Grantland: How and why Jim Harbaugh eliminated sight-adjustments in the 49ers passing game to make it go

It’s up over at Grantland:

A key reason for this is that 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. Indeed, this change has been so successful that, according to Pro Football Focus, Smith’s completion percentage, quarterback rating, average yards per attempt, and touchdown-to-interception ratio against blitzes have all been much better than Smith’s historical averages, but also better than his performance on all other downs.

Read the whole thing. Video diagrams after the jump (and in the article).

  • Michael Boone

    Hi Chris! What is the software you’re using for these videos, it looks great.

  • Anonymous

    Microsoft powerpoint. Still learning, so any advice is helpful. Also I would like to add music but don’t want to run into copyright issues. I then just record my screen with quicktime and finish it with iMovie.

  • Joe

    So I went to Davidson, and we played Harbaugh’s SD teams every year- my roommate, who was our starting MLB from his freshman year, always said the hard thing about Harbaugh’s offense wasn’t the plays you saw but the sheer number of formations (he said he had to study something like 63 formations). Calling the play (particularly when you try to bring a lot of extra pressure from the corners or the outside like we did) was ridiculously difficult because recognition and direction were really difficult to discern. I wasn’t surprised that his offense worked at Stanford- he did a really good job of eliminating other teams’ athletic advantages at SD, but I’ve been surprised how well his team has done in the NFL. His advantages always seemed to be that he was incredibly detail oriented and that his teams executed perfectly, and you’d think that would be the baseline in the NFL (unless you’re Norv Turner)- I was guessing it would be less of an advantage in the NFL, anyway. 

  • Glenn Mar

    This is a great article… you have a new fan, Chris! 

     It’s timely for me because I was just listening to Steve Young on KNBR talking about how almost everybody in the NFL runs their team based on Walshian principles… except the Niners weren’t until now.  He clarified his point to say that it’s not strictly Walsh-tree WCO stuff, but more about management and execution. 

    But what was interesting to me is that he included sight adjustments as part of the WCO handbook.  And to me, I always thought that this was the main differentiators of the Run and Shoot, besides the single back and no tight end. 

    I’d be curious about how a knowledgeable person like you views the innovations of the Run and Shoot in retrospect now.

  • Jerry Vin

    Came here from Niners Nation, and I’ve now bookmarked your site. I’ve always been interested in this stuff, but nobody seems to explain all the intricacies as well as you do. Great work, and I look forward to reading more.

  • Coachvid

    So, are sight adjustments overcoaching?

  • Anonymous

    The run and shoot had a big influence in terms of read routes. Keep in mind you have to distinguish between sight adjustments vs the blitz and downfield reads. I actually think downfield reads are much easier because the receiver has a bit more time and as long as you keep it tied to the safeties it’s not supremely difficult to do. 
    Also, a lot of West Coast offenses had sight adjustments but as I said, defenses weren’t quite as tricky, and a lot of the WCO plays had hots built in. One of the keys of the old WCO was to use six-man pass protection from a traditional pro-set, and the free-releasing RB on a swing type route or the TE over the middle was typically “hot.” Things have evolved a bit over time.

  • John Phamlore

    The specifics of the 49ers personnel may be more important than the particular scheme.

    First, one of the strengths of the 49ers should be the offensive line considering the draft picks they used on Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, and Anthony Davis.  In particular I believe Iupati will be one of the premier guards in the NFL for many years to come, and he is very good at pulling and blocking.  In addition the 49ers added a center from a former Super Bowl winning team to replace the center they used last season who had previous to the start of 2010 never snapped the ball from the shotgun at Michigan.  (In I believe the game last season vs KC one of the snaps sailed over Alex Smith’s head for a safety.)

    Second, in recognition of the strength at offensive line, the 49ers both retained the previous offensive line coach Mike Solari as well as hiring Harbaugh’s longtime assistant Tim Drevno.  This is by far the 49ers best coaching for the offensive line since the passing of all-time great Bobb McKittrick.

    With the drafting of Hunter the 49ers now have a suitable backup for Frank Gore and can basically run the football as many plays a game as they care to, if Gore can avoid injury.  The 49ers offense is essentially running the football and having the passing game work off of that for relatively wide open throws.

    As far as wide receiver, note that high draft pick Michael Crabtree has never been available to practice with Alex Smith in either training camp or preseason.  To see how catastrophic this pair of Alex Smith and Crabtree can be on short passes, simply watch film of the 49ers early games the previous season where numerous game-changing interceptions occurred on short passes between the two with misreads.

