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Kittle returned, and so did the running game

This week’s film room looks at the key plays on offense and defense that contributed to the win over Green Bay.

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Green Bay Packers v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Brandon Magnus/Getty Images

The 49ers got no help from the Panthers (who lost to the Saints) or Eagles (who lost to the Seahawks) this past weekend. Currently, the Saints and Seahawks sit at 9-2 in the NFC. The 49ers would need to control their destiny to remain in the first place. The potential to fall to 9-2 and the 5th seed heading into week 13 was less than ideal. The 49ers had other plans.

On Sunday Night Football in front of a national audience from the east coast to the west coast, the 49ers proved that they are, in fact, contenders by thoroughly dominating the Green Bay Packers, who just came off a bye week, by a final score of 37-8. Instead of falling to fifth place, they remain in full control of the top seed in the NFC heading into perhaps their toughest test to date this Thanksgiving weekend in Baltimore.

For now, the 49ers have several things to build off of and look like the team they so often have by blowing out yet another team by four scores or more. On offense, the 49ers finished with 7.5 yards per play and had over 100 yards rushing for the first time since the Carolina game. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo finished with 253 passing yards, and two touchdown passes.

On defense, they sacked quarterback Aaron Rodgers five times and recorded 23 total pressures on 38 dropbacks and held him to 104 passing yards. The Packers offense was one dimensional, with the running game eclipsing 100 yards, but in the first half, the Packers only crossed the 50-yard line once and still came away with zero points when they were stuffed on a 4th-and-1 run.

George Kittle’s return sparks the offense

The 49ers went up early in the game 7-0 when a Rodgers fumble was recovered by Nick Bosa and returned inside the five-yard line. After that, the offense went stale as the Packers forced several three-and-outs as Garoppolo had no time to throw. The catalyst seemed to be replacing Justin Skule at left tackle with Dan Brunskill. Suddenly the passing game opened up.

Garoppolo hit two big pass plays in the second quarter to George Kittle as soon as the left tackle position was resolved. After hitting him on a shallow crossing route for a gain of 18, Garoppolo hit Kittle again for a gain of 22 on Shanahan’s “rider” play-action concept out of 22 personnel (two running backs, two tight ends). Rider simulates outside zone in one direction while the crossing route over the middle goes the opposite way.

The Packers’ defense keys on the outside zone run as the middle linebackers fast flow with their run cues. Linebackers on a fast flow read have to get out of the box as quickly as possible on an edge run. Shanahan knows this and exploits that rule with this concept. Kittle runs the deep over route the opposite way, and there is no defender in the middle of the field. Receiver Richie James ran off both the corner and safety to his side, leaving Kittle with room to run.

Later in the 3rd quarter, the 49ers answered the Packers scoring drive with a scoring drive of their own, a long touchdown throw to Kittle again on a similar play-action concept called “Zorro CP” (corner post).

In 23 personnel, the 49ers likely had their run play “18 Zorro” called, their strong side outside zone run. However, Garoppolo said after the game that “Yeah, we canned the play, got into the pass play and everything, and George just ran a great route. He had the corner post, basically, on it.”

The play is designed to look like a three-level flood concept to the boundary with outside zone run action the opposite way, with Kittle on the corner-post route. The goal of the play was to get the defense to jump the intermediate crosser and the corner stem portion of the corner post route. As Packers cornerback Kevin King (No. 20) starts to run with the corner stem, Kittle abruptly changes direction and cuts to the post and completely turns King around and then sprints to a 61-yard touchdown.

Deebo Samuel is a legitimate receiving threat

Last week I wrote that Deebo Samuel was emerging as a top receiving threat. It’s safe to say he’s not just emerging as one, he is one. And on Sunday night, he caught a touchdown pass over the middle and took it 41 yards for the touchdown.

Last week after the win over the Cardinals, of which Deebo was a prominent feature, Richard Sherman stated that “Deebo Samuel is fearless. He’ll run through any catch. You get some receivers running across the middle, and they’re looking for who’s going to hit them. Deebo is looking for who he’s going to hit. That’s a much different mentality for most people.”

