The battered and bruised San Francisco 49ers finish off their two-game stint at MetLife Stadium on Sunday when they square off with the New York Giants. Much like the final leg of a stadium tour from an aging rock band, the 49ers are limping into the last show clinging to the vestiges of what once was. Numerous players are out for San Francisco, including pass rushers Solomon Thomas and Nick Bosa. If Daniel Jones and the Giants are going to get their first win of the season, Sunday could be the time to do it.
They’ll need to have some zone-beating route concepts in the offensive game script to do so.
The 49ers have faced 71 passing plays this season. Of those, by my charting 59 included some sort of zone coverage in the secondary. Back in Week 1 they used a lot of Cover 4 in the secondary, perhaps as a way to try and contain DeAndre Hopkins and Christian Kirk in the passing game. Last week against the New York Jets they were a bit more varied in their approach, mixing in some Cover 3 and even some Cover 6.
Given this, Jason Garrett would be wise to have some concepts to beat zone coverage in the game script. Two that come to mind? Smash and flood. These are route designs that aim to high/low defenders and give the quarterback one area of the field to diagnose.
We’ll start with smash. This is a two-receiver concept that typically contains a corner route, and a hitch or a flat route. The aim is to high/low the defender to that side, either a cornerback in Cover 2 or a flat defender in a Cover 3 scheme. Whatever that defender does, you throw off of him. If he bites down on the underneath route you throw over his head, or if he stays deep, you take the easy underneath throw. Here is a playbook example of that design:
On the left you can see the smash concept, with the deeper route potentially converting based on the coverage. If you get a Cover 3 or a Cover 4 look, with the defender staying deep because there is no safety help, that route will flatten. Against man coverage or against Cover 2, with a half field safety, you will run at the angle using the leverage advantage.
Here are the Arizona Cardinals running a very similar design against the 49ers, with Kyler Murray hitting Hopkins along the left sideline:
Arizona runs this out of a diamond pistol formation, and you can see how Murray simply needs to read the left side of the formation. The 49ers drop into Cover 4 here, so Hopkins flattens the route to create space along the sideline. With the flat defender far enough underneath there is a window to hit the deeper route, which is what Murray does.
One of Sam Darnold’s biggest passing plays last week came on a scramble drill situation, with the quarterback sliding to his left. But on this touchdown play watch what unfolds on the backside:
This is almost a carbon copy of the previous play, with the running back running to the flat out of the backfield and the single receiver running the deeper part of the smash concept. Only this time, the 49ers are in a Cover 2 look to that side of the field (they look to be playing Cover 6 or Quarter-Quarter-half) so the receiver runs the deep corner working away from the leveraged safety. Darnold is flushed away from the concept, but the smash look, particularly the corner route, is there for the taking.
The other route concept to discuss is flood. This is similar to the sail concept from Week 1, only now you have three routes layering one side of the formation. This is another way to high/low defenders, usually the curl/flat defender in a zone coverage look. This is one such design:
Here the flood design sets up along the right side of the field, with a vertical route, the deep out route - very similar to sail - and the flat route. It also folds in a hot read for the quarterback, with that flat route working as that option. Should an unblocked defender blitz from that area - you can anticipate the protection being slid away from that receiver - then the quarterback goes right to that receiver first on a slant.
Here we see Darnold and the Jets working a flood concept along the left side of the field:
San Francisco drops into a Cover 3 look here, and the vertical route pulls the cornerback deep downfield. That puts the curl/flat defender in a bind, caught between the “low” of the flat route from the running back and the “high” of Chris Hogan’s out pattern. The defender tries to split the two, which gives Darnold enough room to fit in the out route to Hogan. The cornerback does peel off and lay a lick on Hogan, but he cannot prevent the completion.
So far this season the 49ers have been a heavy zone coverage team. Getting plays to defeat those coverages into the play sheet for this week is a must for Jason Garrett. These designs, smash and flood, can put defenders into conflict while giving Jones a defined area of the field to read. Easy decisions, quick throws and conflicted defenders could be a winning combination on Sunday.