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Juice Check, Week 1: Breaking down his work vs. the Vikings

Tracking Kyle Juszczyk, the key to Kyle Shanahan’s offense.

San Francisco 49ers v Los Angeles Rams

It sounds like a joke, claiming that San Francisco 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk is the key to the offense of his fellow Kyle (Shanahan). And some otherwise intelligent people can’t get over how much the Harvard-educated blocking back is getting paid.

But I stand by that statement. Generally, Shanny’s scheme is all about being multiple, all the time. Any player allowed to touch the football can score on you, on any play, even a blocking TE such as Levine Toilolo. More specifically, 2-back formations including Juice pressure teams to keep their base defense on the field, allowing Shanahan to pass against a slower, heavier lineup.

Of course, if they switch to a nickel defense, it’s that much easier to pound the ball down their throat behind his grade-paving. Anything is possible on nearly any play, giving Shanahan the upper hand in the chess game against defensive coordinators.

So I’m tracking Juice play by play this year, and will check in from time to time with reports on how he is being used. Why? Because I can (spell his name). And considering Jerick McKinnon’s absence from the passing game, it opens up a lot of possibilities for Juice and others.

By my count in Week 1 against the Minnesota Vikings, Juszczyk was in on 28 offensive plays and 4 on special teams, all punt coverage. Two of his offensive snaps were called back on penalties, but the play ran so I’m including them in this analysis.

It was impressive how varied his formations were. He lined up as an I-formation fullback on 18 of those 28 snaps, though he motioned to an inline spot (like a TE at one or the other end of the offensive line) on three of those. He was inline all the way three other times, in the slot thrice (but motioned out on two of them), and a split back or lone tail back twice each.

It’s clear that Juszczyk’s main role remains blocking; he ran just nine routes on his 28 snaps, targeted twice, with his huge 56-yard play the most memorable. With 10:41 left in the 3rd quarter, Shanahan motioned Juice into the right slot, and Jimmy Garoppolo faked a hand off to Alfred Morris running to his right.

The fullback ran up to OLB Ben Gedeon as if he were going to block him on a screen pass to Morris, but he let Gedeon “evade” him to focus on the running back, and ran down the sideline wide open for a 29-yard reception. Then he added a nifty cutback to grab another 27 yards after the catch — the total of 56 yards was the biggest for either team all night.

Shanahan had set this up with a first quarter play where Juszczyk also lined up in the right slot and blocked Gedeon on a outside zone run to the right.

His other target, in the red zone, came on what was designed to look like a “split zone” play, where he (or more often a tight end) runs opposite the play’s flow to block a backside linebacker or lineman from chasing down the runner from behind. Instead he ran a drag route and was open, but Garoppolo’s pass on a naked bootleg was at his toes, uncatchable. If Jimmy G had hit the FB in stride, it looked good for at least ten yards down to the five yard line, and possibly a touchdown.

Even when he wasn’t targeted, Juice’s route running was valuable in attacking the defense. His 3rd quarter wheel route drew S Harrison Smith deep down the right sideline, allowing QB Jimmy Garoppolo to run left (safely) and pick up the first down. At 8:53 of the first quarter, on the 49ers third play, Shanahan motioned the FB to line up wide left, drawing CB Trae Waynes out to cover him on a go route. That left TE George Kittle in the slot facing DE Everson Griffen, who drew a defensive holding penalty (hands to the face) trying to jam him at the line.

Most of Juszczyk’s snaps were good old-fashioned lead blocking on runs, though. He had just three plays in pass protection, and one was excellent; on George Kittle’s deep drop at 10:57 of the 3Q, which should have been a huge play, he picked up Danielle Hunter who was running free on the far side of the pocket, giving Garoppolo enough time to get his pass off. Juice failed to seal off a couple of defenders on runs but was mostly excellent, including a pancake of Anthony Barr at 9:28 of the second quarter.

While Juszczyk is an all-around “offensive weapon,” Shanahan hasn’t quite reached his goal of being able to pass or run with any lineup. In the 4th quarter when the Niners were passing as they attempted to come back, Juice only played four snaps, and one of those was on punt coverage. The team only ran twice when he was on the bench; Shanny apparently preferred 11 personnel or even empty set to the blocking-plus-occasional-pass that the younger Kyle brings.

As the season develops, it will be interesting to see how Juszczyk is used. Will he pick up a few snaps running the ball himself, given McKinnon’s injury? Can he become a major receiver, or is he more valuable forcing CBs to cover him and leaving linebackers on Dante Pettis and Marquise Goodwin? The Juice Check column will be here to let you know.