• Bret Rumbeck

Kyle Shanahan and the Run Game Rejuvenation

Image Credit: 49ers

"You know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It's freedom from fear. It's a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you're doing, it's okay."

Don Draper.

With the Christmas season upon us, I already know my first gift of the Yuletide. I'd like to buy San Francisco 49ers' head coach Kyle Shanahan a Coke.

Like you, I want to know more about what goes into running a football team. Indeed, Bill Walsh gave everyone an idea with his length book Finding the Winning Edge - but that was 30 years ago. The foundational elements probably still exist, but I want to sit down with Shanahan and learn what goes through his head as he prepares for the opposition.

Early on, Shanahan had games where the calls lacked cohesion; however, he is limited in what plays work best for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and what does not. 'Leak,' a movement play that has the team flowing in one direction and a rogue receiver going against the grain, has not been used in a dog's age.

And while we casually sipped our soda, I'd ask Shanahan more about why he abandoned the run game in the Week 9 loss to the Arizona Cardinals. Was it a fear of the Cardinals' defensive front, or did he want to put the victory on Garoppolo's arm?

Since there is an infinitesimal likelihood of Shanahan and I ever sitting down to break bread, I must assume he went into a deep meditation, diving into the subconscious of the universe for answers.

After a journey to the center of all infinity, he awoke with a smile on his face and a new commitment to the ground game – no matter the front and no matter the opposition.

Over the last three weeks, the 49ers have amassed 535 yards on the ground on 125 attempts. Approximately 65% of their offense has been running the ball, compared to 42% during Weeks 5-9.

Even with running back Elijah Mitchell sidelined in Week 11, Shanahan stuck with his rebirth and fed the ball to Jeff Wilson, Jr. 19 times and Trey Sermon 10 times. He also relied on the Deadpool package, handing the ball to wide receiver Deebo Samuel 8 times for 79 yards and a touchdown.

With Mitchell back against Minnesota, Shanahan called 39 runs and handed the ball to Mitchell 27 times for 133 yards and a touchdown.

Below are three of Mitchell's best runs against the Vikings.

1st Quarter - 2nd and 4 at the MIN 35 (6:21)

Mitchell's longest run of the day came during the 49ers' second offense.

Garoppolo brought the team to the line and immediately shifted tight end Ross Dwelley across the formation. The 49ers were now in a 'West Right Ace' look as Garoppolo surveyed the Vikings' defense.

Garoppolo' canned' the first play, which told the 49ers the new play was 'Toss 18 Zap.'

'Zap' is run from a single back formation and attacks strong. The back's target is the tight end's outside leg, and he reads the gaps from outside to inside.

You might note that the play designated the '8' hole for the back, but the zone run scheme does not demand the back hit that mark. He can 'bend' back against the grain to an open lane, which Mitchell did.

Left tackle Trent Williams' infamous shove block on Vikings' defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson opened the backside lane for Mitchell. Richardson and Williams hitting the turf inadvertently tripped up strong safety Harrison Smith, leaving no Viking in the area to tackle Mitchell.

Deebo Samuel would score on the next play to tie the game at seven.

1st Quarter – 1st and 10 at the SF 31 (3:15)

On the next series, Shanahan went back to 'Zap,' this time making it a run-pass option play.

Garoppolo shifted tight end Charlie Woerner to the outside of George Kittle's hip, and the team settled into a 'West Left' formation.

At the snap, Garoppolo placed the ball in Mitchell's belly but came up looking to throw to wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk who was running a 'dart' route. Some of Shanahan's RPOs are easy to spot because one receiver is running a 'dart' or possibly stepping back for a wide receiver screen.

Mitchell cut off Woerner and Kittle's blocks to gain 10 yards.

Unfortunately, the 49ers would punt three plays later.

2nd Quarter – 2nd and 6 at the SF 44 (5:16)

Shanahan loves to attack the edges of the strong and weak sides using runs like 'Wanda,' 'Force,' and 'Sideline.' He also has plays that feign a weak or strong run and then cut back in the opposite direction.

Previously, I've shared '14/15 Suzy,' which flows weak and cuts back to the strong side. Against the Vikings, Shanahan called '14 Arc Bend,' a play that flows strong and then cuts back weak.

'Arc Bend' is an older play in Shanahan's book, dating back to his time in Washington, if not further. The fullback sells the strong run with his first three steps (the arc), then cuts back to block the end man on the line of scrimmage (the bend).

The running back follows suit, and the offensive line sells a strong side zone run. These three factors, the fullback, the running back, and the line, force the defense to respond to Pavlovian conditioning and flow in the wrong direction.

Once the defense was out of position, fullback Kyle Juszczyk then cut back to the weak side, with Mitchell in tow for a ten-yard gain.

An overemphasis on the run has proven successful for Shanahan and Garoppolo. Hopefully, Shanahan keeps his offensive trend going this weekend against our hated rivals to the north.

Images and video courtesy of NFL.com.

All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless noted.

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