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Film room: How Kyle Shanahan dismantled the Browns

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Kyle Shanahan put together another brilliant game plan designed to limit the Browns strengths.

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NFL: Cleveland Browns at San Francisco 49ers Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers entered week five off of a bye week against an opponent that had seemingly turned a corner offensively and defensively. By contrast, the perception of the 49ers entering their Monday Night Football game with the Browns was largely negative. The criticisms focused on whether or not the 49ers were for real and that they had not played anyone legit. They had only beaten the Bengals and Steelers, two teams with a combined one win between them.

Yet heading into week five, they remained one of only two undefeated teams in the NFL (the Patriots being the other). And Monday night was another chance to prove to the entire country on national television just why and how they were for real. Kyle Shanahan’s gameplan left nothing to be desired, as football fans across the country were treated to an offensive juggernaut that took off from the very first play of the game.

Perimeter runs to exploit lack of cornerback depth

With the Browns missing corner’s Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams, one could reasonably expect that the passing game would’ve taken off from the start. However, that was not the plan. Instead, the first play of the game was vintage Kyle Shanahan running game-type stuff. After the 49ers defense forced a punt on the Browns’ first drive, the offense came out in 21 personnel to start the game.

The play call is “14 Suzy”, which is a complementary play call to “Wanda.” Wanda is the base weak side zone run that the 49ers rely on quite frequently, designed to hit on the inside hip of the tackle. On Suzy, the initial motion is to the weak side toward that landmark initially. Teams who face the 49ers tend to flow that direction fast when they see it — the direction of the play changes when both backs wrap around to the strong side of the play.

Fullback Kyle Juszczyk explained it further to Matt Maiocco after the game, saying “the fact that we can get full flow motion with Breida and myself going one way and then we both wrap it back across the formation, defenses when they see it, have to honor it...a lot of time we can get them moving laterally and find that crease on the backside.”

The Browns stack eight in the box, expecting a weak side run out of the 49ers 21 personnel formation. To the front side, the defense is playing a wide-9 technique defensive end responsible for outside contain on any run his way. At the snap, he stays home when he sees the flow to the defensive left. The key to this play is not only doing the run blocking move to the offense’s right, but so do the three key players Breida, Juszczyk, and Kittle.

There is so much nuance to this play, but we’ll start with Juszczyk. Juszczyk is arguably the most important blocker on this play. His responsibility is ultimately to sift block to the front side, but his first steps are toward the weak side of the formation. This gets the defense to “full flow” to that side of the play. Juszczyk also sells the run action that way with his eyes.

The next piece of the puzzle is Kittle. As the backside tight end, Kittle’s responsibility is the cornerback in the second level. But at the snap, Kittle also does his part and sells the run action to the right with his first initial steps in that direction. The effect is that six of the eight box defenders flow in that direction, leaving Kittle and Juszczyk one-on-one with the corner and defensive end, respectively.

Running back, Matt Breida makes a house call and hits a top speed of 22.3 miles per hour according to the NFL’s NextGen Stats. He hits the hole and is one-on-one with the safety and outmaneuvers him to the sideline. There was no good angle the safety could take.

Monday night also saw the return of Tevin Coleman to the lineup for the first time since injuring his ankle in week one against Tampa Bay. And he showed no signs of slowing down, carrying the ball 16 times for 97 yards.

His longest runs came on a variety of perimeter runs like outside zone, toss, and sweep. His acceleration and explosion on these perimeter runs make him the ideal outside zone back and complement Breida’s explosiveness. The primary purpose of the running game in Shanahan’s system is speed, and these two backs certainly have a ton of it.

Fly sweep and fly sweep reverse

If the primary purpose of the running game is speed, the secondary purpose of complementing that is deception and misdirection. And Shanahan uses those two elements in a variety of ways. In week two, it was the use of fly motions, and jet sweeps on counter runs to stretch the defense. In week five, Shanahan used fly motion again, but this time the ball carriers were those fly guys.

Two times in the same drive in the first quarter, Shanahan dialed up a fly sweep, and then a fly sweep reverse off the same motion.

On the first play, a play we’ve seen George Kittle run before, Shanahan called up a fly sweep. It is a nice change of pace to the zone running scheme. On the fly sweep reverse, the offensive line blocks outside zone to the weak side away from the sweep. The run action of the zone causes the backside defenders to gain depth toward the line of scrimmage to seal off the backside cut back lane.

Only there is no cutback. Kittle takes the ball on the fly as Juszczyk and right tackle Mike McGlinchey’s release downfield to block their defenders. Kittle outruns the alley defenders easily as he gets out on the edge behind his blockers. One quick cut and up the sideline for a gain of 15.

Later on the same drive, Shanahan catches the defense fast-flowing away from the simulated inside run to Breida and flows toward receiver Deebo Samuel who took the ball on the fly sweep.

The defense crashes down on the perimeter as receiver Marquise Goodwin sprints around on the reverse. Deebo pitches the ball to Goodwin, and he gets out on the edge up the sideline and gains 15 before being taken down.

Exploiting coverage weaknesses

The 49ers didn’t throw much against the Browns, but when they did, Shanahan showed why he is considered an expert game-planner. In addition to having a great night on the ground, Breida also did it in the passing game as well, where he caught a five-yard touchdown pass over the middle from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, exploiting a key weakness in the Browns quarters coverage. The Browns, like most teams, are prone to playing cover-4 against trips 3x1 sets but not the way most do with “SOLO” or “stress” coverage.

