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49ers 101: The stretch zone play

Going through a series that features some of the staples in Kyle Shanahan’s offense

Chicago Bears v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

With it being the dull period for the NFL, now is a great time to talk about some of the staples in the San Francisco 49ers offense. One of those staples is the “stretch” zone play. We’re going to go in-depth about one of Kyle Shanahan’s favorite run plays today. One thing Shanahan wants to do is get to the outside. When you take away QB scrambles, kneels, or any sort of QB run, the 49ers ran outside of the tackle a whopping 39% of the time in 2018.

When you look at the current running backs that are on the 49ers roster, that makes sense. Plenty of speed to burn between Matt Brieda, Jerick McKinnon, and Tevin Coleman. Stretch zone gives the running back a two-way go. When you have guys carrying the ball with the explosiveness like the trio above, that’s important. Let’s start with the responsibilities up front.

“Run, lineman!”

Last year the offensive line was right around the top-10 when it came to running outside of the tackles. The 49ers were unsurprisingly at their best running behind left tackle Joe Staley in 2018, averaging a healthy 5.31 yards per carry. Before we see the actual play, let’s go over what the line is asked to do.

Hearing offensive line coaches describe this play, they expect the offensive lineman to run. Literally. By doing so, you open up more running lanes. Here’s stretch play against the Detroit Lions.

Blocking assignments from left to right:

Garrett Celek(88) will block the end man on the line of scrimmage.

Joe Staley(74) will block the first threat at the second level, whether a LB or safety.

Laken Tomlinson(75) will try and get outside leverage on the DT in front of him. Or “reach” him.

Weston Richburg(58), Mike Person(68), and Mike McGlinchey(69), will all attempt to do the same to their respective defenders. Again, running is important here. Richburg has a tougher job as he needs to block the DT lined up over him long enough so Person can get there, while still be able to cut off the middle linebacker.

Kyle Juszczyk(44) will block the first threat, in the event Celek or Staley’s man gets beat. If

Matt Breida(22) has an aiming point of the outside shoulder of the tackle. All he has to do is run to daylight. That can be a number of directions, from out wide to the sideline, to cutting it back.


I’ll use Breida for the 3 run plays as this play fits what he does well perfectly. He’s also the lone back on the roster that will get a carry in 2019 that did last year. As for his skill set, Breida’s patience, burst, and ability to get through small spaces without going down on first contact is what makes him a special player. To say Breida had success running outside of the tackles would be the understatement of the year.

3 plays

This first example highlights that it doesn’t take all five members of the offensive line to do their job for a run play to be successful. On stretch plays, the defense can be wrong, even when they are right. The cornerback(39) runs himself out of the play and that’s all the Niners need here. Watch him, then watch the linebacker(40) lined up over Person.

One defender is too aggressive, and the other defender is too passive. The same can be said for the linebacker over Staley.

There’s a lot of moving parts on these stretch runs. Richburg doesn’t get to the linebacker, but that doesn’t matter on this play. Like most run plays, you just can’t have a guy whiff. That’s what happened to Tomlinson and McGlinchey on this play below.

When that happens, there’s not much the runner can do. I think this is actually a great play by Breida. Being able to avoid a loss and salvage this play for a gain of zero is a win for the offense.

Then, like on Breida’s 66-yard touchdown later on in the game, you get fantastic effort from each of your blockers. Even the downfield blocking by the receivers is impressive. Breida waits until there’s a crease, and runs to green grass.

My favorite block is seeing Tomlinson layout and get a piece of the linebacker. That is what springs Breida. Such an awesome effort.

If I had to describe Staley’s greatness, it’s being able to execute the most difficult blocks—like the play above—and make them look routine. He’s so good, man.

The genius of Shanahan is that he can run this same play 15 times a game out of 10 different looks. He can also run his play-action passing game from this, which is the next play we’ll talk about.

The three-headed monster at running back this year should feast on stretch zone. Shanahan is bringing in players that fit the mold of his offense. That’s how it’s done.