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When they go small, we go big

Robert Mays says Kyle Shanahan is at the forefront of a move back to bigger offensive packages. What will that look like?

San Francisco 49ers v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

The NFL has become a very pass-oriented league, to the point where nickel defenses (replacing a linebacker with a fifth defensive back) are more common than “base” formations. And teams have built their rosters accordingly, favoring quicker, lighter DBs and “hybrid” safety/linebackers such as Deone Bucannon and the 49ers Jaquiski Tartt.

A couple of smart teams are going big to take advantage of that, as Robert Mays details in a very interesting new article in The Ringer, and Kyle Shanahan’s 2016 Falcons offense was one of his prime examples.

With the addition of players such as Kyle Juszczyk, the unusually-good-at-pass-receiving fullback, and several new tight ends, Shanahan’s 2017 Niners team should be a great example of the counter-trend.

You can change your scheme somewhat for an atypical opponent, and even practice for them for a few days, but NFL teams don’t have the luxury of revamping their roster to stop an attack they’re not designed to handle.

So counter-punching against the NFL’s main trend is a smart strategy. Mays lists the Patriots and Falcons as his prime examples, and not coincidentally, they just met in the Super Bowl. (The Titans heavy run attack, which helps protect young star QB Marcus Mariota, is another).

Big lineups are built with fullbacks and multiple tight ends, and Kyle Shanahan uses lots of both.

Fullbacks are considered a dying breed in pro football. Only 2 were drafted last year, in the 6th and 7th rounds, and half the teams in the league don’t carry one on their roster at all. Most today are one-dimension, just blockers who don’t catch passes or carry the ball much, so you spend a roster slot on a guy who doesn’t get many snaps and reduces the number of potential passers you have on each play.

11 personnel formations, with one running back and a single tight end, are used on more than half of all NFL plays now; that’s why nickel defenses are the most common.

Shanahan, on the other hand, ran 2 back formations (20, 21, 22 or 23) fully 31% of the time last year (304 of 996 plays). For comparison, the Seahawks used 2 back formations on 104 of 1,010 snaps (10%); San Francisco, just 15 of 996 )1.5%).

Even more surprisingly, Atlanta passed on almost half of those plays. (Shanahan knows how to keep defensive coordinators guessing.) Mays wrote:

“Out of 21 personnel, Atlanta passed 42 percent of the time. That’s dangerously close to run-pass balance — and for defenses, it meant a total inability to develop anything resembling comfort about what was coming next.”

And that was with a fullback (Patrick DiMarco) who only caught 7 passes during the regular season. But the potential is always there. In the Super Bowl, Shanahan dialed up two passes to DiMarco in the first quarter, for 12 combined yards.

Neither was play-action, either; DiMarco was set up in pass protection on 2nd and 7, then split out wide with an empty backfield on 2nd and 1. Defenses aren’t allowed to substitute if the offense doesn’t and the clock keeps running, so the ability to reconfigure your personnel is invaluable.

Next year, expect a lot more passing to new free agent fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who matches excellent blocking skills with soft hands. For Baltimore last year, he was usually the single back on 3rd down because of his pass protection ability, but he also has the talent to leak out or catch a checkdown and make something good out of it.

Juszczyk is making more money than any fullback ever has, and for a good reason; he’s a complete offensive weapon. You can get a crushing lead block, skilled pass pro, or a sneaky good receiver out of the backfield. Rookie TE Greg Kittle has a similar (if unproven) skill set, as well.

Speaking of tight ends, Shanny uses bunches of them in creative ways, including 13 personnel formations with one RB, one WR, and 3 tight ends.

As I detailed in an earlier article on Shanahan’s use of tight ends, he didn’t pass to them much last year — largely because he didn’t need them, with Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel at wide receiver. But he found creative ways to use them as blockers, or put them in motion to confuse defenses.

One of his most devastating plays involved having a third tight end block across the field for a while on a play action pass, then leak out for a wheel route, wide open. Former safety Matt Bowen calls this play the “tight end throwback,” and I expect to see FB Juszczyk run it a few times this year as well.

Part of what makes Shanahan’s offense powerful is how unpredictable it is. Most teams use 13 personnel only as their jumbo package to pick up a yard or two for a first down or TD. But Shanny actually passed out of it more than he ran last year (41 to 36 plays).

You might think that the distinction between move tight ends (who might not block that well) and mostly blocking TEs takes away some of that surprise, but not so much.

Part of it was the skill of QB Matt Ryan and a WR1 (Julio Jones) who commanded double teams, but the Falcons got a lot of production out of blocking TEs like Levine Toilolo, who averaged over 20 yards per reception for 264 total yards last year. 5th TE D.J. Tialavea had only one reception last year, but it was a late season touchdown.

What about move tight ends not famed for their ability to block, such as Niners UDFA Cole “Dirty” Hikutini, or incumbent TE Vance McDonald? It depends who they have to block, so Shanahan has plays to match them up against smaller defensive backs downfield.

In the Falcons game against Arizona last year, Taylor Gabriel had several big plays. His first touchdown came on a slot screen with 2:19 left in the 2nd quarter. TEs Toilolo and Austin Hooper, a rookie move TE, lined up next to each other on the other side of the formation, but Toilolo came in motion to block Gabriel’s coverage man.

Hooper, meanwhile, released and headed down the seam, then cut left and met up with Gabriel at the 10. Gabriel got into the end zone just by juking, but the play design put Hooper in position for a key downfield block.

Earlier in the same game, TE Levine Toilolo (circled, below) ran a variation of the tight end throwback play, blocking across the formation before heading downfield. But instead of catching a pass, he was the lead blocker for Gabriel on an end around, taking out safety DJ Swearinger 25 - 30 yards past the line of scrimmage.

To sum up, Kyle Shanahan is at the forefront of a move back to big offensive formations that has a good chance of chewing up the small, quick defensive lineups that teams have been trending toward, while retaining maximum run-pass flexibility on almost every down. And he has already assembled some key pieces to make his offense work for the Niners.