Anatomy of a Play: Breaking Down the 49ers’ Offense


Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann

Like a Patient Etherized Upon a Table: When a Play Works and When it Doesn't

The 49ers Hub executive team, sitting mighty in an ivory tower and smoking expensive cigars, was kind enough to let me write about the West Coast Offense last year. In a series of articles, I broke down the language, numbering system, back movement, and blocking.

This season, I learned much more about head coach and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s system. Indeed, Shanahan does have a West Coast Offense foundation in his playbook, with his terminology and scheme mirroring the forefathers of a herald offense.

After weeks of pleading and bribing our editors, they’ve let me lead a series breaking down the 49ers’ system. I’ll be reviewing good plays and bad ones, looking at all elements of what made the play work or what was its demise.

As a disclaimer: Like you, I’m still learning professional football terminology. Sometimes, I’m guessing on the formation or the motion. Therefore, sometimes I might be wrong. I appreciate any positive feedback from readers.

Week 13 vs Seattle – Third quarter: first and 10 at the SF 25 (6:11)

Play: Y to I Right Close, Fake 19 Wanda Keep Right Y Leak

On the 49ers’ eighth possession of the game, the offense had a first-and-10 at the 49ers 25-yard line. The 49ers broke the huddle, and quarterback Nick Mullens went under center to bark the cadence.

Mullens made a quick hand movement to tight end George Kittle who motioned past wide receiver Kendrick Bourne and ended up just off right tackle Mike McGlinchey’s hip. Kittle’s action revealed Seattle in a Cover 3 defense.

Here’s the play, routes, and coverage just moments before the sna

At the snap, fullback Kyle Juszczyk faked a block to his left and shot back to his right to pick up any intruders from the right edge. Mullens faked a handoff to running back Jeff Wilson and continued to boot to his right.

Wilson and the offensive line moved to the left as if setting up for a screen.

Bourne ran a bench route; he made a hard move inside for a few yards, went vertical and then broke toward the corner.

At the other end of the formation, wide receiver Dante Pettis cleared the left side of the defense with a low cross route.

The combination of the offensive line, the play-action and Mullens’ boot to the right kept seven Seattle defenders in the box. Kittle moved left with the offensive line, keeping under the linebackers and helping sell the play-action screen.

What followed was the brilliance of Shanahan’s system.

With the Seattle seven confused, and Petts drawing his man to the middle of the field, the entire left side of the field opened for Kittle.

For reasons known only to the Great Magnet, three Seattle defenders dropped in front of Pettis’ low cross. Bourne was double covered, and four of Seattle’s defensive linemen were scattered around the line of scrimmage.

Mullens stopped at the far hash, gathered his feet, and threw a gorgeous pass across the field to Kittle for 28 yards.

Savoring the Little Emotions

Shanahan loves to use motion in his offense, especially with his Y receiver. I’m sure you remember seeing Kittle and the other tight ends motion from a flanker position to a wing or even into the backfield.

In his terminology, Shanahan will tell the motioning receiver where to go. For example, “Z-Fly to Flank” sends his Z receiver from the right side of the field, speeding across to the left flanker position. “H-Bump to Dual” sends the running back from the quarterback’s right to the twin receivers on the right.

I’m guessing on Kittle’s motion on the above play. I believe Kittle is motioning into a Right Close formation, though I could be a little off.

“Fake 19 Wanda, Keep Right” is the term for a play-action and the quarterback keeping the ball to boot to the right. I’ve seen this used in a handful of Shanahan’s plays, so I’m confident in my guess. Further, “QB Keep” is a term used by West Coast Offense disciples.

The play above is from the 1997 Green Bay Packers playbook, drawn up by former 49er offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren.

Finally, “Y Leak” is telling the Y-receiver to delay his route to the left side of the field. I’ve heard many different offenses, from high school to professional, uses tags like this, such as “F-Delay” or “Y-Slow.” These tags merely tell a receiver to fake a block or even chip an edge rusher before running a route.

Since I am terrible at predicting games and watched approximately 47 minutes of college football this year, I am hoping to bring articles like this to you throughout the offseason.

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