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49ers 101: Kyle Shanahan’s favorite play-action play

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Using 4 plays to highlight some of the 49ers favorite route combos

Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

In the first installment of “49ers 101”, we went over the stretch zone play and why it’s such an effective run play. Today, we go over the play-action pass that’s built off that stretch zone play. It feels like defenses fall for it every time — a simple, yet effective play. Like Sean McVay with the Los Angeles Rams, less is more. You don’t need to run 37 different plays to be successful. It’s all about window dressing, something that San Francisco 49ers head coach and play-caller Kyle Shanahan excels at.

Playing to your personnel

In 2018, the 49ers led the NFL in snaps out of 21 personnel—which is two running backs and one tight end—using that personnel 424 times. For reference, the New England Patriots were second with 298 snaps. Because Shanahan has set up the run with two backs so often, defenses have no choice to respect that. With speed in the backfield, you’ll often see linebackers over-pursuing. All this does is create windows to throw when you run play-action. Shanahan loves himself some play-action. The 49ers ran play-action 25% of the time in 2017, and 26% in 2018. Both of those were top-10. Last year, the offense averaged 9.1 yards per play off play-action. That was good for fourth in the NFL.

My favorite play in football is the “throw it to your best player” play. Whether George Kittle or Dante Pettis, Shanahan does a tremendous job of either scheming these two open or “max protecting”—leaving in seven-plus blockers—so they have time to get open down the field. It seems simple, but for some reason, coaches outsmart themselves and forget about their best players. Not Shanahan. Let’s go over the two play-action passes Shanahan favors the most.

Run the over, over and over

The “over” route off play-action is deadly. Once you set up that stretch zone play, linebackers are going to be flying up like a chicken with their heads cut off trying to get outside to stop the run. An “over” route is precisely how it sounds. Once the receiver gets “over” the linebackers, he’s going to bend his path inside at about 10 yards and run to green grass. Here’s how it looks:

Pettis is already an advanced route runner. When he doesn’t have resistance like that, it’s an easy pitch and catch.

You’ll also notice how much time Nick Mullens has. The defense sees everyone in their line of sight blocking; it’s natural to assume it’s a run play. This is a great window dressing by Shanahan.

This next play is out of 12 personnel—which is one running back and two tight ends—that has the same action. Kendrick Bourne will run off the coverage to the bottom of the screen, but instead of a receiver coming from the opposite side of the field, it’s Kittle.

Getting both of those players in space led to a bunch of big plays last year. Some of them were touchdowns where Pettis or Kittle outran the rest of the defense. That’s another area where Deebo Samuel excels. Which is why many believe Samuel is a perfect fit for the 49ers and what they want to do.

If you watch Marquise Goodwin to the top of the screen, he’s supposed to run behind the line of scrimmage and pop out on the other side. He gets hung up, so he never makes it. That’s the safety valve in the event Kittle isn’t open. South Carolina ran this with Samuel, who is no stranger to contact.

Isolation routes

Shanahan has a few spinoffs for this as well. It’s not just over routes. There are quite a few built-in screens to Kittle or Matt Breida that worked well last year. The isolation routes to Pettis are stealing out of play-action. Again, the 49ers will max protect to buy both the QB and receiver an extra second or so. The play-action takes away the threat of any defender underneath getting into a throwing lane, leaving Pettis 1-on-1, a matchup that you’ll take every time.

You give Pettis a half field to work with, and that’s how 75-yard touchdowns happen. The Seahawks give extra attention to Kittle, and nobody is there to help on Pettis. Another reason to believe Samuel will be a headache for defenses early on. He will have plenty of 1-on-1 opportunities to create in space.

The other benefit is in long-yardage situations you can have your receivers sprint to the first down marker and stop. A deep curl is a good changeup as any cornerback in the NFL is going to think you’re running deep once you get to 15 yards. With extra blockers, you have the time for this. Here’s how it looks:

A guy like Jalen Hurd could come into play here. Not just as an option where Pettis is to the bottom of the screen, but more so Bourne to the top of the screen. At Baylor, Hurd was the big target that you could rely on over the middle. He’s a bigger guy that has no problem making plays in traffic. That’s something to keep an eye on.

Out of 21 personnel, but Kyle Juszczyk motioned to tight end pre-snap. Teams are going to stay in their base personnel when he is in the game. That’s advantage 49ers. With the personnel that’s on the roster this year, the team has a chance to create plenty of mismatches. Using play-action only enhances your receivers chances of being 1-on-1. Now that the team has players that can win both 1-on-1 and in space, the offense has an opportunity to be as good as many suggest.