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Senior NFL Columnist

After Further Review: 49ers vulnerable against deep passes

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Pop in any San Francisco 49ers defensive tape from this season and you will almost always see two safeties deep -- sometimes 15 yards off the ball.

That is why the 49ers have been so good against the deep ball this season. Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson play as deep as any two safeties in the league. Getting over the top has been tough against the 49ers defense.

The idea is to pressure without blitzing -- they blitzed just five times in the NFC title game against Atlanta -- and let the four-man rush get home. In theory, it's a great idea if you get the pressure.

But the 49ers were 30th in sacks per pass play during the season and they didn't get a lot of pressure on Matt Ryan last week. Ryan threw for 396 yards and three touchdowns, including a 46-yard score to Julio Jones.

The 49ers haven't been as good against the deep ball in the playoffs as they were during the regular season.

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So what gives?

Well, they've played Aaron Rodgers and Ryan, two good deep-ball throwers. But I think it's more than that.

I think it's the way teams are attacking the 49ers.

The best way is to spread them out. It allows the offense to dictate tempo. It puts pressure on the outside corners. But it also puts pressure on the two safeties, both aggressive in the run game and in coverage.

Three teams in the past six weeks have spread the 49ers out. They were New England, Green Bay and Atlanta. In those three games, the quarterbacks combined to throw for 1,091 yards, six touchdown passes and four interceptions. But the thing that stands out most is the number of big passing plays they had against the 49ers.

In those three games, the Patriots, Packers and Falcons combined to have 15 passing plays of 20 yards or more. In the 49ers' other 15 games this season, they allowed a total of 32.

Against those three teams, the 49ers allowed four pass plays of 40 yards or more. In the other 15 games, it was five. So, as you can see, spreading the 49ers out is a way to attack their defense down the field with some big-play success.

It also puts pressure on the safeties and it helps take Carlos Rogers off your best receiver in some situations. The 49ers almost always move Rogers, their best cover guy, inside to the slot. That allows the outside receivers shots against Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver, neither of whom is as good as Rogers in coverage. The 49ers love to play man-under, so chances will come.

The Falcons repeatedly attacked Brown on the outside. And Jones put up some big numbers against him. The Packers and Patriots did much of the same.

Here's a play against New England that led to a 53-yard catch by Brandon Lloyd on the sideline. As you can see, Lloyd (blue circle) was lined up in man coverage against Culliver. Lloyd ran a go route. But Goldson (yellow circle) appeared to try to jump the crossing route underneath and took himself out of the play. That made for an easy throw for Tom Brady for a big play. The crossing route held Goldson from getting over to help.



Here's another play from that game where the 49ers walked Patrick Willis (red X) out on Deion Branch (blue circle) in the slot. Whitner was the safety on that side of the field. Branch ran right by Willis, but Whitner again got caught making a step to the middle. That allowed Branch to get open deep. Brady was late with his throw, which allowed Brown to come off the short zone to pick up Branch down the middle and make a play on the ball. An earlier throw by Brady would have been a touchdown.



Here's a 44-yard throw from Aaron Rodgers to James Jones against the Packers. The 49ers lined up Culliver in man coverage against Jones. Goldson was the safety on that side in two-deep. But he again peeked into the backfield at Rodgers, who looked to his left first, and that held up Goldson getting over the top to help Culliver, who Jones beat with this speed. Rodgers threw a perfect pass for a big gain.



In the NFC Championship Game against the Falcons, Jones had a big play to open the scoring. The Falcons lined up Jones (yellow circle) outside of Tony Gonzalez (red circle) in the slot. Gonzalez ran an out route that held Goldson. That allowed Jones to run through Brown and Goldson to get wide open for an easy pitch and catch. The 49ers said this was a bust in coverage after the game, but it sure looked like Goldson was again way too aggressive.




It doesn't help the 49ers that they have not been able to pressure the quarterback against those spread formations. In those three games, San Francisco had five sacks against Brady, Rodgers and Ryan. They had 35 in the other 15 games. Aldon Smith, who led the 49ers with 19½ sacks, did not get a sack against those three teams.

So look for the Ravens to spread out the 49ers. That would mean Rogers inside on Anquan Boldin, which could mean a big day for Torrey Smith on the outside or Jacoby Jones down the field. Both of them can run. If the 49ers man them up and the safeties get too preoccupied with help on Boldin or tight end Dennis Pitta, it could mean some big plays for strong-armed Joe Flacco.


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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