    With season-ending injury to Josh Morgan and Braylon Edwards in and out of the lineup, I would argue the 49ers could not possibly run an offense with sight adjustments even if they wanted to.  The 49ers are operating within the limits of their personnel and playing to their strengths.

    Now if someone told me the Green Bay Packers with Aaron Rodgers ran no sight adjustments, then I would be impressed that this might be the direction of the future in the NFL.

  • Uglybutz

    this is unrelated but my browsing is limited:

    maybe its just me, but are some dlines lining up WAY off the ball in college ball? compare the stanford dline with the oregon state dline. is this merely a false start mitigation thing? just curious. in any case dline unit play seems a little under-covered, even in great football blogs

  • Great article as always, Chris. Knowing that the 49ers offense doesn’t use sight adjustments, how should opposing defenses respond? I imagine defenses would want to concentrate on disguising blitzes (to prevent Smith from audibling), but would certain coverage schemes tend to be more effective?

  • Mr.Murder

    Thought you’d keep the seam route to the front because a blitz to that side forces a really hard rotation from the safety or would pull mike off the sight slant to the open side. Think if you run an out it should be an out route because if you turn that head during a blitz and they rotate the corner someone is getting popped or a pick six is working. You can bring the route down some but it would not be a read as part of a hot, it would be a read under full coverage where you have time to check it.

    What Harbaugh uniquely established was sequencing personnel. Walsh always talked of the ability to sequence formations and hide the same essential effeciency calls in that way. Harbaugh put Davis or Crabtree to halfback this past game and it freed them up for big gains and a two point conversion. The formations had star players in new positions, the defense would think it was seeing something they could key in ways that overlooked the star player in a new role. So instead of doing similar things from different forms they did different things from the same forms with a change in how the main read got the look from his new start point.

    That remains a tie to Walsh as well.  He put Taylor to second tight end in their second Super Bowl vs. the Bengals, or would motion Solomon inside to set up sprint outs in their first Championship. Key plays and looks with great players put into new alignments, formation looks that usually made teams go to more predictable and conservative fronts(six man at goal line,etc.) as a way of controlling how the play developed.

    Their number three back is no slouch, an able ‘Power O’ kind of guy. Their number two is a guy with more straight line speed, still more inclined to work laterally. They missed an early call to him on a hot route where the line went slide protection and an end got on their quarterback since the halfback swung out. The Giants rotated a corner to the hot and the quarterback made him the first read, he did not come to the back after looking upfield. His eyes went straight to the hot and he had an end right on him with a corner on his route. They needed to sequence protections more than the players, they knew who and where to throw and got into that rhytmn later in the game. 

    That is where he sequenced players into the role and allowed them to put other players on protection or to make your star the hot so blitzing was not forcing you to go to a lesser option. Think he basically put three to the side of the hot so they could not switch on you without giving up something outside to the boundary opposite.

    Davis is a real chess piece and now the confidence they had calling up Crabtree at clutch times is something that may open new upside in their output.

    Think the Davis play came to the open side, as part of a combo, but doing that was part of establishing a strong flood to the three side where he could free the hot as number four. He put at least three different LOS positions in the backfield for series calls in the second half.

  • Anonymous

    The issue with this is you assume it’s the QB’s issue with the sight reads.   The problem is the 49er WRs have pretty much sucked through the years.   With the biggest ‘suck,’ relative to the investment in him, being the massively over-rated Crabtree who is a pass-dropping ‘possession-type’ receiver who has never participated in a training camp due to hold outs and his dainty little feet.   

    Not a good combination to be slow, run crappy routes, have bad hands, lack toughness and not make camp…

    OTOH, Morgan (the 49ers best WR) started breaking out last year and was playing like a real NFL WR this year.    I was very happy with his play — good routes, good hands, toughness after the catch…    Everything you want.

  • Joe

    Regardless of who is making the mistake in the sight reads someone was, ergo taking the sight reads out improves the quarterback’s play statistically and improves his performance to fans who don’t understand the games finer points.

  • Glenn Mar

    Makes sense, thanks.

  • OldQB

    Basic westcoast concepts there i would have thought, real HS level simplicity getting everyone on the same page…WC always had safety valve swing routes/checkflares, plus KingCrab has finally got his finger out and gotten enough time to develop into an NFL WR with injuries taking out the others, and Smith mechanics are way better this year, he is really finishing his throws putting the gun away and its a sign of being ahead of the defence and really confident. Hunter is the perimeter RB and GORE the allrounder, its worked in our favour to simplify who we have to throw to Davis-KingCrab-RB…love it. it takes a QB to coach a QB…cheers ex-QB