Holding the Line: How Kyle Shanahan Can Best Use Trent Williams

Image Credit: CBS Sports

At some point, San Francisco 49er legend Joe Staley was going to retire. I tried to ignore the useless chatter from the talking heads – retirement talk for any great player feels like a reporter filling empty airtime.

Staley put in his time, and while it’s unfortunate he did not earn a Super Bowl ring, the Faithful will forever shower him in applause and honor Staley with a 1,000-bull sacrifice.

Replacing Staley was not going to be an easy job. And there was a point in the early offseason when I thought the 49er brass would move third-year veteran tackle Mike McGlinchey to left tackle and do its typical patchwork job to fill the right tackle position.

As usual, I was wrong.

Fortunately for the 49ers, executive management made a few shrewd moved during the 2020 NFL draft to acquire veteran left tackle Trent Williams from Washington.

Williams is not the typical offensive lineman usually pursued by general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan. He is a fourth-overall draft choice from the University of Oklahoma. While at Oklahoma, Williams was named to the first-team Big 12 twice and a unanimous All-American once.

The 49ers now have three first-round draft choices keeping quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo upright and carving running lanes for the backs.

Last April, Williams underwent surgery to remove a type of cancer on his head and did not play a snap for Washington last season. This spring, Washington permitted him to seek a trade.

Lynch and Shanahan could have replaced Staley with rookie tackle Tristan Wirfs or even dropped back in this year’s draft to select rookie Ezra Cleveland. Picking up a young player today secures the team’s future for the next five to seven years.

But the 49ers are competing for a title this season. There is no time to wait, and placing the Lombardi hopes in a rookie tackle is a high gamble. Lynch and Shanahan were able to find the best veteran tackle to replace Staley in terms of pedigree and background.

Williams’ knowledge of Shanahan’s offense should significantly ease his transition to the playbook.

Shanahan has noted that he doesn’t save plays, but that’s not entirely accurate. There are staples in his playbook, such as outside zone runs, 2/3 Jet pass protections, and a thick section of movement and play-action.

Indeed, Shanahan might have altered the play’s feel since Williams last saw it; but the foundation and the terminology remain.

Here’s how I expect to see Shanahan utilize Williams this fall:

2013 Season: Week 13, 1st Quarter - 1st and 10 at the NY 17 (10:44)

Shanahan’s zone runs attack every part of the formation, but he does utilize an outside zone more than anything.

He dedicates a few pages of his playbook to weakside runs called “Wanda,” which Shanahan calls with regularity.

There have been few alterations to “Wanda” since Shanahan left Washington in December 2013. “Wanda” is still executed from a single-back formation to hammer the edge of the weak side.

The offensive line uses outside zone rules to create space in the defensive line. In the play above, the run went 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.

Williams was covered on this run, giving him the assignment of relocating Giants’ defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka.

The best part of this film was watching Williams embarrass Kiwanuka. Pro Football Focus graded Kiwanuka dead last in overall defensive grading and tackling.

2013 Season: Week 13, 2nd Quarter - 3rd and 7 at the WAS 44 (15:00)

“Jet” protection is a staple drop back protection for the 49ers’ offense. Like any NFL-level blocking scheme, the line and blocking back need to be in harmony to keep a quarterback standing.

“300 Jet” told Washington’s offensive line to slide away from the call and let Williams and the back pick up the line’s left side. Most 3(00) Jet calls tell the offensive line to slide away from the Y receiver, while 2(00) Jet instructs them to slide toward the Y receiver.

The Giants’ free safety was in the box just a few yards away from the Plug linebacker. That look told Washington’s running back Roy Helu to read the Plug first and the free safety second.

Due to the Giants’ alignment, it looks like Williams, left guard Kory Lichtensteiger, and Helu worked a protection call like “Gap” that told Helu to block the A-gap. These are minor nuances that Williams does not have to relearn, a significant barrier Shanahan has removed.

That left Lichtensteiger to take the free safety, and Williams alone to shore up the left edge.

As much as I wanted Lynch to upgrade the interior positions on the offensive line, I was pleased he added Williams. However, the addition did not end the 49ers’ habit of picking up offensive linemen off the free-agent scrap heap.

Williams does give me confidence that the offense is just as good, if not better than they ended the 2019 season.

All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless noted.

All images courtesy of NFL.com.

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