Image Credit: Associated Press
The 49ers are entering the final days of preparation for the 2019 home opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The team chose to spend the time in-between road games against Tampa Bay and Cincinnati in Youngstown, Ohio in order to avoid multiple flights from California to the Eastern Time zone, and the strategy paid off. The 49ers followed up a 31-17 victory over the Buccaneers with a 41-17 thrashing of the Bengals. The decisive road wins mark the first time the 49ers have started 2-0 since 2012, and the first time they have won back-to-back road games to open a season since 1989.
Offensively, the 49ers played in fits and starts in Week 1 when they had three touchdowns called back because of penalties and managed just 256 yards of total offense. Week 2 was much smoother. The 49ers racked up 572 yards of total offense against the Bengals, including 259 yards rushing.
Sunday’s offensive display was impressive beyond the numbers on the stat sheet. Kyle Shanahan deployed the weapons at his disposal in a myriad of ways, for which, the Bengals appeared to have no answer.
The 49ers’ first touchdown was a prime example: on first-and-10 from the Bengals 38-yard line, the 49ers lined up in 21 personnel (2 wide receivers, 2 running backs and 1 tight end) and ran a hard play-action bootleg to their right. Marquise Goodwin was lined up in a tight split on the right side of the formation. At the snap, Goodwin began to work left against the flow of the other receivers and opposite of the boot action and as a result the defense completely lost track of Goodwin and left him wide open for an easy pitch and catch from Jimmy Garoppolo.
The touchdown to Goodwin was not a new play for the 49ers but rather a Shanahan staple run in a new way. Typically, the 49ers run that play with a tight end as the beneficiary of the misdirection, but Shanahan broke tendency on this one and it paid dividends in this game and perhaps some variant of it will pay dividends in the weeks to come.
The 49ers also went against tendency in the running game as well. Shanahan is known for using a zone running scheme, but in the first half against Cincinnati he used several power or counter runs. The subtle change in tendency allowed Breida and Mostert use their unique speed to gash the defense.
Kyle Shanahan held a play-calling masterclass at the expense of the Bengals’ defense last week using atypical run schemes or using established plays with different personnel and adding entirely new wrinkles, like a double pass with wide receiver Dante Pettis throwing back to Mostert; all of the things the 49ers have done on offense have come without three of their most important chess pieces.
In the offseason, the Niners signed running back Tevin Coleman, drafted wide receiver Jalen Hurd and saw a healthy Trent Taylor for the first time since his rookie year. Each of these players brings a unique skill set that could have a significant effect on the offense, but to this point only Coleman has been on the field and that was for just 18 snaps in the first half of the first game. Shanahan had said that he expects Coleman and Hurd back following the team’s Week 4 bye, though Taylor has since been placed on IR and is not expected back until mid-season. How will their returns change the offense?
Coleman is somewhat of a known quantity in a Kyle Shanahan directed offense having played under him when Shanahan was the offensive coordinator in Atlanta in 2015 and 2016. Coleman is a capable runner and receiver who has demonstrated a nose for the endzone, his 4 rushing and 5 receiving touchdowns last season would have led the 49ers in both categories. Coleman also brings an element of size to the 49ers backfield while also having the ability to hit a long run if the opportunity presents.
Taylor is also somewhat of a known quantity although he looked to be just a shell of himself in 2018 due to the lingering effects of offseason back surgery. In 2017, Taylor showed a knack for getting open on and converting third downs which immediately created a rapport with Jimmy Garoppolo. Taylor looked to be even more dynamic in camp this year, but has been on the shelf since undergoing surgery to repair a fracture at the base of his pinky toe where it connects to the foot prior to the preseason opener.
Unlike Coleman and Taylor, Jalen Hurd is truly an unknown quantity. Hurd played wide receiver for only one season at Baylor, prior to that he was the starting running back at Tennessee (ahead of Alvin Kamara). At 6-4, Hurd is too tall to be an every down running back and therefore wanted to switch to receiver and when Tennessee wasn’t on board with the switch he transferred to Baylor. Hurd showed just enough in the preseason, scoring two touchdowns against Dallas, to get the fans excited for what he could do in the offense.
The 49ers’ roster features several players with the versatility to effect both the running and passing games, but Hurd is the lynch pin that could make the offense particularly difficult to defend. For example in the first two weeks, the 49ers used 11-personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) and 21-personnel (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR) most frequently and with Hurd the 49ers could seamlessly morph between personnel groupings without taking anyone off of the field. Conceivably Hurd could line up as one of three wide receivers on one play and as one of two running backs on the next, all the while keeping the defense guessing as to which of its personnel packages to be in.
The 49ers are the only team in the NFL that has not had a 3-and-out this season, but their third down conversion rates have been up and down through two weeks (38 percent in Week 1, 56 percent in Week 2). Getting Trent Taylor back should help to stabilize that number as he has shown to be a security blanket for Jimmy Garoppolo and should help to take some of the load off George Kittle in those situations.
With a healthy Coleman to spell Matt Breida, the Niners will have two running backs with enough of an overlapping skill set that the entire playbook will be open regardless of which running back is in the game.
The 49ers offense looked close to unstoppable against the Bengals in Week 2 despite not having the full complement of weapons. Once everyone is healthy, the 49ers should take the next step towards being one of the NFL’s top offenses.
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