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How Kyle Shanahan’s brilliance helped the 49ers convert multiple third downs on the game-winning drive

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NFL: Atlanta Falcons at San Francisco 49ers Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

“It was third-and-16, not the best situation to be in. Usually, you’re not feeling great in those situations.” Kyle Shanahan’s post-game comments certainly resonated with the media, because that’s exactly the same thought I had when the 49ers were facing those situations.

How unlikely was it that the 49ers converted both of those? Per Elias Sports Bureau, only two teams have converted multiple third-down attempts of 15+ yards on a game-winning drive.

San Francisco on Saturday night and the Browns in 1984.

Per ESPN’s Nick Wagoner, the 49ers’ offense did not have any success in similar down and distances this season. When facing a third down of at least 15 yards, the 49ers did not convert in any of their 20 attempts — until Saturday.

Garoppolo was in a jovial mood after the game, adding, “It’s the exact situation we were looking for. [Laugh] To convert two of those the way we did, it was pretty incredible. A lot of good execution, guys up front, blocking them for as long as they needed to and then, obviously, guys just making plays down the field.”

It was the perfect set of circumstances for an offense that looked like they were stuck in neutral for most of the game. Shanahan’s offense began the second half with an interception, followed by four punts, and suddenly they found themselves behind.

Now on the final drive, with the game tied and the clock at 1:57, San Francisco found themselves facing a 3rd-and-16 and in danger of punting it away to the Rams who only needed a field goal for the win.

The interior offensive line had been struggling most of the night — with guard Dan Brunskill starting in place for Mike Person. Shanahan decides to go with maximum protection for Garoppolo, bringing running back Raheem Mostert and tight end George Kittle in the backfield.

Shanahan draws up a play, which sees wideout Emmanuel Sanders run a curl route at the first-down market, while receivers Kendrick Bourne and Deebo Samuel run dig routes.

The Rams drop into zone coverage, but safety Eric Weddle drops deeper than the outside corners — which allows Bourne to find the opening in the zone. Weddle is unable to come back to the ball quick enough to disrupt the play.

San Francisco’s offensive line holds up with good protection, and Garoppolo can deliver a good throw to Bourne as soon as he gets open. The undrafted free agent does well to spring himself past the sticks for a huge first down to keep the drive alive.

Now, the 49ers are facing ANOTHER third-and-16, this time with 0:58 on the clock. Rams’ defensive coordinator Wade Phillips probably thinks that the 49ers will run a combination of dig and curl routes to help free up the receivers at the first-down line.

San Francisco lines up in the same formation as the previous third-and-16, except flipping Samuel/Sanders and Mostert/Kittle on the opposite side of the formation. At this point, Rams have to be thinking that the same play is coming.

Phillips calls for the Rams to play Cover 2 — each safety guards half of the field — and then all the corners play man underneath in trail position to protect against the comeback routes right at the first-down marker.

Shanahan anticipates this from Phillips and has Bourne and Samuel run the same route, but sends Sanders on a post route.

On the play, Ramsey lets Sanders go by thinking that the 49ers’ receiver would stop and come back at the first-down marker, but Sanders is running a post route. Rams’ safety Taylor Rapp gets too wide — something Garoppolo noted after the game — and knew that Sanders would be open down the middle of the field.

The protection does not hold as well in this play, but Garoppolo’s able to wait until the last second to get rid of the ball. The 49ers’ quarterback noted that his arm was hit as he released the ball, but it was still able to get to Sanders.

Shanahan’s brilliance is displayed in multiple ways. On the most important plays of the game, the 49ers’ offensive play-caller decides to use Kittle to block instead of having him as another pass catcher. He also anticipates what the Rams would do the second time around and makes one subtle adjustment that creates a 46-yard gain.

It’s often noted that Shanahan tends to outthink himself and over-complicate a play call because he is trying to guess what the defense is going to do — but on these instances, he dials it up beautifully. The play calling, combined with the execution in clutch moments, paved the way for an easy Robbie Gould field goal. That allowed San Francisco to notch its 12th win of the season.