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Wednesday, January 30, 2013
Let's get physical

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

NEW ORLEANS -- As you watch Super Bowl XLVII, expect several blasts from the past.

In an age of spread offenses, shotgun formations and empty backfields, the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens advanced to this game by bringing back many elements that made the sport great three decades ago. Sure, these offenses are modernized. The 49ers used the college version of the read option, and they've made the pistol formation trendy. The Ravens love to go no-huddle and use a fast tempo.

But the themes of these schemes are old-school in nature.

"For those who love the old style of football will love this game," Ravens linebackers coach Don Martindale said. "You are going to feel like you are back in the 1970s and 1980s.

"Both teams believe in power football."

No doubt the NFL remains a quarterback-driven league, and that isn't going to change. With Joe Flacco behind center for Baltimore and Colin Kaepernick running the 49ers' offense, neither franchise has to concede a lack of quality play at the quarterback position. What the Ravens and Niners taught some NFL strategists is that power can beat finesse.

Though it took several years, the Ravens were able to move past the New England Patriots because their power finally overtook the Patriots' finesse. Instead of using a power running game, the Patriots adopted Oregon's quick-tempo running attack and added it to their two-tight-end packages and three-receiver sets.

Alex Boone
The 49ers use more man-to-man blocking schemes than most NFL teams do.

While that got them to the championship game and improved their running numbers, the Patriots' lack of a power running attack hurt them. By not having a power running game, the Patrtiots found it more difficult on short-yardage plays and in some goal-line situations. The Falcons had similar problems against the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. Atlanta jumped to a 17-point first-half lead but didn't have the power running game to sustain that advantage. The Niners came back with their power and won.

A closer study of the 49ers, though, indicates they have gone against the spread formation and finesse trends with a complicated power game that will take NFL teams an offseason to figure out. A lot of the credit goes to 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman.

"Greg Roman is the best of the best," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. "He is the best coordinator in football. I really believe that. He is innovative and has changed a lot about football this season in terms of brining the trap back to football and bringing counters back to football and bringing wham plays back to football with some of the formations that we use.

"He has a creative mind and he is a tremendous football coach."

Roman believes the 49ers' offense is a counter to the culture of where the league was heading. Where West Coast offense teams may use three-receiver sets 40 to 50 plays a game, the 49ers use three-receiver sets a little more than 10 times per game. Where much of the league is quick tempo, the 49ers love to pound the ball and they do so creatively.

Part of that philosophy goes to Harbaugh, who was trained in football's old school by his father, Jack, and by his former Michigan coach, Bo Schembechler.

"We have always believed in that -- a tight end and a fullback," Harbaugh said. "When I got my first coaching job at the University of San Diego, I called Coach Schembechler and told him that I was the coach at the University of San Diego.

"Before he said congratulations he said, 'Tell me you are going to have a tight end that puts his hand in that ground on every snap. Tell me that you are going to have a fullback who lines directly behind the quarterback, and a halfback in the I-formation.' 'Yes, coach we will have that.' 'Good, congratulations on getting the job.'"

More teams have used zone-blocking schemes over the years. While they will use some, the 49ers try a little more man-on-man blocking than most teams. They have also brought back the trap plays that the Steelers used in the 1970s. The 49ers love pulling two guards, which had become a lost art. They love trying the wham block that Dan Henning used when he was with Bill Parcells and elsewhere.

Combining all of these traditional schemes into a modern offense have made Roman the blocking equivalent of Mike Martz.

"Everything became so zone-blocking oriented," Roman said. "I think with the incredible success that Denver had there for a while, everybody started doing that. When everybody practices against one thing all the time, they don't quite know how to play that other stuff.

"So, we kind of took the opposite approach and said, 'Let's be counter-cultured and let's do things that people don't work on.' Anything we can do to get our players an advantage."

The 49ers have an advantage, but fans of old-school, hard-hitting football are the winners.