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Critique the coach: Shanahan and Saleh’s best and worst decisions

Putting the coaching staff under the microscope instead of the players

San Francisco 49ers v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

We know that it’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback and second-guess all the decisions the coaching staff made after a loss. I’m not of the train of thought that one decision will cost you a game. There are over 50 plays on both sides of the ball. Let’s get into some of the good and bad from the San Francisco 49ers coaching staff.

Saleh’s strategy

Where Baltimore thrives is running outside of the tackles. If Lamar Jackson gets outside, it’s generally a successful play for the Ravens. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh chose to rely on Dre Greenlaw to scrape through the traffic of the defense and be responsible for the quarterback. I didn’t agree with that for several reasons. First off, he’s a rookie, and it won’t take much to mess with his eye discipline. Baltimore had four quarterback runs that went for first downs in the first quarter. Here are three runs where the 49ers “blocked themselves.”

The best way to keep Jackson in between the tackles? Have your defensive end be responsible for the quarterback. Sure, you lose athleticism, but if Arik Armstead and Nick Bosa are unblocked and crashing on Jackson, the probability that they hit him is high, and a couple of hits may have scared Baltimore out of running the quarterback so much.

On the day, Baltimore ran it 20 times outside of the tackles for 101 yards. Eight of those runs went for first downs. Six of those runs went for more than ten yards. They weren’t all quarterback run plays, but the threat of Jackson running had a lot to do with it.

Crushing it in coverage

On the flip side, the Niners were ready for all of Baltimore’s route combinations that have led to explosive plays all season. Baltimore loves to use the entire field, something that few teams do. The linebackers carried routes down the field, the secondary passed off routes and didn’t chase, and the defensive line wasn’t rushing out of control. There was a play early on where Baltimore had trips to one side of the field, and tried to run a vertical route to the other side of the field. In years past, that’s been wide open against your typical “Cover 3” defense. Thanks to Joe Woods, the 49ers have evolved this season in coverage.

It helps having Fred Warner be able to run with receivers down the middle of the field. He was fooled on an early touchdown, but was superb after. Even on the routes Baltimore did connect with, San Francisco was “right.” Check this play out by Greenlaw:

It’s a play-action pass, and Greenlaw recognizes that and gets back to the tight end who is running an “over route.” The tight end sits down, which Greenlaw wasn’t expecting, and it’s a nine-yard gain. That’s great recognition by Greenlaw to run with the route and an even better job by the tight end to sit down.

Jackson was 12-20 for 89 yards when he wasn’t under pressure. You’ll take those results all day and twice on Sunday if you’re Saleh. You can’t practice against something you haven’t seen. Baltimore ran Lamar more against San Francisco than they have all season. We saw the second half adjustments where Saleh would walk Marcell Harris down to the line of scrimmage, and that gave the 49ers the numbers advantage they needed, which eventually limited the Ravens running game.

Screw Shanahan!

I have to admit, seeing people turn on Shanahan has been hilarious. Pat thinks he cost them the game. If we’re talking fourth downs, the answer is always yes if it’s 4th & 2 or less. Play the math. The probability of you gaining two yards is higher than you stopping a team from getting to where the line of scrimmage currently is. Look at Monday night football when Seattle punted on 4th & 1 from midfield. The Vikings scored a touchdown in the next possession. The play-calls are another thing. The first play-call was worse than the second, in my opinion. It just happened to work, so nobody is talking about it. Here is the All-22 look from the second, fourth down:

Kittle was Garoppolo’s third read on the play. Jimmy either has to give Deebo a split-second longer or get to Kittle on his second read. As Shanahan mentioned, a better play-call would have helped.

We’ve already talked about how Shanahan played it conservative towards the end of the first half. To sum it up:

Wrecking ball in the running game

Focusing on those plays ignores Shanahan’s brilliance in the running game. San Francisco did what they wanted. You pick a direction, and they were probably successful in running that way. The decision to roll with Raheem Mostert was needed, as were the throws over the middle of the field. If anything, Shanahan should have relied on the underneath throws more on early downs. Garoppolo was 10-11 for 108 yards throwing between the numbers. Baltimore was asking the 49ers to throw it there, and when they did, San Francisco made the most of it.

The offense didn’t struggle. San Francisco averaged 6.4 yards per play, compared to Baltimore’s 4.6. What hurt was the execution on money downs. The Niners were 5-14 on third and fourth downs. The one time the 49ers got to the red zone, they had to settle for a field goal. That, coupled with the fumble, is why the Niners came up short.