Deebo is in the slot to the right of the offensive formation running a “thru” route. The play design stretches the Packers dime defense horizontally, creating basically a 1-on-1 match up with Deebo versus slot corner Tramon Williams (No. 38). All Garoppolo has to do is fit the ball into Deebo over linebacker Blake Martinez (No. 50). Garoppolo gives a quick look left to move Martinez out of position just enough to create a window throw into.

Martinez has to drop into a zone to his right due to the pressure from the second level that defensive coordinator Mike Pettine called on this down, a variant of the “Brady 3” creeper pressure. A creeper pressure sends a fourth rusher from somewhere else while a defensive end drops into a zone. The downside is that another defender has to get over to replaced the vacated zone, Martinez’s responsibility.

Samuel catches it in stride over the middle, doesn’t flinch in the face of Martinez, and sprints to a 41-yard touchdown before the end of the half.

Running game gets back on track with gap and zone scheme runs

Gap scheme run - Long trap

The running game took a hit with the absence of both George Kittle and Kyle Juszczyk, but both were back on the field together in the running game for the first time since week three. And a good thing too because the 49ers have been seeing an uptick in stacked boxes since Kittle’s absence, anywhere from six to eight-man fronts, daring the 49ers to throw.

One way to counter five-man fronts with potential for eight total in the box is by running gap scheme runs (counter, power, trap, etc.,) to change the point of attack and utilize double teams more effectively than zone blocking. Shanahan has called more gap scheme runs this season than he has in previous seasons with the 49ers.

Jeff Wilson, the hero of the week 11 game against the Cardinals, had a key run on a long trap run out of shotgun on what would eventually be the game-winning scoring drive in the first quarter. On the play side, Kittle is responsible for the down block on the linebacker over the A-gap.

Left tackle Daniel Brunskill and left guard Laken Tomlinson execute a double team block on the 4i-technique defensive tackle. Out of the gun, Garoppolo hands off Wilson, who follows guard Mike Person, who executed a trap block on the defensive end, creating a running lane for Wilson to squeeze through en route to a 25-yard run.

Late in the second half, the 49ers went back to their gap running scheme on a scoring drive when running back Raheem Mostert carried the ball for a 15 yard gain on another long trap run.

The run set up an eventual 41-yard touchdown pass to Deebo Samuel recapped above. Mostert takes the handoff following guard Mike Person into the hole. While Person seals the edge on the trap block, Kittle’s down block seals the linebacker Blake Martinez, who responsible for plugging the gap at the point of attack, to the inside. Kittle’s absence not only in the passing game was missed, but his absence in the running game was also missed.

Zone scheme runs

It’s still good to keep your base running game concepts in your back pocket though, as Shanahan did here with the “18 Wanda” run concept and is a complementary play to the week five-run, “Suzy,” which went for a touchdown on the 49ers first play in that game.

The key block here is Juszczyk on outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell (No. 51). Juszczyk starts the play with a step toward the strong side of the formation. Coleman follows the same motion to the left, getting the defense to flow hard to the strong side.

Once the defense begins their pursuit that way, both Juszczyk and Coleman wrap around as Coleman takes the handoff. As Juszczyk seals the edge with a block on Fackrell, Coleman reads that block and cuts outside of Juszczyk and gets upfield for a first down.

The 49ers ran “Suzy” again for another touchdown late in the fourth quarter when Raheem Mostert ran virtually untouched into the end zone from 15 yards out behind Juszczyk’s edge block.

Defense has another solid performance

The defense recorded 25 pressures (7 sacks, three hits, 15 hurries) on 38 dropbacks per Pro Football Focus. The sacks and pressures were both the result of the defensive line thoroughly dominating the Packers offensive line and also the result of the pass defense holding up on the back end and blanketing the Packers receivers with coverage.

Pass rush-driven sacks

From the first series of the game, the 49ers defensive line dominated. In the first series, linebacker Fred Warner sacked Rodgers for an 11-yard loss, causing him to fumble where Nick Bosa recovered it and returned it inside the five-yard line.

The key to the 49ers winning their pass rush assignments was by creating pass-rushing lanes that allowed the 49ers defensive line to be in 1-on-1 situations. On the first drive, the 49ers are showing a double A-gap pressure and a seven-man front on a third-and-10 from the Packers 25-yard line, indicating to Rodgers that there may be as many as seven rushers that he has to account for.

