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Kyle Shanahan calls another flawless and diverse game on the road against the Saints

Week after week, head coach Kyle Shanahan seemingly puts together the best possible game plan. Against the Saints, he was perfect.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers won a close one on the road in New Orleans 48-46 after being down early in the contest 20-7 and then 27-14. The Saints scored a touchdown on their first four drives, but the 49ers answered right back each time minus a drive where they were forced to punt. The defense struggled to keep up with the high-powered Saints attack in the first half after being without safety Jaquiski Tartt for the game. In total, the 49ers offense scored on all but three drives, and the Saints scored on all but four drives.

The defense was giving up big play after big play meant that Shanahan and the 49ers offense would need to keep pace with the Saints. And once again, Shanahan proved why he is perhaps the best offensive mind in the game calling plays right now. He dug deep into the playbook and pulled out all the stops, letting Jimmy Garoppolo, Emmanuel Sanders, Raheem Mostert, and George Kittle do what they do best: execute a seemingly flawless game plan week after week.

The diversity of Shanahan’s playbook was on full display, as it usually is week after week, and it’s incredible to think that there are probably more wrinkles and schemes they have yet to install or use given how much nuance we’ve seen week after week. It seems endless at times. How can they possibly have anything new to show? The following three-play sequence illustrates this to great effect.

Same formations, different plays

First play: 2nd quarter, 1st & 10 at SF 40 (2:31)

Matt Breida was listed as questionable all week and did not get his first carry until late in the second quarter. It couldn’t have come at a better time. The drive was capped off by a 10-yard touchdown run by Raheem Mostert that would put the 49ers ahead 28-27 before the half. The most important play on the drive was this 28 yard run by Breida.

The play call is “Wanda Gate” and is not really a play we have seen before in this particular iteration. The play is designed to hit off the backside tight end wham block on the 2-technique defensive tackle and is run out of a bunch left formation with Kittle as the wing tight end (important for later).

Breida opens up to the right where he reads the play side tackle from the center to the left “1 gap at time.” The play looks like inside zone initially to the right and is blocked like it, but it gives the running back the ability to cut back if there is no lane that way.

The Saints defense sniffs out the inside zone to that side, but this is where the wham block is key. Kittle comes down into the B-gap and seals off the 2-technique defensive tackle Malcolm Brown (No. 90), opening a running lane off of the left guard for Breida. To that same side, receiver Kendrick Bourne gets another key block when he seals off strong safety Vonn Bell (No. 24) to the inside as well. Breida hits the alley and runs for 28.

Second play: 4th quarter, 2nd & 10 at SF 35 (4:22)

The 49ers were trying to sustain a long six-minute drive to end the game and were doing so by keeping the ball inbounds on short quick passes and runs. They held a 42-40 lead at this point in the game after the Saints made quick work of the 49ers defense with a 2-minute drive of their own to bring the score within two points.

The offense lined up again in the same bunch left-wing formation, and the Saints, determined to not be out-manned to the strong side, set their defensive strength this time toward Kittle. In this play, the defensive adjustment was to allow the second level defenders the ability to plug the open gaps and close the alley down to the strong side.

The 2-technique tackle becomes the 1-technique responsible for the A-gap only while there is now a linebacker responsible for the B-gap, making any wham or down block Kittle impossible.

It doesn’t matter though, because that’s not the play call here. The play call is instead a fake counter GY reverse or “Stutter reverse.” Deebo Samuel, as the single receiver to the right, is the ball carrier after Garoppolo faked the counter run handoff to Mostert. On “counter GY,” the guard and tight end pull around to the play side to lead block for the running back.

Kittle fakes his pull block as Garoppolo fakes the handoff and immediately wraps back around when Deebo takes the ball, becoming Deebo’s lead blocker. The entire defense shifted over with the fake counteraction, allowing the blockers to the reverse side to seal the defenders off momentarily from chasing the reverse.

Cornerback PJ Williams (No. 26) does his best to blow up the block, but Kittle flattens him, allowing Deebo to get to the edge and up the sideline for 31 yards. Deebo gets another key block from back-up center Ben Garland on Marshon Lattimore (No. 23).

Third play: 4th quarter, 4th & 2 at the SF 33 (00:39)

After the last play, the 49ers were only able to come away with a field goal, giving them a five-point lead, and giving the Saints just over two minutes to score a touchdown when Deebo failed to stay in bounds on a swing pass. Quarterback Drew Brees only needed just over one minute to score, though.

Three quick passing plays had the 49ers facing a fourth-and-2, and as the 49ers lined up, they had to burn a timeout to get the right play call, as Shanahan stated after the game that the play he called was not the play the offense lined up in.

