Exploiting the Defenses from Around the NFC West
Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
One play in professional football lasts anywhere between four and twelve seconds. And while that short time is filled with little nuances to savor, the offense’s goal remains very elementary: throw or run to where the defense is not.
There’s a quote San Francisco 49ers’ head coach Kyle Shanahan gave during Super Bowl LIV media week that’s stuck in my head for the last eight months. A reporter asked about installing a game plan and putting it together.
“No one ever really saves a play. There’s not the magical playbook. It’s just tying your guys together, going against whatever schemes, fronts, and coverages you’re going against. I would be very surprised if anyone in the history going forward could ever come up with a new play. There’s only five eligibles, and it’s probably been done before.”
Indeed, there are no wizards in the NFL who have a mystical spellbook that summons the ghost of Jim Thorpe to blast through a defensive line. Success between four and twelve seconds has many fathers – luck, skill, brains, and possibly divine intervention.
Maybe Shanahan has something on his side, but he made it very clear why the 49ers’ offense is successful. His eleven men are prepared to find a way through whatever scheme, front, or coverage is before them. They will take any play and find that lush-green spot of turf the opposing defense failed to cover.
Week 6: 2nd Quarter – 2nd and 10 at the SF 49 (14:52)
Tight end George Kittle’s 45-yard catch against the LA Rams was my favorite 49ers’ play from the 2019 season. Kittle didn’t score, but the play was Shanahan’s best display of ingenuity and calling the right play against the wrong coverage.
“Scissors” is a play-action Shanahan borrowed from his dad, but adjusted to fit the 2019 49ers’ 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 4-6 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 LA 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.”
Week 9: 4th Quarter - 3rd and 11 at the SF 16 (8:34)
As Shanahan noted, there is no magical playbook, but he has taken many plays from the West Coast Offense and upgraded them to fit the 21st century.
In the 1982 49ers playbook, the late Bill Walsh dedicated a bulk of his passing game to the 20-series.
Some past and present coaches call the 20 series’ “split-flow” protection; Walsh described it as “divide” or “split” protection. Shanahan still uses the 20 series today, although he does not call it often.
Shanahan used 25 protection when the 49ers needed a big play on third down against Arizona. As usual, Shanahan put a twist on the call, instructing Kittle to “fly” into a gold formation.
Once left tackle Justin Skule had control of the defensive end, Kittle was able to release into the play while running back Tevin Coleman worked with right tackle Daniel Brunskill to halt defensive end Terrell Suggs.
Later in the game, Shanahan called the same play but flipped it to Gold Right Ace and gave both backs a free release.
Week 10: 2nd Quarter – 1st and 10 at the SF 8 (10:39)
The Seattle Seahawks are not only an annoying franchise, they are utterly predictable.
Seattle’s defense was all the rage a few years ago, bearing two children: The Legion of Boom and the 12s. Since then, the Legion crumbled to dust and scattered to the wind, but the brand new 12s still exist, knowing nothing of football other than yelling and the tired mantra that they’ve been “Seahawks fans for years.”
What’s also stuck around is Seattle head coach Pete Carroll’s tendency to rely on a Cover 3 heavily.
Of course, Shanahan has a stack of plays that can slice a Cover 3 defense like a sickle through a dying Soviet grain field.
The double in-routes, or “both hammer” as listed in the playbook, found the empty hole in the Seattle defense.
Seattle’s secondary took the bait on the play, leaving a massive gap in the middle of the field.
The safety started the play 15 yards off the line of scrimmage and dropped another six yards into coverage. As you can see from the screenshot, the safety was still in a backpedal when both 49er receivers broke inside.
Both Seattle linebackers cut their reads short to cover the “over” route. The combination of a deep safety and no linebackers in the hook-to-curl zone left the cornerbacks isolated and out of position.
Wide receiver Deebo Samuel gained 19 yards on the play, though it ultimately stalled six plays later.
The NFC West rivals can add all the talent they want to their respective defenses. And some of those new additions will make an impact and slow the 49ers’ offense from time to time – that’s how football works.
Kyle Shanahan has the tools and talent to find ways around those players, either by wearing them down with the same look or route or with a concept that is rich in deception.
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference.
All images courtesy of NFL.com.
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