Nick Bosa and DeForest Buckner are rushing from the offensive left and running an end-tackle stunt where Bosa shoots inside to the B-gap first, and Buckner loops around the edge second. Linebackers Dre Greenlaw and Fred Warner are showing pressure in the A-gaps, but it’s actually Warner who comes on the blitz and Greenlaw locating the inside crossing route. Rounding out the rush is Arik Armstead and Solomon on the offense’s right.

Armstead and Thomas slant into the A-gap and B-gap respectively, allowing K’Waun Williams to come off the edge and add to the rush. The havoc the stunt and slant create speaks for itself. Linemen are tossed aside, bull rushed, confused, etc., as the 49ers pass rush gets home. Warner finishes the play with the strip-sack as Bosa comes in and scoops it for the return.

Nick Bosa also continued to dominate, recording a sack and five total pressures. He would’ve had two sacks, but one was erased due to a penalty downfield. Nonetheless, the rep that was erased a case study in sheer dominance when he bull-rushed right tackle Alex Light to the ground.

On the sack, though that counted though, Bosa showed that he’s not just purely a speed to power rusher. He has a variety of moves he can use; I have detailed here, here, and elsewhere.

On this sack, Bosa showcases pure speed around the edge. Usually, he compliments his rush around the edge with a power step to the inside before cutting back outside, just some of the nuance he’s capable of demonstrating. On this rush, however, he needed a quick win and used a blend of speed and technique to win.

Bosa is a reactive rusher letting the offensive lineman dictate the attack, and here he lets Light punch first. Bosa reacts by pinning his arms to the inside as he speeds around the edge. As he gets depth, he rips through Light’s block, keeps his feet moving, uses his strength to grab hold of Rodgers and bringing him down.

Coverage sacks

The 49ers pass rush is elite, but no single pass rush gets home every time, and having a secondary that can cover is just as important in creating opportunities for the rush to get home. An elite pass rush can mask deficiencies in the secondary, but a good secondary can let the pass rush get home.

Cornerback Richard Sherman said after the game that:

“Our D-Line, they hunted, and in the secondary, we just tried to play tight coverage. We played a lot of man-to-man. [Defensive coordinator Robert] Saleh called a lot of man-to-man today, and we felt like that was the plan to try and stop the run and stop [Green Bay Packers RB] Aaron Jones.”

Essentially, Sherman is saying they weren’t concerned with the Packers passing game at all. They stayed in man coverage most of the time and were content to let Rodgers try and beat them with his arm (which he is more than capable of doing).

This sack is a perfect example of how the secondary can allow the rush to get home. The Packers are running their staple “dragon” concept, a slant/flat to the right. Anticipating the Packers might run this, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh dialed up a cover-3 coverage on second-and-6.

Fred Warner (No. 54) is the weak hook defender here and reads the slant/concept to his right, so he sinks under the slant route. As Warner locates the slant by reading Rodger’s eyes, Rodgers pulls the ball down when he sees this and looks to reset looking to the right, but everyone else is covered. Rodgers pulls the ball down again and looks back to the middle as he’s working up into the pocket. However, the rush gets home with Armstead getting the sack as Rodgers elected to not throw due to the coverage.


After the game, Bosa told Niner’s Nation writer Rob Lowder that playing against Rodgers was “amazing. His jersey was nice and saggy, too, so you could grab on to it.” Everyone chuckled but stressed how “completely different” it was then playing Kyler Murray. Lamar Jackson is up next for this defensive front.

The defense will need to play as good, or better if that’s even possible, on Sunday against the Ravens in Baltimore. Expect to see a similar game plan to the Cardinals and Seahawks from the defense with well-timed blitzes on third down and hopefully a front seven who can stay put and play their run fits against the zone read.

The team will need an equally similar and flawless football game from the offense as they had against Green Bay, but with playmakers emerging late in the season and Kittle and Sanders close to being fully healthy again, we could see another Shanahan gameplan unfold as it did on Sunday night. Doing so against the Ravens defense won’t be easy, but Shanahan has had his team prepared in every contest so far leading up to this week. Expect this to be no different.