“Wristband number 15 is a lot different than wristband number 14. You don’t really know until they line up there and it’s a pretty big time in the game and you’re also trying to save your timeouts, too. didn’t know what he had missed because I didn’t know exactly what 15 looked like at the time, but I knew it didn’t look like 14 when they lined up.”

After the game, Kittle described the play:

“It was a choice route. It was man zone. I had a choice to go in or out Emmanuel (Sanders) and Kendrick Bourne had go-routes which cleared it out for me. He was sitting inside, so it was a pretty easy decision for me to break out. Jimmy gave me ball and just let me run with it.”

The play call, as best as I can tell, is “Choice Water,” with Kittle running the choice route against man coverage underneath the deep go route. The choice route is just that, a “choice” that Kittle has to run across or cut out depending on the defender leverage. Garoppolo motions Kittle over to the wing spot, making this same bunch left formation as the first two plays. The motion reveals to Garoppolo that the defense in man coverage.

The defender over Kittle takes inside leverage. Kittle reads this and cuts out immediately, giving Garoppolo a target. With the Saints in man coverage, there is no one in a zone protecting the sideline flat from Kittle, who catches it and proceeds to drag three defenders with him on a huge play.

After the game, Garoppolo said they had two options on the play. “George was man-to-man. He had a couple of natural picks. He just ran a straight route and killed the guy. It made my job easy. It was awesome.”

Same formations, same plays

Having a diverse set of players at the offensive skill position allows Shanahan to dress up the same plays for different players. The defense never knows where the play is going to hit. And play action in this game was as effective as any other game.

In week 12 against the Packers, the 49ers scored on a long touchdown throw to when Garoppolo found Kittle wide open over the deep middle running a corner post route. The play was designed to look like a flood concept to the boundary, but Kittle broke off the stem of his corner route and cut across the field. It’s likely the Saints prepared for something like this with Kittle since the 49ers put it on tape.

On Sunday, Shanahan called up the same passing concept, “Zorro CP” (corner post), but ran it out of shotgun instead of from under center. Garoppolo faked the handoff to Kittle on a fly sweep from a wing position from Garoppolo’s right.

The defenders in the intermediate were likely expecting play-action crossing routes over the middle and largely didn’t bite on the play fake, electing to stay home and play the pass.

It did not matter, though. Sanders breaks to the corner, then cuts back to the post in the middle of the field. The deep safety read it and peeled off with Sanders immediately when he cut back to the middle.

They’re engaged in a bit of hand fighting before Sanders can shed him while concentrating on the pass. He catches, falls, gets back up and sprints to the end zone for a touchdown.

Later on, Garoppolo would find Kittle on the second play of a two-play sequence, the same play as the play before it, just dressed up slightly different. On the first play, a play-action boot with the tight end or fullback on a slide route, Garoppolo hit fullback Kyle Juszczyk for a gain of 15 to set up a first and goal.

The play call is “FK 18 Sift” and is a play-action boot concept that is designed to simulate outside zone in one direction while the quarterback boots out the opposite way after faking the handoff. The play is run out of 22 personnel (2 tight ends, 2 running backs) with both Kittle and tight end Brent Celek to the right, and Juszczyk and Kittle lined up as the wing players. Garoppolo motions Kittle over to the left to the inline tight end spot.

On the play side, Juszczyk is running from left to right on a slide route behind the offensive line out to the flat. There is a deeper crossing, but Garoppolo slings it out to Juszczyk just as the edge rusher gets upfield in his face.

On the next play, both Kittle and Juszczyk start on the right side with Juszczyk as the wing who motions over to the left next to Celek, and the offense is in 22 personnel again.

Garoppolo boots out again after faking outside zone to the right, but this time Kittle is running the slide route in the opposite direction. Garoppolo tosses it out to him as the deeper corner route by Juszczyk is blanketed, leaving Kittle wide open in the flat. Kittle sprints toward the pylon and dives for it, hitting it and getting the touchdown.

Shanahan’s weekly game plans build off previous weeks, and it’s one way that he has stayed ahead of his opponents. Against Carolina in week eight, Shanahan called a wing counter run for receiver Deebo Samuel, a play that went for a touchdown.

At the snap, Garoppolo fakes the handoff to the fly route (Emmanuel Sanders) before handing off to Samuel. The fly route removes defenders from the box and gives Samuel a crease to run for a 19-yard touchdown run. The play is forever on film with Deebo in the wing, and it’s something defenses would likely expect if they saw the formation.

This time, Shanahan would be ready for the defense to overplay their pursuit of Samuel. As Garoppolo hands off to Samuel, the defense immediately pursues the action and flows downhill to cut off Samuel’s running lane. They have the edge contained, and the spill and pursuit defenders are in prime position to make the stop.

