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October 4, 2010
Niners offense more variable, but not sustainable

The buzzwords after Mike Johnson took over the 49ers offense from Jimmy Raye last week were "variability" and "flexibility." Johnson was going to take the foundation of Raye's offense, but be more creative with it, and more to the point, go beyond the stock formations that Raye stubbornly stuck with over the last year. In that way, you could call Sunday's game a success. On the opening drive, for example, the offense lined up 12 times. Only once did they use the same personnel group in the same alignment.

* Play 1: Gore up the middle for 1 yard. This was the old Jimmy Raye standby - two WRs, one TE and two RBs, one of whom was fullback Moran Norris. You probably groaned when you saw it. I know I did.

* Play 2: Short pass right side to Norris for 8 yards. One WR (Josh Morgan), two TEs, two RBs.

* Play 3: With the play clock dwindling, Smith called time out. Two WRs, one TE, two RBs, one of whom was Brian Westbrook, who was lined up wide right as a receiver. That was the only time Westbrook saw the field all game, and it was a non-play.

* Play 4: 3rd and 1, Smith in the shotgun, pass over the middle to Michael Crabtree for 14 yards. Three WRs, one TE, one RB. Delanie Walker is the lone tight end. He lines up at F-back. Crabtree lines up behind Vernon Davis in the slot.

* Play 5: Gore up the middle for five yards. Two WRs, two TEs, one RBs. Nate Byham is the second tight end and actually lines up as a fullback in front of Gore.

* Play 6: Gore off the right side for four yards. Two WRs, one TE, two RBs. This was the same formation as Play 1.

* Play 7: 3rd and 1: Play action deep to Walker who draws pass interference penalty. One WR, two TEs, two RBs. The intent with this personnel group was to have the Falcons think it was going to be a run. Walker was well-covered and the 49ers were bailed out by the penalty.

* Play 8: Smith screen left to Crabtree for two yards. Two WRs, two TEs, one RB. Byham goes in motion but end up in the backfield in front of Gore.

* Play 9: Short pass to Gore on the right side for four yards. Two WRs, two TEs, one RB. The WRs line up on the same side of the formation, away from the play.

* Play 10: 3rd and 4: Smith in shotgun short toss right to Gore for three yards. Two WRs, two TEs, one RB. Walker lines up as a receiver in the slot. This is actually a well-conceived play as Gore has blockers in front of him. But the Falcons defenders do a good job of snuffing it out.

* Play 11: 4th and 1: Quarterback sneak for one yard. One WR, two TEs, two RBs. When the 49ers go single receiver, it's always Morgan, their best blocker at the position. The two tight ends were Byham and Davis.

* Play 12: Short pass to Davis, who picks up a key block from Anthony Davis and stretches into the end zone for a score. Davis makes a block only he can make - running 10 yards into the flat to upend a cornerback. Two WRs, two TEs, one RB. The TEs, Walker and Davis, both line up as WRs on the play, giving the 49ers a "quads" look.

The problem with the 49ers offense Sunday is that they were forced to go down the field piecemeal. The biggest play of that opening drive was the pass-interference penalty, which gave them 34 yards. Absent big plays like that, the 49ers could not put together any scoring drives.

The defensive philosophy against the 49ers, as it's been all year, is to force the 49ers to go down field bit by bit and to assume that the 49ers will make a mistake along the way. That strategy, of course, paid off when promising drives later in the game ended with Smith interceptions. One of the team's big-play threats, Walker, might not play next week with an ankle injury. The 49ers really could use another, Ted Ginn, to return from a knee sprain suffered in Week 1.

-- Matt Barrows


Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.


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