• Bret Rumbeck

What Is and What Could Be: 49ers Plays from 2018 That We Can Expect to See in 2019

Image Credit: Getty Images

NFL fans are teetering on seasonal equinox; the 2018 season is a distant spot in the rearview mirror, but even with training camp officially starting this week, the start of the 2019 season still has the kids in the backseat asking if we’re there yet.

Like you, I have been looking forward to the start of San Francisco 49ers season for months – I want to see what a fully armed offense and two new edge rushers can bring to this year’s roster.

I thought a play breakdown, a 17-yard completion from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to tight end George Kittle, might add more gasoline to our excitement for pro football season to start.

As usual, I want to make it very clear that I am making a few assumptions in my breakdown. Head coach Kyle Shanahan has probably altered his offense since he left Atlanta, but his language remains consistent.

Week 2: 2nd Quarter: 2nd and 13 at the DET 47 (15:00)

The 49ers began a 13-play, 88-yard touchdown drive with 2:39 left in the first quarter. After finishing the first quarter with a two-yard run from running back Alfred Morris, head coach Kyle Shanahan called in the following play:

Z Fly to Weak Right, 3 Scat, Z Under F Thru

I am 85-percent confident in the terminology in the play call. I know the motion, formation, and protection calls are accurate; Shanahan’s use of passing tags is what keeps me guessing. Sometimes he adds the tag first – 3 Scat X Branch Buffalo. Other plays, he’ll add it at the end – 200 Scat Dragon F Over. And, occasionally, he uses one tag, and everyone else needs to know the route – 3 Jet F Arches.

In the play above instance, only the Z and F receivers were told the routes, while the X and Y had to know their assignments without a tag.

Z-receiver Pierre Garcon motioned across the formation just beyond the numbers on the left. Shanahan uses the “under” route as the hot route in different plays, and I am guessing Garcon was “hot” in this instance.

X-receiver Richie James ran a seam, while Morris ran into the flat, and Y-receiver Garrett Celek ran an “over” route. 49er receivers have a precise way to know where to go on an ‘“over” route: The guy on the ball, in this case, Detroit linebacker Christian Jones, is over the ball. Therefore, that’s where Celek ended up.

3-Scat gave Morris a free release into the play and told the offensive line that the uncovered lineman had a dual pick-up.

Kittle ran a “thru” route, which looks like an extended and lazy version of a “Texas” route.

Garcon’s motion revealed the Lions in a Cover 1-man. Cornerback Darius Slay followed Garcon across the field and did not bump cornerback Teez Tabor outside to once Garcon was set.

Detroit rushed four men, which seemed odd. I was curious if linebacker Jarrad Davis was supposed to blitz or drop into a middle hook. Oddly, he did not take much of a drop, hardly moving from his position on the field. Mistake or not, his lack of movement shut down any chance of Garoppolo throwing to Garcon on the “under” route. Davis made an impact without doing anything, which is something all of us should aspire to.

At the snap, Garoppolo looked to his left for a split second. I assumed he was looking for Garcon on the “under” route. Garoppolo must have noticed Garcon was not at the top of his route yet and Davis would be in the throwing lane.

Great quarterback play in a West Coast system is filled with little nuances that can make or break a play. One critical element is to not be indecisive and to look to the front side of the play if needed. That’s how Garoppolo found Kittle.

You can see in the shot above that Garoppolo went to the front side and saw the massive hole in Detroit’s coverage where Kittle would be. I tried to estimate how much open field Detroit failed to cover, but my math is genuinely awful.

It doesn’t matter if you credit the scheme, the route running or just plain luck – Kittle was wide open.

In an NFL Films video, the late Bill Walsh noted that his pass offense was, “… high percentage, timed passing.” Part of that was the quarterback moving in time with his receivers. A three-step drop, hitch, and throw were all timed in sync with the receiver, so the quarterback could deliver a pass at a specific moment and a precise location on the field.

Find videos of Walsh or ask any other offensive genius about ball placement, and you’ll hear why it’s critical to hit a receiver in stride. Too far behind him eliminates any yards after the catch; too far in front would result in an incompletion, the receiver diving for the ball or a possible interception.

Garoppolo did not hit Kittle in stride. The ball was behind Kittle, which caused him to reach back to catch it. Kittle only had three yards after the catch but had the potential to run another 36 yards for six points.

It’s not a knock on Garoppolo – every quarterback will throw a ball off target during a game. But these are the small things the 49ers have not done well over the last two seasons. It is the sum of the little things that separate “just okay” teams from champions.

The 49ers’ offensive line had decent protection for Garoppolo, though guard Mike Person was pushed too far into the pocket by Detroit defensive lineman Da’Shawn Hand. This could have disrupted Garoppolo’s timing and led to the slightly off-the-mark pass to Kittle.

I guessed the protection was “3 scat” for a few reasons. First, Morris had a free release into the flat. In “Jet” protection, the back’s responsibility is to assist the tackle with the edge. Second, “Jet” protection slides four offensive linemen in one direction – strong or weak – with the back and tackle protecting the opposite side.

Third, “scat” protection reminds the center that if he is uncovered, he has dual pick-up – popping out to help his guard or tackle, which was what Richburg did. Richburg dropped three steps back before moving to his left to help guard Laken Tomlinson with nose tackle A’Shawn Robinson.

Garoppolo completed seven passes on this drive, capping it with a four-yard touchdown pass to Kendrick Bourne.

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