As soon as the defender fills the gap, Samuel laterals the ball back to Sanders, who was on a reverse course away from Samuel’s run. The flat defender near the boundary senses the reverse and sits in the flat as Mostert runs right by him out of the backfield. Sanders sees this and launches the pass down the sideline to Mostert, who scores from 31 yards and a touchdown. The play highlights how Shanahan always seems to be one step ahead of everyone else.

Jimmy Garoppolo’s clutch throws

The beauty of Shanahan’s offense is the quarterback does not have to be elite to execute it week after week efficiently. And yet there are a number of games this season and on Garoppolo’s first five-game stretch in 2017 that they likely would not have won if Brian Hoyer, C.J. Beathard, or Nick Mullens were the starting quarterback.

On Monday after the game, Shanahan was asked if this was Garoppolo’s best performance, and he stated that “it was, I think, extremely impressive. The thing that impressed me the most was just how he handled the noise. I’ve been in that stadium a lot, but it was louder than usual to me. You never can hear at the line, but it was very hard for him to hear in the huddle...he kept our guys pretty cool throughout the whole time.”

Garoppolo did make several clutch throws, and two of them came on scoring plays where he kept the play alive and found Kendrick Bourne for the touchdowns.

The play was a high-low concept to the left with Bourne running a swirl route over the top of a sit route by the running back and the Saints in a cover-2 read to the short side of the field. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore (No. 23) has Bourne man to man on a vertical stem, so safety Marcus Williams (No. 43) takes Kittle across on the vertical while safety Vonn Bell (No. 24) funnels to the flat with the running back.

Garoppolo looks for Kittle on the crosser as he drops back but sees that it’s bracketed by Williams and linebacker Demario Davis (No. 56). At the same time, Bourne is collisioned by Bell as he gets vertical, but he runs through it and attacks Lattimore’s outside shoulder before pivoting back inside.

Garoppolo fires it into Bourne on time as he pivots back inside and puts the pass inside, above and away from the trailing defender, eliminating any chance the defender could break it up. Garoppolo fits it in there just as Davis looks to undercut the throwing lane.

On the next touchdown to Bourne, Garopollo had to buy a little more time before finding room to hit Bourne near the back of the end zone.

The play call is a double stick concept to the trips side on the left from the six-yard line. Garoppolo drops back, looking to the left for the stick routes to open, but nothing is open. This is a timing play, so he quickly comes off of them, resets, and looks to the right for another receiver, but everything is covered there too.

Garoppolo keeps his eyes downfield looking for a receiver but has to break from the pocket to keep the play alive and get a receiver open on the scramble drill. As he scrambles to his left, Bourne breaks back to the middle to open space. Garoppolo, rolling left, fires it back across to Bourne the opposite direction for the touchdown after exhausting all of his progressions in the play. The score puts the 49ers up 42-33 near the midway point of the fourth quarter.

On the day, Garoppolo finished 26-35 (74% completion), four touchdowns, and one interception. He’s currently third in total touchdown passes this season with 25, and it’s the third game this season he’s thrown four touchdown passes, all coming since week nine. Since that week nine game in Arizona, he’s thrown 16 touchdown passes to four interceptions. It’s safe to say he’s getting better and more comfortable as the season goes on.

Shanahan tribute (or troll?) to Sean Payton

In week three of last season, Shanahan installed a basic speed option play out of a strong I formation that had Juszczyk taking the handoff from Garoppolo and optioning out with Breida. In the speed option, the pitchman will usually read the unblocked edge defender or a 2nd level linebacker or safety who is tasked with setting the edge.

The read is simple; if the unblocked defender plays the pitchman, he’ll pitch it out to the “slotback” or “B” back. If the defender plays the slotback or B-back, the pitchman will keep and turn upfield. In this case, the Chiefs edge defender plays the pitchman (Juszczyk), so he pitches it out to Breida, who turns upfield and gains 13 yards before going out of bounds at the four-yard line.

It should’ve looked familiar to Saints head coach Sean Payton. He called the play against the Lions in 2017. On Sunday, Shanahan brought it out again; the 49ers picked up a first down with late in the first half on a key scoring drive with Raheem Mostert.

Shanahan likes to window dress though and not to reveal his plan totally, he sent receiver Deebo Samuel on a ghost motion behind the play, just another wrinkle to add confusion and cause hesitation for the defense. Mostert takes the pitch as Juszczyk got popped and picked up 18 yards on third-and-1.


The 49ers should handle their business against the Falcons this weekend as they have the next two games at home with the Rams the following week. No moment right now seems too big for Shanahan as he and his staff have put together excellent plans for their opponents week after week. We’ve seen this in the past, but the lack of talent was holding this team back for the last two years. Now, as they are one of the best team’s in the league, they’re going to get their opponent’s best as they make the final push down the stretch. And yet I somehow doubt we’ve seen the peak of his play-calling.