Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
But we got somethin’ old, and somethin’ new for y'all tonight...
Snoop Dogg, “Doggy Dogg World”
San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan is not an offensive genius.
Indeed, Shanahan has the knack to call the right play at the right time, and know that it’ll go for six points.
And, his system is filled with fancy terminology that makes dull play sound very complicated.
Shanahan has taken parts of the West Coast Offense, including a few borrowed plays from his dad, and made it into a system that works for him.
He’s borrowed his system from a master and calls the plays like a wizard – making him more of a prodigy than a genius.
But don’t cast a hateful spear into Shanahan’s side; he’s doing what hundreds of coaches have done before him: take something old and make it work in today’s game.
Shanahan’s running game consists of inside and outside zone plays, power, trap, and lead runs, split and full flow concepts, counters, and draws.
All of these have slight nuances that he’s altered to give a standard outside zone run a new twist or look.
During this offseason, Shanahan needs to review the ground section of his playbook and add a few new looks that can give the 49ers an edge in 2020.
The Wishbone Formation
The 1968 Texas Longhorns racked up 3,315 rushing yards on 642 attempts running a Wishbone offense.
Now, take a deep breath.
I’m not suggesting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo become an option quarterback – that’s not the right use of his skill set.
I am suggesting Shanahan look at the Wishbone formation for some of his running plays.
The Wishbone formation places the quarterback behind the center, with the fullback directly behind him.
Two running backs line up in a split formation behind the fullback. Shanahan can use five offensive linemen and two receivers or bring a tight end in to help block and split the X-receiver out wide.
The alignment of the backs doesn’t matter – Shanahan can still call a zone run from the formation because the rules for the offensive linemen do not change due to the backfield formation.
Zone runs tell the offensive line to block a gap, not a defensive lineman or linebacker.
Week 7 – 2nd Quarter: 3rd and 6 at the WAS 36 (15:00)
Weakside zone runs, called “Wanda” in Shanahan’s offense, have been a staple play for the 49ers since Shanahan was hired. “Wanda” is usually run from a single-back formation to strike the edge of the weak side.
The offensive line uses an outside zone push and rules to block. In the play above, the run was going left, which means each offensive lineman looks to his left to determine if he is covered or uncovered.
An offensive lineman is covered when a defender is between the lineman’s nose and the nose of the lineman to his left. The lineman is uncovered if that scenario is not occurring.
The covered lineman usually makes a reach block on the defender to his left. The uncovered lineman runs to the second level to pick off a linebacker or pesky safety.
While the Wishbone designates a back to run to a specific hole, zone runs have no predetermined destination. The back has to read the position of the defensive line and the blocks of his offensive line.
In “Wanda” the back is aiming for where a tight end would be on that side of the line. As the quarterback shoves the ball in his belly, the back must decide if he’s going to bounce outside, make a vertical cut, or bend back at an angle against the grain of the offensive line.
Even with Garoppolo under center and the fullback in the backfield, it doesn’t change the blocking scheme for the offensive line. It’s merely a new twist on an old play.
Garoppolo is not a threat to run, but he is a threat to pull the ball and boot to his right.
Week 14 – 1st Quarter: 1st and 10 at the SFO 25 (11:43)
The above diagram could be a play-action movement play Shanahan could run from the Wishbone formation. Again, nothing changes for the front. It’s a matter of modifying the routes to fit the structure.
Rather than tight end George Kittle running the shallow crossing route, he can adjust and send fullback Kyle Juszczyk on a “down flat” route – Juice would fake to his left before cutting back right and ending up in the flat.
Shanahan could also send Kittle on a “sift” block – blocking the right side of the line – and then send him into the field for a pattern late.
The Flexbone Formation
No doubt, the bulk of you reading just opened a new tab in Chrome and Googled “Flexbone offense.”
Unless you were playing at Turlock High in the mid-to-late 1990s or a diehard Navy football fan, you probably haven’t heard it of it.
The Flexbone is the unwanted bastard cousin of the Wishbone – it moves the backs to the outside hip of the weakside tackle and the right end, leaving the fullback directly behind the center.
Some coaches brought the tight end on the line of scrimmage, while others used two wide receivers split out from the formation. The Flexbone is still a triple-option threat, but trust me, teams can have a flat-footed quarterback and find success.
Oddly, Shanahan has a Flexbone formation in his offense already.
Again, Shanahan can take an old play – a power run – and run it from this formation to the weakside.
He could also pull the right guard as the lead block and send the H-back on a sift block to the backside. Again, if Garoppolo keeps the ball, he could boot right and have the Y receiver on a deep route, the H in the flat, and the X receiver on a low cross between 12 and 15 yards.
The 49ers finished second in the NFL with 2,305 total rush yards, with 23 touchdowns (first), and a 144.1-yards-per-game average (second).
Shanahan relied heavily on the running game to close the regular season. From Week 12 to 17, the 49ers’ offense rushed 149 times for 815 yards and ten touchdowns. That’s roughly 5.5 yards per rush average if you’re keeping notes.
Shanahan wouldn’t be the first 49er coach to use a Wishbone look to win football games.
During the strike-shortened 1987 season, legendary coach Bill Walsh brought the Wishbone to Monday Night Football to beat the New York Giants 41-21.
There’s no reason for Shanahan to give a complete overhaul to his playbook or his system. Slight nuances, such as borrowing old plays and adapting those to the modern game, is what gives good teams a crispy sharp edge.
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