Hiding in Plain Sight: How Coach Shanahan Put the 49ers Offense in Position to Succeed
Image Credit: 49ers
Scheming a Victory and a Confidence Reboot through Counter-Intelligence
and Neutralizing Trouble-Makers
Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald is the NFL's troublemaker. He is not a player who goes silently into the stat book and not someone an offensive coordinator can merely ignore.
Naturally, San Francisco 49ers' head coach and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan crafted a game plan that not only resulted in a Week 6 victory but neutralized Donald and began to rebuild quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo's confidence.
Shanahan made it look easy to avoid Donald. He utilized Jet motion, double-team blocks and found a way to inspire his offensive line to play its best football.
Here's how he did it and why it might salvage the 49ers’ 2020 season.
Reset and Rebuild Garoppolo
Some quarterbacks can jump into any situation and already have the feel of a game.
Jimmy Garoppolo is not one of those quarterbacks.
And that's not a problem - all athletes approach a game or a situation differently. Just don't expect Garoppolo to open a game with a four-read pass with all deep routes and be incredibly successful.
Garoppolo needs a high tempo opening drive with a series of three-step timing throws to set the foundation for his game. It's a bit elementary, but Shanahan was able to sprinkle in exactly what Garoppolo needed throughout the first, third, and fourth drives of the game.
1st Quarter: 2nd and 3 at the SF 32 (3:00)
Whatever has been bothering Garoppolo, the bad ankle or a few seeds of doubt germinating in his brain, was quickly exorcised early in the game.
The play above is a modified version of “24 Z Bench Miami X Swirl,” typically run from a gun formation, with split-flow protection and a seven-step drop.
What sets Shanahan apart from his peers is his ability to modify any play to fit the situation.
Shanahan had Garoppolo run it from under center, told the line to block aggressively, and had tight end George Kittle be the first read in the progression.
Usually, the play has a deep bench route as the primary read. However, the go and the “Miami” routes were the window dressing to clear the Rams' secondary from the flat.
2nd Quarter: 1st and 10 at the SF 49 (6:11)
Last week, Shanahan called “X-Rider” while backup quarterback C.J. Beathard was under center. Beathard had wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk open on the hi-cross route, but double-clutched and checked the ball down to running back Jeff Wilson Jr. in the flat.
Garoppolo was gaining confidence, especially after a 10-play drive that resulted in a 44-yard touchdown pass to Kittle on fourth-and-2. It was apparent he was beginning to feel more comfortable in the pocket. It also helped he had excellent pass protection on the play.
These small elements gave Garoppolo what he needed to sit back and find wide receiver Kendrick Bourne for 25 yards.
Negating Aaron Donald
Sometimes, the best way to deal with a significant problem is to ignore it, and it will disappear. Maybe Shanahan had a few days of insomnia trying to come up with a way to contain Aaron Donald, or perhaps he figured out early in the week the solution: Ignore him.
The 49ers' offensive line was coming into Week 6 on pace to allow 58 sacks in 2020 and was about to go up against the NFL's most feared defensive lineman.
So rather than conduct an extreme overhaul, Shanahan found a way around his problem.
2nd Quarter: 4th and 2 at the LAR 44 (14:21)
For as much grief as the offensive line has rightly earned this season, their Week 6 performance should provide shreds of hope that the front five can improve as this season chugs along.
The 49ers' were in an ideal spot to run a play on fourth down. As both teams lined up, the Rams were in zero coverage and ready to bring the heat.
Shanahan had called a “scat” protection, which meant running back Raheem Mostert had a free release into the play.
Garoppolo could have audibled and changed his protection to keep Mostert in to block.
Instead, he let it roll and trusted his offensive line would get the job done, even though they were outnumbered.
Cover 0 is a high-risk, high-reward defense. The six Rams stunting needed to force a bad throw or sack Garoppolo. With no safety help, the middle of the field was vulnerable – and Garoppolo knew it. With no safety help, the middle of the field was wide open.
These short seconds were a huge moment and a psychological boost for the offensive line.
4th Quarter: 1st and 10 at the SF 25 (3:24)
The 49ers' success on the ground against the Rams was another key to their victory. A solid ground attack sets up Shanahan's play-action and movement pass plays.
Unfortunately, Mostert injured his ankle midway through the game and will be out for the next few weeks.
However, rookie running back JaMycal Hasty took advantage of the situation to help the 49ers close out the game.
There were other runs on Sunday evening that were just as exciting but left guard Laken Tomlinson came through when needed to help Hasty gain ten yards.
“18 Force” has been run often this season with great success. It is a full flow, outside zone run play that attacks the edge of the strong side. Hasty reads his blocks from the outside-in, which allows him to cut back against the grain if he chooses.
Tomlinson had a difficult block on the play. Donald aligned in a 4i-technique, which should have given him an edge to get around Tomlinson. Donald went with the line's flow, which made Tomlinson's job easier - keep shoving Donald to his right and then work his feet around to seal him off for good.
So, What About Going Forward?
Garoppolo has not completed a downfield pass over 20 yards this season. He's 0-for-8 with no yards and one interception.
His intermediate throws, between 10 and 20 yards, are not much better. He is 13-for-22 for 263 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. These stat lines are something you'd read in a high school football box score, not from a professional quarterback.
And while shovel passes to Deebo Samuel are fun to watch, the 49ers cannot continue to go to the well on that play and expect constant success. Garoppolo needs to connect on plays like F-Leak, which he overthrew at the 7:58 mark in the fourth quarter.
The foundation of the West Coast offense is short, timed passes that were extended handoffs. There's nothing wrong with continuing to use the short passing game, but Garoppolo is going to have to start having success further downfield.
That success also depends on a solid offensive line. A porous offensive line will throw off the timing between Garoppolo's footwork and the receiver's route. If the offensive line regresses and cannot hold back a rush, the 49ers' will not stretch the field vertically.
Shanahan had some significant challenges coming into the game and was able to get his quarterback and offensive line moving in the right direction. Indeed, both Garoppolo and the line still have flaws, but maybe this was the game everyone needed to get their minds wired correctly.
All images courtesy of NFL.com.
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless noted.
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