Every year, Football Outsiders releases their Almanac that offers all sorts of nuggets for the coming season. And each year, we partner with them to get some questions answered in preparation for the upcoming season. This season, FO writer Bryan Knowles (who also writes for Niner Noise) took some time to answer questions we had.
I try and focus the questions on content in the Almanac, but we sometimes will get out beyond that since there is so much to consider each year. Bryan answered five questions, and we’ll have five posts in the coming days. You can purchase a copy of the Almanac here.
There is so much changing this season for the 49ers, so looking at strategic tendencies is not quite the same. Tendencies under Chip Kelly are likely not going to be tendencies under Kyle Shanahan. However, Shanahan’s offensive coordinating in Atlanta is something worth considering. Sure, the 49ers don’t have Julio Jones or Matt Ryan, but that doesn’t mean the Falcons’ offensive work last season is worth ignoring.
I asked Bryan how much the 49ers should take from the Falcons offensive strategic tendencies the past two years under Shanahan. Here’s what he had to say.
Oh, you should take everything you can. They didn't bring Kyle Shanahan in to change his style, and it's not like the 49ers had a really strong offensive identity that you want to preserve. Blow it all up and start again!
It's really interesting because Atlanta was one of the more unique offenses in football last season, so a decent chunk of that is going to carry over in San Francisco. Everyone's using 11 personnel – that's three wide receivers, one tight end and one running back – more and more; the league average was 60.4 percent last season, and it's gone up year after year after year for the past decade. Not Shanahan, though! They only went three-wide 45 percent of the time, and led the league in good old-fashioned 21 – the old Pro set, with two running backs. And not the modern "oh, we have a running back lined up in the slot" method of getting two running backs on the field, either; they ran 212 snaps out of the I-formation last year.
Shanahan's teams almost always lead the league (or are close to the top) in play action, which plays really well into Brian Hoyer's strengths. They had the highest DVOA in two tight-end sets despite the lack of a Gronk or a Kelce or a Graham; you can see why they put so much effort in drafting George Kittle and picking up Cole Hikutini as a priority UDFA. Basically, if you have a copy of Football Outsiders Almanac 2017 (cheap plug!), you can basically scratch out the 49ers "strategic tendencies" bit and pencil in Atlanta's numbers, and have a good idea about the general shape of the offense in 2017. That's why they brought in players like Hoyer and Pierre Garçon – familiarity with the system. It's an offense that bucks the general NFL trends, and one that's consistently worked.