Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
Between the final gun of a Super Bowl and the opening whistle of Week 1 of a new NFL season is like sailing in a hot doldrum for months. In past years, minicamps and OTAs were enough for fans to vacuum the wind for their sails.
Yet, we are on the eve of the 2020 NFL season, eight months after the Super Bowl, and entering Week 1, not truly knowing what the San Francisco 49ers can do. We have no substance, but shrouds of mystery on how the rookies performed in camp and what veterans might be roster gems this fall.
But the mystery gives this Sunday's game against the Arizona Cardinals more of a Christmas feel; fans do not know what to expect from the 49ers or how any NFL team will perform in an empty stadium.
Take a moment and rejoice in this small glimmer of normalcy. The NFL starts this week, and your 49ers are on their 2020 revenge tour.
The lack of preseason puts every NFL franchise on equal footing. There's nothing new on film, and the opposition has no idea what new additions head coach Kyle Shanahan might have added or modified in his playbook.
No team has played at game speed for months, which means timing passes may take a few weeks to hone. A defense might be hungry to finally lay waste to an opponent in a different color jersey, making them prime for a well-timed play-action or movement play.
I'd love for Shanahan to open the season with an explosive play, but it makes more sense to build the offense's confidence in one another.
An ideal opening play for the 49ers would be the lead run Shanahan called early in the NFC Championship Game.
NFC Championship Game: 1st Quarter – 3rd and 8 at the GB 36 (6:01)
Shanahan has crafted a modern-day West Coast Offense, filled with borrowed designs to fit a 21st-Century NFL. But in between the high-flying pass offense are pages of power lead and trap runs, something very similar to what your high school coach used to draw on an overhead projector.
Veteran running back Raheem Mostert scored his first of four touchdowns last January with a trap play that caught Green Bay completely surprised.
Shanahan needs to consider opening the game with the same play, assuming Arizona's defense is ready for a staple outside zone run.
In case you forgot, a trap run tells one guard to pull to one side of the formation and block a deliberately uncovered defender. The rest of the linemen block down or move to the second level, away from the pulling guard.
On this play, the 49ers left Packer outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell unblocked. At the snap, left tackle Joe Staley executed a surprising swim move over Fackrell to move to the second level. Fackrell was expecting to get hit but flamed out in Staley's jet wash.
Right guard Mike Person pulled to his left, but nearly had nothing to do on the play. Fackrell's flat spin caused him to hit the chilly turf in a heap, which then had a domino effect. His lifeless body tripped up outside linebacker Preston Smith. All Person did was smash Fackrell into the turf, and Mostert was free to scamper 36 yards for six points.
Week 2: 3rd Quarter – 1st and 10 at the SF 25 (15:00)
Shanahan called “Dagger” often last season with tremendous success. He called it to open the second half against Cincinnati, and rookie wide receiver Deebo Samuel gained 39 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.
“Dagger” is an excellent Cover-2 beating play, especially with a solid fake from the running back to freeze the linebackers. Cover-2 is vulnerable to in-breaking routes, as the middle of the field is often left open. With “Dagger,” both in-breaking routes place one safety in a situation to make the wrong decision.
It's an intermediate route and a great way to build quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo's confidence in his receivers.
Tight end George Kittle is the heart of the 49ers. There's no question of what he can do at any moment with or without the ball.
Whatever Shanahan's strategy, it needs to include Kittle on the opening series. Call a series of runs and have Kittle lead block for each one or run Kittle on various short routes like Thunder, Lion, or Stick and get the ball in his hands.
I want to hear Kittle's infectious whoops and war cries and his sideline taunting of Arizona safety Budda Baker.
Ultimately, Shanahan's preparation for Sunday is what will set the tone for the 49ers this season.
Last year, the 49ers made significant upgrades to the defensive end positions, which paid off in spades. NFL quarterbacks were running in fear of then-rookie Nick Bosa and veteran Dee Ford, but something odd happened to the defense after the big Week 8 win over Carolina.
For reasons yet unknown, the defensive line and linebackers decided they'd never played against a running quarterback or had ever seen an offense run a zone-read.
Against Arizona in Week 9, 49er edge defenders decided to knife down the scrimmage line and ignored their responsibility to find the ball carrier. Their fundamental breakdown carried over to the linebackers, who were lazy on their scrape exchanges.
Arizona's rookie quarterback Kyler Murray might have been am unknown quantity coming into Week 9 last year, but the 49ers repeated their confused, underprepared performance against him in Week 11.
Week 9 – 3rd Quarter: 1st and 10 at the ARZ 37 (11:22)
In the two games against Arizona, Murray gained 111 yards on the ground on 13 rushing attempts. That's 8.5 yards per attempt for those scoring at home.
Bosa's problem wasn't just with Murry, but also with Seattle quarterback Russel Wilson. In the play below, Wilson was able to complete an easy pass to wide receiver DK Metcalf.
Week 10 – 2nd Quarter: 2nd and 10 at the SF 16 (15:00)
Maybe I read the play entirely wrong, or perhaps this is the right way to play the edge, but Bosa and defensive end Robert Blair shot straight down the line of scrimmage and got caught too far inside. For a few weeks, these errors became a vulnerable area of the defense.
Saleh needs to ensure his edge defenders remain aggressive while containing their area. Whoever is on the edge needs to hold his ground until he sees where the ball or a lead blocker is going.
It's a strange time to be alive, but sports are gradually adding in flavors of what the world can be like once we emerge on the other side.
Enjoy 49er football this weekend.
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