Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
Despite a Super Bowl loss and all the media/Twitter fall-out that’s come from it, I am so happy to write a commentary that talks about what the San Francisco 49ers did best in 2019.
A commentary like this didn’t exist three years ago. Well, maybe it did – but the writer was sifting through the garbage dump in vain, with little to showcase except a broken shovel and a sack of rusted nails.
The 49ers’ offense ran 1,240 offense plays over 19 games, while the defense was on the field for 1,209 snaps. We’re going to differ on the top five plays from this past season; it’s likely your favorite moment isn’t on the list.
Yes, tight end George Kittle’s long, game-winning catch-and-run against the New Orleans Saints was the cherry on top of the season. But, it’s been reviewed already; so, let’s take a moment and look at a few others that made 2019 so enjoyable.
5. Week 3: 1st Quarter – 3rd and 5 at the PIT 25 (5:43)
Football blitz packages come and go, and vary slightly among defensive coordinators. The fire zone blitz called by 49ers’ defensive coordinator Robert Saleh during the Week 3 win over Pittsburgh wasn’t anything brand new.
But the blitz felt like it made a statement against the Steelers and helped solidify the 49ers as a defensive powerhouse.
Coming into Week 3, the 49ers’ defense already had eight sacks, four interceptions, and two defensive touchdowns. The defense was born again hardcore, as opposed to the jumbled mess it was in 2018.
Week 3 turned out to be an early test for Saleh and his defense. The 49ers’ offense had turned the ball over in the first quarter, on its way to five total turnovers and an afternoon of sloppy football.
Saleh and his defense must have known any chance of a victory was on their shoulders.
No longer would the 49ers take it easy on the opposing offense, and Saleh had the weapons and the scheme to crush the opponent. He could send four men and collapse the pocket, or get aggressive and send a fire zone blitz to bewilder and terrify second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph.
While the 49ers’ offense struggled, the 49ers’ defense held the Steelers to 239 total yards, generated two turnovers, and stated to the NFL they would not be ignored.
4. Week 2: 3rd Quarter – 1st and 10 at the SF 25 (15:00)
Head coach Kyle Shanahan called “Dagger” often in 2019 and found great success with the play. He called it to open the second half against Cincinnati and rookie wide receiver Deebo Samuel gained 39 yards.
My notes and diagrams indicate “Dagger” called at least three times throughout the season, with each play going to Samuel. He gained at least 80 yards on the dagger concept during his rookie year.
“Dagger” is not an intricate concept. The inside receiver runs a “deep thru” while the outside receiver runs a “Dover” route. There are probably thousands of high school playbooks littered with the same concept, or something close to it.
Of note, Shanahan also borrowed the “Dover” route from his dad but adjusted it slightly to fit his offense. Mike Shanahan used “Dover” in his 1994 playbook. Then, it was a deep in-breaking route that had the receiver making three moves at the top: a slant inside, up, and then a square break inside at 20 yards.
The “deep thru” is the first read on the play and sets the tone for the play’s success. The receiver must choose the angle at the near-high safety, roughly at 14 yards.
If there are two safeties, he takes a softer angle toward the middle. Against one safety, the receiver cuts sharply toward the post.
3. Week 5: 1st Quarter – 1st and 10 at the SF 17 (13:28)
Last year around this time, a high-powered suit was sitting in the spacious 190,000 square foot office of the NFL. Maybe he strolled out on the deck to look over Park Avenue, and a light bulb flickered on in his head.
“The Browns!” he thought with great wonder. “Nobody will see it coming. Brash, young quarterback. Good defensive players. Yes! The Dog Pound! We must get this to the marketing department!”
And so, the NFL carried out this Sisyphean dream.
And, in typical six-win Browns fashion, it did not come to pass.
The NFL owes us the name of this overpriced hack so we can all receive a written apology, preferably in the executive’s own blood.
Regardless, the Browns flew to Santa Clara after embarrassing the Baltimore Ravens in Week 4. Some NFL “experts” thought the Browns would give the 49ers a run for their money.
Third-year running back Matt Breida quickly silenced the doubters.
On the 49ers’ first play from scrimmage, Shanahan called “15 Suzy,” and Breida shot through the Browns’ porous defense for an 83-yard touchdown.
Breida’s run set the tone for the remainder of the game; the 49ers would stomp on the accelerator, embarrass the hapless Browns on both sides of the football, and earn their 49th Monday Night Football victory.
The Browns eventually benched quarterback Baker Mayfield, and the 49ers rocketed into the middle third of the season undefeated for the first time since 1990.
2. Nick Bosa vs. Baker Mayfield
I don’t feel the least bit bad about picking on the Browns. That franchise is a haunted disaster, built upon a toxic waste dump.
Rookie Nick Bosa decided the Monday Night game would be his official coming-out party. He throttled the Browns’ offensive line all evening, sacking Mayfield twice, making three run stops, and forcing a fumble.
Between the flag wave celebration and chasing Mayfield back onto an airplane, Bosa’s post-game comments added to the new rabid nature of the 49ers’ defense.
Q: Off microphone.
Bosa: I was kind of trying to talk - I don’t usually talk - but this game, he had it coming. But he (Mayfield) didn’t say one word back.
Q: What did you say?
Bosa: I don’t know, I was just screaming his name like, “Baker! Baker! You good? C’mon, pick it up! We want a challenge.”
1. Week 6: 2nd Quarter – 2nd and 10 at the SF 49 (14:52)
Tight end George Kittle caught 85 passes this year for 1,053 yards and five touchdowns. All Kittle moments are top plays, even when he’s just blocking. Any catch, block, or occasional rush could be considered as the 49ers’ best offensive play.
Kittle’s versatility is what makes him the top tight end in professional football, and it’s why this is my most memorable play from 2019.
Buried deep in Shanahan’s playbook is a play-action he borrowed from his dad called “Scissors.” Indeed, the younger Shanahan adjusted it to fit his scheme.
Typically, Shanahan calls “Scissors” from a trips formation. The far outside receiver runs a post that breaks in at 18 yards. The inside receiver runs a “rub spread,” which is a route that breaks inside at 4-to-6 yards, and then immediately toward the sideline. The Y receiver runs a corner route that breaks outside at 12 yards.
But Shanahan had to make an additional change as fullback Kyle Juszczyk was inactive for the Week 6 game against the L.A. Rams due to a sprained MCL.
Early in the 2nd quarter, Shanahan asked Kittle to take one snap at fullback, and rewarded him by calling “P15 Wanda F Scissors.”
Kittle took full advantage of the surprise formation, play, and soft spot in the Rams’ coverage. He gained 45 yards on the play, taking the ball to the Rams’ 6-yard line.
The sting of a second Super Bowl loss still lingers, but we must move past the time of mourning. Football is finished, but the time to gather stones together will be upon us before we realize it.
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