Anatomy of a Play: Breaking Down the Playbook Part 1
Image Credit: New York Giants
Like a Patient Etherized Upon a Table: Breaking Down the 49ers’ Offense
My parents shared a fantastic lesson in test taking when I was in second grade.
“Always look for free answers on your test or anywhere in the classroom. Not off your neighbor, but anywhere else.”
I wasn’t really sure what a “free answer” was or how I’d find it in the classroom, but I kept it in mind. One morning, we were taking a spelling test which included spelling all twelve months of the year. I was grossly unprepared to spell anything more than May or June.
“January… spell January,” said Mrs. Albritton.
I was toast. I looked up at the ceiling, but all that I saw was the weather vane mobiles blowing in an air-conditioned breeze. I looked back at my pencil, pushed away from my desk with my eyes getting ready to spill over in failure when… there it was! Even in all of her brains and beauty, Mrs. Albritton forgot to take the birthday months down from the corner wall.
Free answers, kids. Always look for free answers.
Week 10: Kyle Shanahan Post-Game Press Conference
Reporter: It was a three-yard pass to WR Kendrick Bourne and was anyone open beyond the sticks? What did you see on that play?
Shanahan: Yeah, there’s five guys out on a route. There’s lots of stuff that goes on. We called H Arches, I don’t know if you know what that is, but someone fell under the arches, you have to go across the board to the shallow. He got hit by a plugger, and we were a little bit late to it, because the guard, someone flashed across Nick’s face, so he couldn’t throw it on time. He threw it a little later, and the defense recovered and stopped us short. (Source)
San Francisco 49ers head coach not only gave one of our favorite reporters a lot of attitude in his response, but he gave us a free answer.
The play the 49ers ran late in the fourth quarter against the New York Giants was H-Arches, a Shanahan staple play from his days in Atlanta.
Week 10 vs. New York Giants – Fourth Quarter: 3rd and Goal at the NYG 15. (2:59)
Play: Trouble Right Bunch, H-Left, 2 Scat, H Arches, X Bench
I’m guessing on the motion term that brought running back Matt Breida from a plus-split to the backfield, but I’m confident in the remainder of Shanahan’s terminology.
Both wide receiver Marquise Goodwin and tight end George Kittle cleared the field with deep routes. Goodwin ran a bench while Kittle ran a corner. Wide receiver Dante Pettis’ speed out occupied the defensive back on the left side of the field.
These route combinations opened the middle of the field for the quarterback and exposed the soft, blue belly of the Giants’ defense.
Wide receiver Kendrick Bourne ran what Shanahan calls an “Eliminator” route. I’ve seen this called a drag or drive route in some offenses.
After motioning into the backfield, running back Matt Brieda ran the “Arches” route. It looks like a “Texas” route from Bill Walsh’s West Coast System, but Shanahan uses a rounded pattern, while a “Texas” route tells the back to run at an angle to the right, and then slant left.
Quarterback Nick Mullens’ first two reads in an Arches play are the Arch and the Eliminator routes. I am unclear which was the primary route in this play, and it would be arrogant and rude of me to divine an answer.
Mullens at the Top of the Drop
Mullens took a short drop to gather his feet, and for the briefest of moments, nobody was open. He had protection to scan the field, and he must have noticed the Mike linebacker was alone with 90 square yards of chunky Levi’s grass to cover.
The play still needs time to develop, but it’s clear this was the right call against a vulnerable defense.
One Second Later: Mullens Still Scanning the Field
In one second the International Space Station travels 7.7 kilometers. In a football game, one second can mean the difference between covered and wide open. A second later, Bourne was wide open with at least a full two steps on the linebacker. Breida was covered, so Mullens should have let the ball go at this instant.
Still Waiting and Bourne is Still Open
In Shanahan’s response to the intrepid reporter, he said, “He got hit by a plugger…because the guard… flashed across Nick’s face.”
Kyle Shanahan is and always will be infinitely smarter than I am. However, I watched this play 15 times and did not see a single 49er receiver get hit by a Giant during the route. A Giant defensive lineman did flash for a second, but Mullens still had time to deliver the ball. Bourne has his defender behind him and the safety six yards away.
You’ll Use Geometry One Day!
Instead, Mullens holds the ball and is forced to scramble. By the time he’s ready to deliver it, he had to make a 22.5-yard throw across the field for a three-yard gain.
Here are a few shots taken within seconds of one another from behind the line of scrimmage.
Top of the Drop
Mullens was looking down the middle of the field when he hit his back foot. From this angle, it’s clear the linebacker was not in any position to cover Bourne. That’s a match-up heavily in favor of the 49ers, but I’m not sure why Mullens didn’t spot it in this instant.
A Second Later, and a Shift in the Body
But a split second later, Mullens shifted his entire body left but kept his head looking down the middle of the field. He could have been trying to fool the defense into thinking he was going to Goodwin, but in this position, it looks like he’s going to throw to Bourne. Breida, outlined in the red box, was running the Arches route but was covered by the linebacker.
The Play Goes South
At this point, Mullens wasn’t sure where to go with the ball. Bourne was now wide open, but Mullens kept his body left and looked back at Breida’s route. Mullens had no choice but to keep scrambling and see what he could salvage with his feet.
So, to answer our cunning reporter’s question on behalf of Coach Shanahan, no, there was not a 49er open beyond the sticks. However, if you understood how Arches worked, there wasn’t a need for a 49er to be open beyond the sticks.
Nick Mullens didn’t read the play correctly and missed a wide-open Bourne early in the route. Mullens then had to make something happen with his feet, forcing him to make a long throw for a very short gain.
Yes, young lad, some plays ask receivers to run beyond the first down marker to ensure enough yardage is gained to keep advancing the ball. But the beauty of Arches is the receiver doesn’t have to. If it's run like it was against the Giants, the receiver only needs a short route to make a big gain.
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