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Know Thine Eagles Enemy: 49ers Film Review

Kyle Shanahan is remarkably good at his job

San Francisco 49ers v Washington Redskins Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

We’ll be going a slightly different direction with the film review today.

No San Francisco defensive clips made it—why? Because their defense is crummy. They don’t have the secondary personnel to run their scheme of choice (the 4-3, Cover 3 a la Seattle). DeForest Buckner, their monstrous DT, is pretty fun to watch—besides that? No bueno.

Kyle Shanahan’s offense, on the other hand? Still kinda crummy—but that has way more to do with personnel than it does with scheme. And it’s that scheme that we’ll put under the microscope.

In this film review, I’d like to highlight Shanahan’s strength as a play-caller: his ability to sequence similar looks/alignments/designs to consistently attack a defense’s weakness. The hallmark of a nuanced and dangerous offensive mind is not the pre-scripted play sheet, but rather the in-game acuity to dissect, diagnose, and expose a defense, while maintaining enough balance and misdirection to keep that defense honest.

In other words, Shanahan excels at that which Atlanta is currently missing with their new offensive coordinator, Steve Sarkisian. The Falcons’ offense, high-flying only a year ago, has limped through the season with timid, unimaginative, and frankly arbitrary play-calling. While San Fran’s offensive stats likewise don’t impress, a look at their tape shows that improved weaponry and quarterback play will likely flip that narrative in the years to come.

Let’s get it poppin’.

San Francisco v. Indianapolis: I-Right TE Flip

I don’t know what ol’ Shanny calls this formation, but I would have learned it as I-Right TE Flip.

I-formation details the HB directly behind the QB, who’s under center. “Right” indicates that the FB is offset to the right. Now, TE is naturally to the strong side of the formation (right side of the offense), but the “Flip” call tells me he’s off the line of scrimmage, in a 2-point stance. He’s what is designated as an “H-back” now.

What does the H-back alignment mean for this play? Practically nothing.

The Niners run a toss to the strong side. The TE (#88, Garrett Celek) would have been in a better position to make his block had he been up on the line of scrimmage. Which begs the question—why was he lined up as an H-back?

It’s important to note that he didn’t start there. He actually motioned to the H-back spot from a true TE alignment. You can see that in the beginning of the clip.

While this motion does little to affect the play, it’s still an important tag: Shanahan loves pre-snap motion. He will use it to force you to declare your coverage scheme on every gosh darn play he can.

Don’t believe me? Just watch. (C’mon!)

FB Kyle Juscy—Kyle Juszy—Kyle Juszczyk motions in from the boundary on this play. As the Colts defense settles, they clearly define a single-high coverage. Meanwhile, a blitzer off the weak side flashes in Hoyer’s vision.

QBs in Shanahan’s scheme have a ton of at-the-line autonomy. Because Shanahan’s formations and pre-snap motion reveal so much about the defense before things get kickin’, a veteran QB like Hoyer can easily adjust this play to attack the void that will be left behind the blitzer.

So Hoyer audibles to attack the weak side, with an over route from the strong side receiver behind a clearout route from the weak side receiver. You can even see the defense rotate to the strong side a little bit, as the CB moves to press at the line of scrimmage—that only plays into Shanahan’s hands.

Hoyer executes a quick, or light, play-action fake. He doesn’t fully commit to the fake, but rather flashes the ball juuust enough to hold the defense, then plants and fires to the over without even reading the field. The defense has reacted hard to the strong side flow and is in no position to cover the weak side pass.

And that blitzer? Split-zone action from the H-back prevents him from closing on Hoyer. Split-zone action that couldn’t have been achieved from a regular TE alignment.

Easy money.

But here’s the really cool part: this play was ran from I-Left TE Flip, and it came just two plays after the running play (which was called back for offensive holding) of I-Right TE Flip. Shanahan gamed the Colts with a running play that technically didn’t even happen.

And, two plays after that...

Eight in the box, single-high, tight man on the weak side receiver? Even easier money. This time, a Bang-8 post behind the clearout from the strong side receiver.

Watch again how the pre-snap motion impacts the linebackers, who instinctively start to flow with Juszczyk as he moves to I-Left TE Flip. The FB now flows to the back side to protect against edge pressure, as San Fran picks up more chunk yardage by manipulating defensive flow with alignment, pre-snap motion, and audibles.

These plays essentially accomplish the exact same defensive conflict as RPOs. However, when the QB turns his back to the linebackers, it forces them to react to the run—unlike an RPO, during which the quarterback’s eyes are up and reading the defense. Shanahan is essentially manufacturing a pre-snap RPO here.

And folks, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

San Francisco v. Dallas: Weak Side Manipulation

Two weeks later, San Francisco faced a highly motivated, post-bye Dallas team. They’ve spent the past two weeks chowing down on Shanahan film. With distinct intention, Rod Marinelli’s defense aligned heavily to the strong side, freeing their linebackers from the responsibility to flow hard to run action. With a rookie QB at the helm in C.J. Beathard, the audible game took a serious step back, and San Fran’s offense sputtered.

Their limited success came when Shanahan decided: “Okay, if I can’t attack the strong side, I’m just going to attack the weak side.”

After opening the game with a 3-and-out, Shanny kicks off the second drive with this inside zone run weak. You can see how heavily Dallas has committed their defensive line to the strong side, so it isn’t difficult for the offensive linemen to climb to the second level on the weak side and seal off the linebackers for an easy 12-yard gain.

San Fran drives down the field, kicks a field goal, and eventually gets the ball back at their own 10 yard line. That’s less than ideal—but Kyle Shanahan has laughed and danced his way out of far tougher spots than this.

