After scoring 28 points—more than they managed to score in any single game in 2015—on a Rams defense that finished seventh in defensive DVOA a season ago, it feels safe to assume the 2016 Niners won’t be repeating the league-low offensive production seen under Jim Tomsula’s watch. San Francisco’s offensive performance in the Monday night opener wasn’t exactly great with a capital G, but the simple fact this unit looked competent enough to convince you they belonged on the field was a massive step forward.
If this were any other week, we’d have no shortage of topics warranting further discussion to pull from this performance. Glaine Babbert, some offensive line myth-busting, Jeremy Kerley becoming the team’s most targeted wideout after barely a week on the team, and some fine running back play would all be worth spending additional time on. But Week 1 brought our first real look at Chip Kelly Offense: Bay Area Edition, and considering the amount of time we spent on San Francisco’s biggest offseason addition in previous months, it seems appropriate to start here.
In many respects, this was the same Chip Kelly offense we’ve come to know (and mostly love) from his time at Oregon and Philadelphia. Three-receiver packages dominated the personnel groupings on the field. Inside zone was utilized heavily and remained the focal point of the offense. Play action was featured prominently in the passing game. The passing concepts used were largely unchanged from the Philly version of this offense. Oh, and of course, there was the up-tempo, no-huddle approach synonymous with Kelly’s attack.
This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, as these have been key components to a very successful offense for some time now. However, as Chris B. Brown expertly detailed in his piece for The Ringer last week, adjustments were needed if Chip was going to continue to produce the sort of offensive success he’s become known for. And on Monday night, we saw some of the first signs of evolution.
The most notable was the introduction of an old-school Joe Gibbs run concept that was likely making its first ever appearance in Chip’s rushing attack: counter trey.
Counter trey—which features down-blocking on the play side with two pullers from the backside—works as an excellent complement to Chip’s base run concepts for a number of reasons. Most importantly, it serves as a tendency breaker. Previously, the alignment of the running back and tight end would often tip both the direction of the run (away from the back) and the type of run (inside zone if the back and tight end were on the same side of the field; sweep if they were on opposite sides). Counter trey goes against both of those tells.
From the defense’s perspective, with most of the offensive line down blocking, everything looks exactly like inside zone until the pullers show up. Watch the above clip of Carlos Hyde’s touchdown run a couple more times, and you’ll notice what is ultimately the death blow for the Rams defense on this play: hesitation.
With several members of the Rams defense stuck in the mud immediately after the snap, Joe Staley and Vance McDonald have an opportunity to get up to the second level and deliver the blocks that turn this play from a solid gain into six points.
The other notable change in Chip’s offensive attack was a greater willingness to change (read: slow) his tempo in certain situations. It was no surprise to see the 49ers, at 20.66 seconds per play, with the league’s fastest situation-neutral pace after one week of football. What was surprising was how much that tempo varied from the first half to the second half, when San Francisco was playing with a two-score (or more) lead.
San Francisco’s offense snapped the ball once every 21.68 seconds in the first half versus Los Angeles, coming in behind only the Giants. The 49ers were noticeably more tortoise than hare in the second half, with that number rising all the way to 29.08 seconds per play (ranking 23rd) as the 49ers attempted to use up a bit more clock.
It’s unlikely that sort of number will stick throughout the entire season, mostly because the 49ers aren’t likely to be protecting double-digit second-half leads every week, but all you need to do is look at Chip’s pace stats with the Eagles to see how unusual that was to watch. Among the various pace splits tracked by Football Outsiders, Chip’s Eagles never came in higher than the 26.33 seconds per play averaged when leading by more than seven points in 2013.
It’s never been correct to assert Chip’s offense only has one fast-as-all-holy-hell speed, as the ability to change speeds is a key part of what makes the use of tempo successful. But for one week, we saw Chip display a willingness to slow things down to an extent we haven’t really seen from him before. Should that stick, it would put him more in line with what we’ve seen in recent years from teams like the Patriots and Broncos, who use tempo as a valuable weapon early in games and when the score is close, but pump the brakes a bit when protecting a lead in the second half.
Without question, the adjustments we saw in Week 1 are positive signs for Chip’s ability to adapt, and, as a result, the prospects for this offense going forward. And while there’s no reason to expect Chip to unveil every single wrinkle he plans to add on the season’s opening weekend, we must continue to see these sort of adjustments come to the surface in the coming weeks, starting with the passing game.
Chip’s passing game features many of the same concepts used heavily throughout the league. However, as Chris B. Brown noted, in many situations you can identify which of those concepts is coming based on the alignment. Nowhere was that more prevalent against the Rams than with Kelly’s mesh concept. Mesh—which features a pair of underneath crossing routes, a receiver curling up behind them in the middle of the field, and a running back out of the backfield on a wheel route—was given away by this look from the 49ers offense:
When San Francisco lines up in this two-by-two formation, with two pass targets tight to the formation on one side and two more split out to the opposite side, mesh is almost certainly on the way. Defenses know this as well, and the Rams were able to shutdown the 49ers offense whenever this play was called Monday night.
It’s good to have base concepts your offense can hang its hat on, but the advantages gained by having a solid foundation to revolve your offense around can be nullified when the defenses knows what’s coming, especially when your offense lacks the raw talent to beat the opponent regardless. For that reason, it’s critical offenses are able to protect and disguise these core parts of their offense. You don’t need to have 100 different concepts in your playbook to be successful, but you do need to be able to take your handful of base concepts and run them from a variety of different looks to keep the defense from keying on what you’re doing.
Just like Kelly’s run game needed the addition of the counter trey to help make his inside zone more effective, he needs to start running his pass concepts from a wider variety of formations and personnel groupings if San Francisco’s passing game is going to have any sustained success.
One of the hallmarks of good coaching is being able to adapt; to your personnel, to the opponent, to the situation. We’ve seen Kelly do this in the past, and we’ve seen the beginnings of further evolution through one week of the regular season. That trend must continue if the 49ers hope to remain competitive in Carolina this week.
If San Francisco struggles to run the ball—and facing a front seven with Luke Kuechly, Star Lotulelei, and Kawann Short, there’s a reasonable chance that’s the case—the passing game will need to pick up the slack. Even though the secondary is perhaps the weakest aspect of this Panthers team, it’s difficult to envision Blaine Gabbert & Co. taking advantage on their own. They’ll need some assistance from a good game plan and some adjustments to their passing concepts. Chip will need to continue to adapt.