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How Kyle Shanahan schemes downfield blocking

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The Niners get a LOT of explosion plays in the run game. It’s not a fluke.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at San Francisco 49ers Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers had plenty of problems last year, which is why they picked second in the draft, but they were great on explosion plays — those gains of 20 or more yards — despite losing their starting quarterback and best running back to ACL tears, and not having any marquee wide receivers/

This was not a fluke, and — with all due respect to Matt Breida and George Kittle — it was not a testament to the admittedly great talent that they both have. Coach Kyle Shanahan and his assistants — especially veteran running backs coach Bobby Turner — are masters at setting up play designs with downfield blocks that turn six-yard runs into 24-yard gains.

Let’s look at some examples, starting with the win against Detroit in week two.

1st and 10, SF 12, 2:39 of the first Quarter.

Here’s a basic downfield block to get us started. Juszczyk lines up wide left, outside the numbers, then immediately runs downfield 9 yards and starts blocking his man, Darius Slay Jr. The CB had to play off of Juszczyk because he’s a legitimate receiving threat. By the time he saw that it was a run, Jus was able to push him right out of bounds.

Matt Breida ran an outside zone behind Juszczyk and picked up nine yards, but he left yards on the turf. Safety Tavon Wilson (#32) made contact (and missed a tackle) at the 16 but managed to catch up with him 5 yards later. It wasn’t Juszczyk’s fault, though. Had Breida shook Wilson, it could have been a massive gain.

1st and 10 at SF 14 — 1:47 of 3rd Quarter

Breida is great at timing, running right at the heels of the blocker ahead of him and bursting by full speed just inches away from the helpless and frustrated defender. On this play, he does it twice — first just behind Juszczyk in the hole, as per usual, then nipping at Joe Staley’s Achilles tendon after the tackle had run five yards downfield and squished safety Glover Quin (#27) way off to the left.

Breida gained 20 on the play, but it could have been more — probably 86 yards and into the end zone — if WR Dante Pettis had executed his downfield block. The play was designed for him to do just that 14 yards downfield, which gives you an idea of Shanahan’s (and RB coach Bobby Turner’s) confidence and detailed planning. Unfortunately, the rookie bounce-pushed CB Nevin Lawson (#24) instead of effectively blocking him, so Lawson quickly shed him to make the tackle. Had Pettis sustained a block, Breida could have cut left outside of the pair for a touchdown.

1st and 10 at SF 34 — 1:07 of 3rd Quarter

No worries, because on the very next play Breida did precisely that (on the other side of the field). This was a symphony of multilevel blocking, with at least five beautifully executed downfield blocks.

Juice smothered safety Glover Quin a couple of yards deeper than usual, while rookie Mike McGlinchey stacked up linebacker Christian Jones at the 39. The real fun took place at midfield. Pettis, wide right this time, delivered another feeble bounce-block on CB Teez Tabor, but Breida dropped a cutback so nasty that he made safety Quandre Diggs fall on his ass AND down block Tabor — who went flying into a faceplant — at the same time.

From there it was a foot race, with Breida following Pierre Garcon’s block on CB Lawson down to the five-yard line, where Pettis caught up with them and finished off the double-team grade paving. Touchdown 49ers.

Pass plays

I expected to see the same thing when I looked at the tape of tight end George Kittle. After all, the second-year man set an NFL record for tight end yards and was second in the league for Yards After Catch. Not among tight ends, but all players, behind only Christian McCaffrey.

What makes that more surprising is that the statistic is set up for running backs, who usually catch screens behind the line of scrimmage. They get a few YAC even on one-yard losses. Kittle averages 15.6 yards per catch, almost double McCaffrey’s 8.1, yet he still gained 784 yards after getting his hands on the ball deep into the secondary.

But when I looked at the actual film of a bunch of Kittle’s big plays, I didn’t see any impressive downfield blocking — mostly because the big TE was already further downfield than his teammates, or on the other side of the field. Instead, I saw a knack for scheming Kittle into giant emerald fields of open turf that bordered on the magical.

Check out this play against Denver in week 14, with Nick Mullens in shotgun formation.

1st and 10 at the SF 15, 9:47 left in the first half

Marquise Goodwin is aligned “wide” left, but in reality, he’s just outside the hash marks — and then he comes in motion to his right for a fake jet sweep, which pulls his CB across the field.

It’s also play action. After the fake handoff, Jeff Wilson, Jr. fakes like he’s running a pass route to his left, which is important because that simple maneuver pulls three linebackers and a safety over to that side. They were apparently on alert for a play that ran counter to Goodwin’s motion, and Mullens looks in that direction, though subtly.

Kittle had lined up just outside LT Staley and just inside the left hash, in wing formation. He cuts inside, as if he were blocking for Wilson’s fake run, then slips out right between the hashes before cutting right, 12 yards downfield. He could not be more wide open. It looks like Shanahan commanded everyone in the secondary via witchcraft to run away from him.

Sure, there’s one downfield block — Pettis rides his CB (Isaac Yiadom) past Kittle in the direction he’s already going, at the Denver 41, but that (once again feeble) block is the least of it. (Pettis should really get some blocking lessons from Kittle and Juszczyk.)

This TD, like the other big Kittle plays I watched, was about passing concepts that worked the TE open, plus his deadly combination of power and speed, more than any clever downfield blocking scheme.

So maybe these stretch blocking schemes are mostly in the running game. It doesn’t matter, because they’re very useful. If anything, passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur should sit down with coach Turner and pick his brains on how to extend them to the team’s short and mid-range passes, as well.