compares favorably to some of the quarterbacks who have used elements of the West Coast offense to augment a fleet-of-foot signal caller, the 1994 49ers and 2010 Packers. And it would only be appropriate that Steve Young, who ousted Joe Montana, would compare well to Kaepernick.
QBs with 3 Pass TDs and 2 Rush TDs in Playoffs
1985 Bears - Super Bowl Champions
1986 Broncos - AFC Champions
1994 49ers - Super Bowl Champions
2001 Eagles - NFC Runner Up
2002 Titans - AFC South Champions
2005 Steelers - Super Bowl Champions
2010 Packers - Super Bowl Champions
The most important thread between all of these Super-Bowl winning quarterbacks is their aversion to throwing interceptions. Roethlisberger did have three in the postseason when winning his first championship, but only had one entering into the championship game.
Baltimore Ravens O-Hogs Using What Caldwell Learned when He Earned His Ring
The Ravens have rededicated themselves to the running game this postseason under Caldwell to great results, which begs a comparison to the Ray-Lewis-led Ravens team that won a Super Bowl in 2000.
And, of course, the 2000 version did run for 4.30 YPA in the playoffs compared to the 4.29 by this year’s Baltimore o-hogs.
But, despite the mauling, rebooted Caldwell line-up of Bryan McKinnie, Michael Oher, Matt Birk, Kekchi Oseleme and Marshal Yanda, the Ravens are still a team that can strike with the deep ball, which has flourished in sparing use under Caldwell.
In fact, the Hog Report noticed that both Super Bowl teams had a higher YPA than NPP% in the playoffs, with the Ravens running for a 4.29 average and only giving up a 4.12 NPP% and the 49ers running for 6.56 and only giving up 5.56. Since 2004, when the Hog Index sprung to life, only the 2006 Super-Bowl-champion Colts had a regular season in which their o-hogs generated a greater YPA (4.03) than NPP% (3.95).
The quarterbacks coach for the only offense to get Peyton Manning a ring? Jim Caldwell.
By tempering their reliance on the pass, the Colts actually found greater success despite lining up one of the all-time greats under center. That championship run seems to have given Caldwell a blueprint to ride his hogs to another ring.
The Ravens’ offensive line is more muscle than movement, and by emphasizing the run and play-action pass they have helped Joe Flacco to a postseason in which he has yet to throw an interception in three games. Baltimore has completed eight passes over 25 yards and five over 40. The 2006 Colts threw six postseason passes for over 25 yards and three over 40.
While the Colts did post a hideous 10.48 NPP% in that Super Bowl run with six sacks and seven interceptions, the Ravens’ superior hogs have only given up four sacks and a 4.12 NPP%. But the formula of protecting the passer with the ground-and-pound to open up downfield shots remains the same.
Leading up to the Super Bowl, the Colts’ three AFC games saw only one instance of Indianapolis rushing the ball fewer times than they passed it. In those three games the Colts had 105 rushing attempts total.
- 40 rush attempts and 39 pass attempts
- 35 rush attempts and 30 pass attempts
- 30 rush attempts and 47 pass attempts
So far in this year’s playoffs, the Ravens have only rushed the ball three fewer times, with 102, and have also only rushed the ball fewer times than they passed it only once.
- 33 rush attempts and 36 pass attempts
- 39 rush attempts and 34 pass attempts
- 32 rush attempts and 23 pass attempts
But, unlike the 49ers who use their quarterback to assist their offensive line, the Ravens use their offensive line to set up their quarterback. By continuing to generate a push against stacked boxes full of defenders, the Ravens help maximize Flacco’s big-play potential in his strong right arm. With fewer pass attempts, Flacco has connected on 25+ yard plays 8.6% of his attempts, while Manning only had splash plays 5.17% of his attempts.
Both offenses may set themselves up differently, but their game plans are similarly structured to symbiotic nature between the two phases that is generated at the line of scrimmage. This may be two of the most physical teams to meet in a Super Bowl in years.
But how do they stack up against their defensive hog counterparts? Next week the Hog Report will look at the defenses and matchups that both teams will face.