This is the first year the NFL has made its "all-22" coaches' film available to the public. Every week of the NFL season, we'll walk you through something intriguing that you can't see on TV.
VERY IMPORTANT EDITOR'S NOTE: The NFL's lawyers have decided that they don't want us to walk you through something intriguing that you can't see on TV. Sorry.
When the Niners thumped the Packers on Sunday, it surprised the football world. Green Bay was favored in the game by more than a field goal, and San Francisco was—and may still be—a fashionable candidate to take a step backward in 2012. Watching the game, you would have thought that San Francisco was the team with a 15-1 record in 2012 and an explosive offense. Alex Smith completed 77 percent of his passes with 8.1 yards per attempt and two touchdowns, and the Niners' rushers combined for 186 yards and a touchdown on 32 carries. The Packers, on the other hand, looked like the flawed arrivistes.
One of the Packers' primary offensive flaws—a struggling line, matched up against one of the NFL's best defensive lines—manifested itself during Green Bay's last-chance drive. Here are three plays from that drive.
This is where you should start watching the video above. We recommend you use HD and pause between plays to read what's down here. Fullscreen it, if you want. The all-22 is on the right, with Fox's telecast on the left. Another note: the all-22 has two angles, one from the sideline and one from the endzone. We're only showing you the endzone view here, because it's the better angle for observing line play. The sideline view, however, is the only one that actually shows all 22 players.
The first play in our video is the second play of the drive—a second and 10 from Green Bay's 16. (The Packers are down eight with 3:34 left.) On TV, we see the upfield end of the pocket collapse before Rodgers scrambles for a yard. The all-22 shows us how that happened. The Niners rush four. The Packers have only their five linemen blocking, but five's one more than four. Yet Packers center Jeff Saturday, #63, squanders that advantage. Defensive tackle Ray McDonald, #91, runs through him like a turnstile, and Saturday isn't even strong enough to guide McDonald to the unoccupied left guard, who is left alone looking for somebody to block.
The Packers went on to convert anyway, keeping the drive going, leading to our next play: first and 10 from the San Francisco 45, with 1:53 left. On the Fox broadcast, we see a mass of Niners descending angrily on the Packers line, forcing Rodgers to throw the ball away. But the defensive front was more complicated than an all-out blitz. The Niners look like they're bringing the house, but No. 94, end Justin Smith, and No. 20, defensive back Perrish Cox, are only feinting. Smith runs at left guard T.J. Lang, while Cox starts at Jermichael Finley, then moves toward right tackle Bryan Bulaga. Then Smith and Cox quickly drop back into coverage. The result is that two seconds after the ball has been snapped, the Niners have seven men in coverage and one in the backfield. While Cox was captivating Bulaga, Ahmad Brooks blew between Bulaga and the right guard for a free rush. And Lang's attention to Smith kept him from helping Jeff Saturday, who was once again overmatched by McDonald. If Brooks hadn't gotten upfield, McDonald would have.
Watching our third and final play on regular TV, it looks as if the Niners used a stunt to fool Green Bay's line into breaking down. But the all-22 shows that the wrinkle—Ray McDonald altered his path to run behind Ahmad Brooks—had nothing to do with San Francisco's success. Brooks simply beat left guard T.J. Lang and center Jeff Saturday about as cleanly as linemen can be beaten, running right past Lang before Saturday can even react. Two seconds into the play, Brooks is ready to sack Rodgers, Lang has settled for blocking McDonald, and Saturday and right guard Josh Sitton are staring at yards of empty turf. Rodgers goes down and the Pack's chances go down with him.
Now, the Packers' struggles on Sunday against the Niners may augur nothing for the future. The Niners' front seven is arguably football's best. Ahmad Brooks is their fourth-best linebacker, and he had seven sacks last year. But we're left wondering if the team erred in letting 31-year-old starting center Scott Wells walk in free agency. Wells, who made all the Packers' line calls, signed a four-year deal with the Rams with $13 million guaranteed. The Packers signed the 37-year-old Saturday to a two-year deal to replace Wells. Saturday is old and slow—the Colts reportedly offered him a front-office job and not a roster spot—and used to another offense, where the quarterback was very involved in blocking schemes.
We'll get a better sense of how the Packers' line should hold up over the season when they play the Bears tonight. Chicago has one of the league's best front sevens, but they run a simpler scheme than San Francisco's and rarely blitz. If Rodgers remains under siege, the Packers might have to change things up. Alas, given that Cedric Benson is their starter, running the ball isn't an option either.
Video editing by Tim Burke.