The 49ers come out in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end) with a 3x1 trips to the right, Garoppolo in shotgun, and Breida motioning to his left next to Garoppolo. The passing concepts to the left side are Kittle on the corner route and Breida running a choice route, where he has the option to cut in or out based on the leverage of the defender.

The Browns are playing a cover-2 read to the tight end side over Kittle and Breida and quarters to the trips. The corner has responsibility for the #2 (Breida) if he cuts out. If not, he’ll sink under the corner route with the safety to that side. The backside safety over Kittle carries him vertically. This is a critical reveal by the Browns as you’ll notice only one defender carried the vertical from the trips.

The linebacker widens with Breida’s choice route, and as he cuts inside, there is no safety help over the top, leaving him one-on-one with the defender. Garoppolo hits him just beyond the goal line, and he makes a nice catch, securing it while going to the ground for the touchdown.

On Kittle’s touchdown, the defense checks into the same tendency. The safety to the trips side watches vertical by the #2 in trips because teams rarely throw to the #1, leaving the #3 to be covered by the weak safety. In the play above, the safety over the single receiver side watches for the vertical from that side, leaving Kittle 1-on-1 down the hash for a touchdown.

Joe Staley said that Shanahan called the play, got the coverage he wanted, yelled “touchdown,” and walked away before Garoppolo had even taken the snap and thrown the pass.

Justin Skule and Mike McGlinchey vs. Myles Garrett

Entering the game off the bye week, the was was some concern about how the left side of the line with left tackle Justin Skule would fare against the elite pass rusher, Myles Garrett. Entering the game, Garrett had 18 total pressures and five sacks per Pro Football Focus. Against the 49res offensive line, he registered just one total pressure with the sack he recorded in the second quarter.

For most of the night, he was quiet. This was in large part due to the running game, covered above. It was also the result of the play-action passing game and giving Garoppolo a series of quick developing throws. The 49ers did not chip or double team Garrett in pass protection, choosing instead to let tackles Mike McGlinchey and Justin Skule hold their own. And they did a pretty good job.

Play action and Quick rhythm passing game

To keep Garoppolo upright, Shanahan relied on play-action as always, and also relied on other quick timing throws to limit the impact of Myles Garrett on the pass rush.

Play action has the effect of slowing down the rush due to the defensive front playing their run cues first. The bonus to this is adding play-action off the outside zone flow. The movement of the offensive line pushes Garrett away from the quarterback’s passing lane and gives him a relatively easier time throwing to his receivers.

On quicker non-play action throws, the timing of the throw combined with Garoppolo’s release makes it hard for the pass rush to get any push attempt at a pressure.

The two plays above illustrate this dynamic. In the first clip, the 49ers are in 21 personnel with Garoppolo under center. First down passes against base defense are becoming more of the norm in the NFL today, with 29 teams currently sitting at 50% or more of their first down plays being pass plays. With the 49ers up 21-3, it would seem to indicate they may run. But here, they give Garoppolo a quick out route in rhythm with a three-step drop. Garrett’s pass rush is stalled when he sees the back and fullback coming downhill to his side, causing hesitation and no rush.

In the second clip, out of an empty formation, Garoppolo hits Kittle on a quick “lookie” option route where Kittle has the choice to either cut inside on a slant or cut out on a quick out route depending on the defender’s leverage. The defender has inside leverage, so Kittle breaks out, and Garoppolo hits him after a quick drop back.

The rush of Myles Garrett was stymied by this quick drop. As Garoppolo drops back, Garrett gives a quick jab step inside, getting McGlinchey to slide to left as Garrett bounces back outside to the edge giving him a free run at Garoppolo. But the rush never fully developed as Garoppolo hits the quick throw. Had the play required a five or seven-step drop, it likely would have resulted in a safety.

And lastly, the 49ers were content to leave McGlinchey and Skule alone with Garrett, allowing two total pressures between them, and only of them was Garrett’s.

Garrett does get a good push on some plays, but for the most part, they did not allow him into the backfield. In two games for Skule, he’s only given up two total pressures and for now, seems to be an above-average replacement until Joe Staley comes back.

Outlook

The 49ers head into week six on the road against the Los Angeles Rams for their first divisional game of the season. And they’ll do it without fullback Kyle Juszczyk (out 4-6 weeks with a sprained MCL) and are still without Joe Staley. They should not experience a drop off in production, though. The Rams are prone to giving up points, and defensively, Jared Goff does not do well against pressure and the blitz.

But while the Rams have issues on both sides of the ball, the 49ers still have issues they need to clean up as well. They’ve limited the penalties, but so far, no one in the receiver group has really stood out, and this was a problem that Shanahan was concerned with the preseason as well. On the season, all the pass catchers, to include running backs and tight ends, have dropped eight total passes per Pro Football Focus with each of the five receivers with snaps having at least one drop.

They’re going to need to play an even more sound football than they have played this season to beat their divisional rival on the road, but if what he had seen from Shanahan is any indication so far, they should have relatively no problem executing a winning gameplan. It’s crazy to think that we have still not fully seen what this offense is capable of, and this would be as good of a time as any to see it.