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Kyle Shanahan will use the big stage to set up future opponents

Chess level 2: Showing what you want them to see

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San Francisco 49ers v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

There’s a surprising foundation for “offensive guru” Kyle Shanahan’s play-calling success: his knowledge of defensive schemes.

On Saturday, longtime sportswriter Greg Bedard — now with the Las Vegas Review-Journal — shared an interesting story that explained how San Francisco’s coach got that knowledge.

Bedard quotes Chris Simms, who played for Tampa Bay back when Shanahan was a lowly offensive quality control assistant there. He recalls seeing Shanahan in the back of the defensive coaches’ meeting room, night after night after he finished his regular duties.

Why? So he could learn all of the coverages and schemes, inside out — and outsmart them. Luckily for him, that Buccaneers defensive staff was loaded with talent, including Monte Kiffin, Rod Marinelli, Joe Woods, Mike Tomlin AND Gus Bradley — all at the same time.

Shanahan’s late-night studies paid off. Sage Rosenfels told Bedard that he (Rosenfels) was only ever really successful at QB when Shanahan was his QB coach at Houston. And it was because of that schematic knowledge.

“More than anything, though, he knew how to dissect a defense and how to adjust. He knew exactly what to do if the defense did X.”

And that’s how Shanahan was able to call “Touchdown” and walk away as soon as the ball was snapped, on the play where George Kittle eventually scored a 22-yard touchdown against Cleveland. Just by looking at the defensive formation.

The other day I wrote about the deeper chess game of NFL coaches: managing what opponents can study on videotape as they prepare to play you. The obvious way to do this is to hide your best plays (or your trick plays) so teams can’t prepare for them.

But there’s another level: running certain plays and formations (and putting them on game film) deliberately to mislead or trick teams into over-reacting to them. Creating tendencies for teams to key on — and for you to break when you play them later.

I think Kyle Shanahan has been managing both sides of this, based on a year-long game plan of how he’s going to develop, extend, and reveal the many twists and turns of his offensive scheme.

How do I know? Because he basically said so at his press conference on Thursday.

“Everyone has an ideal plan on how they would write up how they want each game in the season to go.“

Everyone? Every NFL coach? I’m not so sure about that. But Shanahan clearly does.

He’s a master of showing an inclination to run one play, than drawing up a counter to it that starts from the same formation — and unveiling that variation later in the season.

For example, motioning Kittle to the other side of the formation repeatedly — until the one time that the tight end actually takes a hand off, turning the motion into a fly sweep play right, counter to the offensive line’s movement, blocking to the left.

But playing on Monday Night Football is different, Shanahan went on to say. And that’s doubly true for a matchup of two playoff bound teams.

“...the neatest thing about it is that’s the one time all your peers really get to watch you also. The coaches and players in the league, it’s always cool to be on national TV for the whole world and stuff, but I think it’s special when the whole league gets to watch you too.”

What a sweetheart, peace love and understanding guy, right? One big happy football family, watching quietly and respectfully as Shanahan does a big show and tell, sharing his best work with the whole class!

Maybe. But it’s also a time to earn respect, or intimidate future opponents — or to set them up for a counter play later.

This big TV stage is the perfect time to play chess with the whole league, not just the guys preparing for you this season. Not just coaches and quality control assistants, either, but players as well. Because you know many of them will be watching.

I don’t believe in raw “instinct.” That’s just the word we use when a player understands the game so well that he doesn’t have to stop and think about what’s going on — he can just react.

But that only comes after years of playing and studying film, learning the current route concepts and run schemes, and working out reads and keys that signal what’s going to happen next. Instinct is just the next deeper level of knowledge.

The chess game is making the reads wrong — knowing what defenders are looking for (things like a narrower WR split, or motioning the tight end across the field) and devising plays where those keys steer players wrong.

Feed them some bait to make them commit aggressively in one direction, then go the other way — as in Raheem Mostert’s slip screen against the Bengals.

Players also associate plays with particular players, since NFL talents are so extraordinary, and coaches design plays around them. They remember that long pass to Kittle, when he lined up on the right side of the line, blocked for a couple of seconds, then leaked out on a wheel route left for a big gain.

So if Marquise Goodwin lines up in that same spot Kittle did, they don’t expect that play, since his size (5’9”, 185-pound) and skill set are so different. That’s why Goodwin was wide open for a 38-yard touchdown against Cincinnati.

I have no idea what plays Shanahan is going to run tonight, or what message he is trying to send to the many NFL players and coaches watching. But you can be sure that he knows, and that it will pay off later — maybe next year, maybe this postseason.