• Jay Moore

Film Room: Understanding the “Why” of Kyle Shanahan's Offense

"It's about playing and being in the heat of the battle and seeing and reacting. We'd be doing something else if we were all geniuses. We're all capable of learning this stuff, but that's not what this is about. It's about being through the situations, going against certain coverages, getting rushed through things and having to react to someone missing a block, having to get rid of the ball early and stuff like that."

Kyle Shanahan December 2015

The 2015 Atlanta Falcons went 8-8 with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and quarterback Matt Ryan, who threw for 4,591 yards and 21 touchdowns. Not a bad season for an NFL quarterback. But expectations for the 2015 Falcons were much higher than an 8-8 season with a decent year from the quarterback. Many were saying that Kyle Shanahan’s playbook was overly complicated and took too long for a quarterback to fully understand. Fast forward to the 2016 season and the Falcons were 11-5, Matt Ryan won the NFL MVP award, and the Falcons were one legendary comeback from Patriots quarterback Tom Brady away from their first Lombardi Trophy.

After having an entire season and offseason of mastering Kyle Shanahan’s system, Matt Ryan understood the “why” of Kyle Shanahan’s offense, not just what each position is doing, but why they are running the route they are. This is huge to mastering the system.

The 49ers are heading into the all-important year two under now-head coach Shanahan. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo did not get to play an entire season with Shanahan calling plays, but he did go 5-0 to finish the season and looked like he was in full control of the offense. Garoppolo has now had an entire offseason to understand the complex nature of the system: not just where to go with the ball on any given play, but the “why.” Why a receiver was open is just as important as knowing which receiver will be open.

This is an example of a Kyle Shanahan play that requires knowing why players are running the route combination they are running, not just knowing where each player will be in the framework of the play. The tight end runs an inside curl route, and the X receivers (the outside receiver on the tight end, or strong side, of the formation) in the route clears space for the tight end’s inside curl route. On the opposite side of the field, the Z receiver, who is the outside receiver on the weak side of the formation, runs a simple slant route, while the Y receiver, or the slot receiver, performs an out route, which clears space for the Z receiver. Just like the opposite side of the field, the two players’ routes work in unison to open space for one of the routes. This is an example of needing to understand why a route combination is run so the quarterback can understand which player will run into open space in the defense.

A pattern develops the more you watch the way Kyle Shanahan calls plays. There are multiple plays per game that receivers will be wide open enough for the quarterback to make a simple throw to. This is just a flat route by the tight end to open space. Did the defense forget to cover the tight end? Or did the route combination run by the offense create the open space for the tight end? The slot receiver, or the Y receiver, runs a post route which holds the middle, or “Mike,” linebacker long enough to clear space for the Z receiver’s in route. On the strong side of the formation two inline tight ends are lined up next to the left tackle. The X receiver is sent on a simple go route to hold the strong safety on that side of the field. The tight end to the left of the tackle runs a curl, which occupies the weak-side, or “Will,” linebacker. The inline tight end runs a flat route, with the Mike occupied by the first tight end and the outside corner and safety occupied by the go route, that opens up a ton of space for the tight end in the flat. So three routes are in place for the tight end to get open, if the tight end in the flat ends up covered by the defense, the quarterback will look to the opposite side of the field at the Z receiver and the in route, which should be single covered due to the X receiver’s post route.

Another example of a wide open receiver for the quarterback to throw to. In this case, the route combination by the offense put pressure on the defense causing them to make a mistake in coverage. The Will linebacker and the slot cornerback end up covering the same receiver creating a huge void in the defense for the tight end to run into giving the quarterback a simple throw. The X receiver is on a go route; again, he is there to hold the cornerback and the safety who is over the top. Shanahan will do this on multiple concepts, especially when the outside receiver has speed. The running back goes into the flat, but could potentially have pass protection duties if one of the linebackers were to come on a blitz. The reason this route combination works so well is the strong side of the formation: the slot receiver performs a shallow crossing route, which holds the middle linebacker and pulls the slot corner away from the Z receiver’s out route. The tight end’s post runs right into the empty space left by the slot receiver.

The route combinations that Kyle Shanahan uses in his passing game puts so much pressure on a defense that it puts the offense in favorable positions for the quarterback to make plays. Jimmy Garoppolo has learned the playbook, but to be successful in the Kyle Shanahan offense, he needs to know why he is calling a specific route combination so he can take full advantage of what that specific play call is designed to do.

I fully expect Jimmy Garoppolo to have full command of the offense and Kyle Shanahan to be at his absolute best this upcoming season. The last time Kyle Shanahan had a quarterback of this caliber in place going into year two of an offense the team went on to the Super Bowl. Expectations are sky high going into the 2018 season.


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