Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. As the NFL trading deadline approaches at 1pm Tuesday, I believe the 49ers and their fans should think about this saying. Throughout the season many who follow the 49ers have clamored for the team to make a trade for a WR.
They discuss how dynamic the offense would be if only they had another weapon. It's the only way that this team will get over on Seattle is another common reason given.
Let's tackle the dynamic offense first. The 49ers do have a dynamic offense, just not in the way many who follow the NFL think it should be. While it is now en vogue to spread the defense out with wide receivers and throw the ball all over the field, the 49ers take the opposite approach. They line up with 1 or 2 tight ends, sometimes even bringing in an extra lineman or two, and then they pound the ball at the defense with the run.
And as they are doing that, and the defense adjusts to handle the run, they motion their tight ends, and running backs out and force the defense to try to cover the field with their run defense. It's a simple, yet complex philosophy that puts a lot of stress on the defense, and makes it nearly impossible to identify the play before the snap.
The need for wide receivers, a position that has one of the highest rates of failure in the draft, is limited by the type of personnel the 49ers employ. While the league average for utilizing 3 receivers or more is 51.6% snaps per game, the 49ers do this on only 28.6% of their plays. On the opposite side of the spectrum is the utilization of only 1 wide receiver in the formation. According to Pro Football Focus, the 49ers lead the league with 25.9% of their offensive snaps coming while they have only 1 wide receiver on the field.
Overall the 49ers utilize 2 receivers or less on 73.7% of their offensive snaps, and with Mario Manningham set to rejoin the team in time for their next game against Carolina, not to mention promising rookie Quinton Patton also coming back from injury, you can see that the wide receiver position in San Francisco is already getting crowded.
Now for that Seattle question. There is no escaping that the Seahawks have dominated the 49ers in their last 2 meetings, both in Seattle. In all of my time around the game, the best way that I found to figure out how to beat a team is look at what has worked against them in the past, especially if it was the team I was directly involved with.
With that in mind, I went back and reviewed the coaches film from the 49ers last victory over the Seahawks. That came in the first meeting between the two teams in 2012 at Candlestick Park, and was the third straight victory for the 49ers over their rivals from the Pacific Northwest.
What I found was a game plan heavy with run based personnel groupings. The 49ers ran 38 of their 55 offensive snaps with 2 tight ends on the field while utilizing their 22 and 12 personnel. On the 5 possessions when they ran primarily these personnel groups, the 49ers gained 284 of their 313 total yards, and drove inside the Seahawks 20 yard line 4 times.
The 49ers also utilized more than 2 wide receivers on only 8 of their 55 snaps, and the results show why. During a series of 3 straight 3 and outs throughout the second quarter the 49ers went with their 11 personnel on 6 of 9 plays. The net result was a total of 12 yards for the quarter.
When they went with the 12 grouping, the wide receiver combination was Kyle Williams and Michael Crabtree. Williams is still on the team, and Crabtree has been replaced by Anquan Boldin. With the return of Mario Manningham, a combination of Boldin, Manningham and Williams paired with Vernon Davis and Vance McDonald could work nicely. In their 22 grouping the 49ers primarily utilized Randy Moss as the lone receiver. Again, Boldin or Manningham would fit just fine in this scheme.
In this contest the 49ers also featured a well balanced attack, rushing the ball 32 times while throwing 23 passes. In the two games since, they have abandoned this philosophy, choosing to go with a more wide open approach. In the December meeting last year, the 49ers threw the ball 36 times while running it only 19. Their first possession featured 3 straight incompletions, after which the blowout was on. They tried a similar approach again in September and found the outcome to be similar.
Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Jim Harbaugh is a known history aficionado. We'll soon see if he has been studying up.