With a rookie QB against one of the league’s most productive pass rushes, Shanahan dials up a play-action shot play.

That’s what we call cojones, gang.

Shanny knows what he’s doing. The left side of the line down blocks toward the strong side, while the RB and RG work to the weak side. This is a classic misdirection look, and you can see how it conflicts the LBs. Linebackers, as you very well know, are not supposed to go in two opposite directions on a “running” play.

Watch as Sean Lee (the weak side LB) has an “Oh, snap!” moment, realizing he just got sucked in by play action. Behind him, the 49ers receivers are rather poorly executing a Post-Cross concept in front of two-deep safeties. Beathard throws a great ball as the safeties, also quite confused, cross. Tack on the YAC, and this was by far San Francisco’s best play of the day.

Fast forward to the opening drive of the second half (noticing a theme here?) and guess what you find...

Almost the exact same play. This clip I include, not to re-teach you a concept you already learned, but to hammer home the point: Shanahan will keep coming back to the well. If he couldn’t catch the Cowboys on strong side play action consistently, he was going to take advantage of their commitment and force them to bite on weak side play action. On crucial plays and to kick off crucial drives, he did just that.

Which of course, begs the question: why didn’t San Francisco go to that well all game long? Well, it’s very tough to run an offense through the weak side when you’re outmatched on a talent level. Number advantages and the manipulation of schemes can only take you so far.

On top of that, you have to “keep a defense honest” by running other plays. If you could just attack one weakness, schematically, all game long, life would just be Four Verts and Madden. Wouldn’t that be grand?

San Francisco v. Washington: Utilizing Reduced Splits

While our first two chapters may have better investigated how Shanahan may sequence plays/looks to attack Philadelphia, this final installment is more indulgent.

While watching San Francisco tape, I was struck by the frequency of reduced splits in Shanahan’s offense. When a WR has a “reduced split,” he’s lined up closer to the ball, inside of the numbers. In the ever-prominent spread style of offense, viewers are far more accustomed to seeing WRs in “plus splits,” or outside of the numbers.

Reduced splits do just that—they reduce the horizontal area of the field. That spits directly in the face of the commandments of the venerable spread system. Safeties can play closer to the line, and cornerbacks closer to linebackers, making it far more difficult to run the football.

And as such, another question is begged: why use reduced splits?

This is Utilizing Reduced Splits: Level One. By running a common hi-lo passing concept—Flat-7—from a reduced split, you naturally increase the space in the flat. The moment you see that CB back off the line of scrimmage, you know it’s very unlikely he’ll buzz into the flat zone area. Any other defender has far too difficult a path to close on the TE in time.

This is a prime example of Shanahan’s offense deciding the outcome of the play, pre-snap, by alignment. Were the WR in a plus split, that corner could disguise his true intentions (man, deep zone, flat zone). This Flat-7 read is easy-peasy; catching the ball, apparently, is not.

Let’s upgrade. Utilizing Reduced Splits: Level Two.

Alright, pre-snap determination: that corner near the line of scrimmage? He could take the flat.

However, that single-high safety is sitting about 15 (and eventually 20) yards off the ball. We already know Shanahan (and Hoyer, back under center) will attack that area with the Bang-8 post behind the linebackers. Hoyer calls the audible.

Because the receiver lined up in a reduced split, he has an immediate leverage advantage to the inside of the cornerback. Think about those go routes down the sideline, during which the CB squeezes the WR against the sideline, using the boundary as a 12th defender. CBs can do that to plus split WRs, because there is a limit to how far outside of the WR the ball can be thrown.

But, in a reduced split, the CBs primary help comes from that single-high safety, in the middle of the field. If he plays with inside leverage, he relinquishes all of the space between him and the sideline. The QB could potentially place a fade route on the outside shoulder of the WR, and there’s no way the CB can defend it.

As such, the 49ers wideout capitalizes on his natural leverage with the Bang-8 (notice how the shallow crosser holds the LBs in place). The CB (Josh Norman) does well to anticipate and close, but a better-thrown ball is an easy completion.

One final question remained: How does Shanahan account for the reduced split disadvantage in the run game? Making the box so thick with bodies plays into the defense’s hands.

But Shanny, the wily fox, uses the reduced split to his advantage.

Linebackers are better run defenders than cornerbacks—these are only facts. They are bigger and more willing to hit.

On a typical running play between the tackles, the WR may run a route, or half-heartedly block his CB, as the OL and RB do battle with the DL and LBs. Not Shanny’s receivers.

With a crackback block on the free linebacker by his reduced split WR, Shanahan forces the LB and CB to switch their run responsibilities. Instead of the linebacker scraping into the gap and plugging it, the corner is now responsible for stepping up to the full-steam-ahead runner and making the tackle.

Now, to be a corner in the NFL, you must be able to do this—but, as I said, you likely don’t do it as well as a LB. The RB here, Carlos Hyde, steamrolls the corner on his way to the ground, turning a gain of three into a gain of five.

Doesn’t sound like much, but two yards is two yards—not to mention, force that CB to act like a LB for a few plays, and he’s going to start to hate life mighty quick.

Be sure to keep an eye on that end-around WR too. If the LB gets crackbacked, and the CB is swept in by the play action, there’s a lot of green over there.

That’ll do it for the Shanahan love, folks. Scheme is pretty, and it’ll certainly lead to some positive plays against a fearsome Eagle defense. But at the end of the day, eleven men line up across from another eleven men, and frankly, the boys in green are bigger and badder than the boys Burgundy? I dunno.

Keep on eye on Shanny’s Niners, though. They’re a-comin’.

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