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Juice Check, Week 2: New formation, bigger role

Kyle Shanahan used his OW Kyle Juszczyk very differently against the Lions.

Detroit Lions v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Kyle Shanahan had great success with his versatile fullback Kyle Juszczyk in Week 1 against Minnesota, including the longest pass reception by either team (56 yards). So what did he do with his “offensive weapon” in Week 2 against the Detroit Lions?

He changed everything.

It’s no surprise that the coach used him more — 40 offensive plays (62.5%) vs. only 26 in Week 1. Juice mostly stayed on the bench in the red zone, as before, but otherwise he only sat for two stretches of several plays — likely for a breather, or a minor injury.

But the formations changed dramatically. In Week 1, Juszczyk lined up in I-formation on 18 of his 28 snaps (including two later called back on penalties), with inline the next most common.

Week 2 saw something very different. He was in I-formation on only 10 of those snaps (25%), and lined up inline only twice, less than he was out wide (5 snaps, motioning back in on 2 of them).

Instead, Juice often lined up directly behind the left or right tackle (16 plays), and he motioned into that position on two others. On several plays he took a jab step in the direction of the side he was on, then made a little curlicue to come back and pass protect or throw a wham block on the backside of a run play.

This change coincided with an emphasis on the run game. Juice ran 14 routes, often after a feint at a block, and caught three passes on four targets for 13 yards. (The fourth wasn’t really a target; Garoppolo, under pressure in his own end zone, grounded the ball legally at the fullback’s feet, which would have been a safety if he wasn’t there.)

As usual, many of Juszczyk’s targets served mostly to pull defensive backs away from the play. With 2:05 left in the 3rd and his team pinned down at their 3, the fullback drew two defenders to cover his drag route to the right, leaving TE Garrett Celek wide open over the middle for an 11-yard gain.

There was one opportunity for a big reception, at 2:19 in the first quarter. On 2nd and 1, Shanahan called a pass play and Detroit was visibly confused, scrambling to set defensive positions as the play began. Juice, lined up behind the right tackle, curled out through the slot and faced only flat-footed LB Christian Jones, who had no backstop besides the distant single high safety.

He quickly got a step on Jones but Garoppolo had already settled on a wide open Alfred Morris for a 16-yard gain on the left sideline. It would have taken some anticipation and a full-field read, but Juszczyk was open for a gain of 40 or more yards.

Mostly, though, Juice was a great blocker, picking up more pass protection (and doing well at it), plus taking on linebackers and safeties at the second level with regularity. He played a key role on all three of Matt Breida’s big runs, starting with the 28-yard gain on the 49ers first play from scrimmage, where he took out CB Teez Tabor five yards downfield.

With 1:47 in the 3rd, Juszczyk (in box below) blocked LB Christian Jones to the ground as Breida (circled) broke through for 20.

And on the very next play, he broke Breida for his 66 yard TD by absolutely stoning Safety Glover Quin. (Juice is #44, running ahead and to the right of the Cheetah.)

There seems to be a special chemistry between Breida and Juszczyk; on all three plays, Juice makes the key block in the thickest part of the defensive line, and Breida hits the hole right behind him at the perfect moment.

Shanahan has a lot of interesting ideas on how to use a versatile fullback. But I love the fact that he’s not afraid to just have him sledgehammer defenders and open up big runs.