• Bret Rumbeck

Plays the 49ers Should Run to Win Sunday Against Detroit

Image Credit: Getty Images

The first week of the NFL season is compensation for all fans who suffer through an arduous offseason. Despite our penance – like debating the season schedule the moment it gets issued – we are forgiven and can watch live football starting Thursday.

Your San Francisco 49ers have an early game on Sunday against the Detroit Lions. Yes, the last two times the 49ers opened a season against the Lions were in 1981 and 1984. Indeed, the 49ers won a Super Bowl in those seasons.

No, Gentle Reader: Opening against the Lions this year means nothing. Mathematical coincidence does not equal success.

Head coach Kyle Shanahan will start veteran quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to open the year. Trey Lance might be the heir apparent, but it isn’t a shocking move from Shanahan.

As Shanahan prepares Garoppolo, he must build a game plan that gets Garoppolo confident and into an early rhythm. Garoppolo is not a quarterback to open a game with a 65-yard pass. He needs a first and second series that includes tempo throws and quick reads.

There’s nothing wrong with an athlete getting a feel of the ebb and flow of the game – that’s sport, and each athlete finds a mental groove differently.

Some of the plays below have been a safety blanket for Garoppolo, while others are excellent tempo plays. If Garoppolo can complete these passes early, he will find success against the Lions.


“Lion Y Over” is a three-step drop that has twin receivers running mirrored slant routes. The Z-receiver, lined up on the opposite side, also runs a slant while the Y-receiver runs an “over” route.

The Y keys on the defender who aligns over the ball; his rule of thumb is whoever is on the ball is over the ball. After he gets to that spot, he sits but can flow to his left or right if needed.

With the line in “scat” protection, the back has a free release into the play. Usually, the back is running into the float or possibly a swing route.

The Y receiver is not the first read in the progression, but let’s assume it’s tight end George Kittle. I see no reason for Garoppolo to find Kittle quickly and let one of his best receivers do some damage to the Lions’ secondary.

Garoppolo will deliver the ball if it’s run correctly once his back foot hits his third step. “Over,” and other three-step drop plays will force Garoppolo to read and react quickly, rather than hang out in the pocket and stare down a target.


Shanahan’s play-action series can be as soft as melted butter or as volatile as plastic explosives. Once the 49ers’ running game starts to bring the Lions’ linebackers a bit further into the line of scrimmage, then it’s time for Shanahan to call “drift.”

“Drift” is a highly successful play for Garoppolo, and it ended up being a security blanket play for all three quarterbacks last season.

The concept is straightforward. One receiver runs nearly any route from the route tree - swirl, clear, or a comeback - while the other runs “drift.”

A “drift” route has a six-to-seven step stem, targeting a spot about one or two yards outside of his alignment. He then breaks in at 10 yards with a slightly rounded pattern to the hole of the defense. It’s an excellent play to get wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk involved early.

“Drift” is ideal for Garoppolo because it will force him to throw over the middle and read the linebackers, both weak areas of his game.

I expect to see “drift” on the first two possessions for the 49ers.


Garoppolo and wide receiver Deebo Samuel together have a history with the “dagger” concept. During Samuel’s rookie season, he and Garoppolo hooked up on the play for at least 100 total yards by my math and notes.

Further, “dagger” forces Garoppolo to throw deeper over the middle than he would on “drift.”

“Dagger” is a two-man combination route. The inside receiver runs a “deep thru” while the outside receiver runs a “dover” route.

The “deep thru” is the first read of 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.

Aggie Now

Now and then, I see someone on Twitter suggest a play that includes all four receivers running vertical routes. I don’t grasp the obsession with that design, but I suppose it’s in every football playbook from Pop Warner to the NFL.

Of course, Shanahan has an all-go concept in his system, Aggie Now, but he adds just a bit of flair to it with one receiver running a “now” route.

The four vertical routes are the main read for Garoppolo. The “now” route, which is almost always open, is an easy outlet if needed.

Should Garoppolo and the 49ers’ offense come out a little sluggish, I fully expect Shanahan to call “Aggie Now.”

I’d like to see Garoppolo press the ball downfield if Aggie Now gets called, but I also understand him hitting the short route just to get refocused and the momentum moving in favor of the 49ers.

It’s an excellent time to be a football fan. Be sure you set yourself up for success, meaning do some chores around the house so that you can watch the game in peace on Sunday.

All images courtesy of NFL.com.

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