There are many elite play-callers currently in the NFL, from the Chiefs’ Andy Reid to Patriots’ Josh McDaniels to Saints’ Sean Payton to Eagles’ Doug Pederson. The unique part about these offensive coaches is that they are versatile and will tailor their offense to what opposing defenses present each week.
49ers’ head coach Kyle Shanahan’s bread and butter is the zone-running scheme, paired with a strong play-action passing attack with slight variations on top of that. With such a simple offensive philosophy, Shanahan has developed a complex offensive scheme that’s allowed the 49ers’ offense to be like a chameleon and adapt multiple times against the Saints.
On Sunday, San Francisco was in a shootout in New Orleans, and Shanahan had to dig deep into his bag of tricks to keep up with Payton, quarterback Drew Brees and the Saints’ high-octane scoring attack.
Facing a DVOA-rated top-10 defense, Shanahan could not simply run the same plays and expect the same results. With each drive, the Saints’ defense continued to take away an aspect of the 49ers’ offense, but Shanahan was one chess move ahead, continually finding a different concept that was effective.
Shanahan made not one, not two, not three — but FOUR key adjustments that allowed their offense to put up 48 points and over 500 yards of total offense on a superior defense that features first-round talent at every level.
1. Phase 1: Quick Passing Attack
Down 7-0, when the 49ers got their first possession, Shanahan surprised the Saints’ pass defense and attacked them with six passing attempts — all quick hitters that allowed the 49ers’ receivers to get open quickly and rack up yards after the catch.
On the second pass of the game, 49ers’ quarterback recognizes the single-high safety and sees man coverage on wideout Emmanuel Sanders. The corner is also playing outside leverage — meaning he’s trying to force Sanders back into the middle of the field based on his stance.
Garoppolo uses the play-action fake to suck in linebacker DeMario Davis and then completes a tight-window throw to Sanders, who turns it into a 31-yard gain. The opening drive was filled with throws over the middle that the receivers turned into chunk plays for the 49ers’ offense.
Opening play -- Garoppolo sees single high safety pre-snap and then post-snap watches DeMario Davis (56) get sucked in on the PA and hits Sanders in stride.— Akash Anavarathan (@akashanav) December 11, 2019
49ers used quick hitters (slant in this case) to move the ball down in the opening drive for a TD. pic.twitter.com/gBkamsNxgV
2. Phase 2: Pass to Set up the Run
During the 49ers’ third offensive drive (mid-way through the second quarter), is when they had their first traditional run play. The Saints decided to stop the aerial attack — so Shanahan decided to pound Dennis Allen’s defense on the ground.
In this play below, the Saints play two-high safety, keeping their backline of defense 15 yards away from the line of scrimmage. The 49ers recognize this and run the ball to the right side, behind tackle Mike McGlinchey and away from the Saints’ best defensive lineman — Cam Jordan.
In fact, Shanahan’s wrinkle to this run play is motioning wideout Kendrick Bourne from right to left to freeze Jordan momentarily and taking him out of the play. Everyone blocks well upfront, and Mostert has a Texas-sized hole to run through.
Halfway through Q2 is when the #49ers attempt their first real run.— Akash Anavarathan (@akashanav) December 11, 2019
With the passing attack dominating, Saints move two safeties deep (15 yards off LOS) and 49ers have a run-play advantage.
Bourne's motion freezes Cam Jordan and Mostert has a HUGE hole to run through. pic.twitter.com/28JBUifeK9
The 49ers come back to the run, this time with starter Matt Breida. Tight end George Kittle and Bourne have huge blocks on the play that open up a lane for Breida to run through, creating a 28-yard gain on the play.
New Orleans continued to put their safeties back, and Shanahan said “thank you” and kept taking advantage by running the 49ers’ tailbacks every play.
#49ers now bring in Breida for this run and watch the blocks that Kittle and Bourne put together here to create a lane for 22.— Akash Anavarathan (@akashanav) December 11, 2019
He ends up using his speed to turn this into a 28-yard gain and SF is dominating Phase 2: "Pass-to-Set-up-the-Run" pic.twitter.com/v4r0h7ZdSy
With a few strong running plays, Shanahan decided to improvise and use a play right out of Sean Payton’s playbook. The 49ers’ play-caller uses a deep motion to bring the Saints’ cornerback to the left side of the field and then runs an option play with fullback Kyle Juszczyk and running back Raheem Mostert. Juszczyk takes the initial hand-off from Garoppolo and pitches it to Mostert once the edge defender commits to the ball carrier.
Kittle doesn’t even block the Saints’ edge defender and moves downfield to block the next-level linebacker. On 3rd-and-1, the 49ers use this play to generate a huge gain.
On this play, taken from Payton and ran in '18 vs. KC. JG hands off to Juszczyk on 3rd-1, who pitches it to Mostert for the 1st.— Akash Anavarathan (@akashanav) December 11, 2019
Key here is the Sanders deep motion, which brings the Saints' corner to the other side of the field. Kittle doesn't block the edge and he takes KJ. pic.twitter.com/qve9ORIvN0
3. Phase 3: Play-Action Passing and Moving the Pocket
While Shanahan and the offensive staff is trying to deal with how New Orleans is changing their defensive scheme, they were also hit with injury-related adversity. Their best offensive lineman, center Weston Richburg went down in the second half, and backup Ben Garland was inserted into the game.
Given the Saints’ pass rush, Shanahan knew that he had to ease Garland into the game. He did so by moving the pocket on Garoppolo’s first drop back with Garland playing center. The 49ers use play-action to confuse the defense and bring Juszczyk across the formation. Wideout Emmanuel Sanders clears out the zone with a go-route, and Juszczyk’s wide open in the flat for an easy gain.
Now, with Weston Richburg out -- Shanahan doesn't put pressure on Ben Garland and immediately move the pocket for Garoppolo.— Akash Anavarathan (@akashanav) December 11, 2019
49ers' blockers all go right and KJ comes across the traffic and is WIDE open. Sanders clears out the zone and it's an easy completion for 15 yards. pic.twitter.com/1fRAYTUBze
4. Phase 4: Attacking the edges of the Saints’ defense
Late in the fourth quarter, Shanahan has exhausted everything in his book and is still finding his team down and needing to strike quick magic on offense. Shanahan decides that now’s the time to unleash the jet sweep play to get his speedy receivers on the edge.
The 49ers are a team that often motions receivers as decoys to set up plays down the line, and this was the case here. Samuel comes across and gets the ball on the jet sweep and with Kittle and tackle Joe Staley, creating a convoy for him.
Samuel turns up the field and now is like a running back, using his speed and evasiveness to turn this into a 31-yard play.
In the 4Q, Shanahan needed to dig deep in his bag and started to attack the edges of the Saints' defense and this jet sweep on 2nd-10 was HUGE.— Akash Anavarathan (@akashanav) December 11, 2019
49ers get blockers out in front and Kittle/Staley are able to create space for Samuel to blow through the NO D for a 31-yard gain. pic.twitter.com/WwYfqtjyHL
Kyle Shanahan’s been receiving a lot of praise from his peers, but I don’t think there’s anyone better at calling offensive plays right now. The 49ers’ head coach has been dominant at putting together game plans and then adapting the scheme based on opposing defense, injuries, etc.
San Francisco’s biggest X-factor and advantage over a lot of playoff teams is their head coach, and Shanahan proved that in the 49ers’ most important victory on Sunday.