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Film room: 49ers rely heavily on gap scheme and misdirection runs against Bengals aggressive defensive front

Shanahan mixes up the running game with heavy reliance on counter runs misdirection

San Francisco 49ers v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The 49ers offense cleaned up a lot of miscues during their week of practice in Youngstown, Ohio leading up to the Bengals game and it showed: they accounted for all 41 points and effectively helped the defense by making the Bengals offense one-dimensional. On the day, the 49ers finished with 572 total yards, 259 of which were gained on the ground at 6.2 yards per attempt.

How did they do that? By utilizing pages of the playbook, we haven’t seen all that much. They might seem non-existent at times, but Shanahan dressed up his predominantly outside zone running game with gap scheme runs like counter and power as well as misdirection and fly motions to take advantage of an aggressive Bengals run defense that held the Seattle Seahawks to 72 yards in week one.

Gap scheme counter runs

In week one, the Bengals had an aggressive run defense that stalled the Seahawks running game in a close contest.

To understand how the 49ers effectively neutralized the Bengals run defense, we need to see what the Bengals did in week one that was so effective at limiting Seattle’s running backs to just 72 yards. Two things the Bengals did effectively was create stalemates along the line of scrimmage on some downs and getting good gap penetration on other downs.

To counter this (pun intended), Shanahan relied heavily on the gap scheme run called “counter” in the first half. Right away, the 49ers opened the game with a six-yard gain on first down with a GF counter (guard-fullback counter), what Shanahan calls “17-16 CTR STUTTER.”

Counter runs are the easiest way to kill the run pursuit of an overly aggressive defense like the Bengals that so often get penetration into the backfield. Counter involves two lead blockers, usually the backside offensive guard and a fullback or tight end (GY counter) or in some cases the backside tackle (GT counter). While the rest of the line blocks down, the lead blockers kick out and lead the running back through a newly created gap.

On this play, right guard Mike Person (No. 68) and fullback Kyle Juszczyk (No. 44) are the lead blockers. Person kicks out the first defender into the hole, and Juszczyk gets up on the next potential gap defender, usually the middle linebacker. The Bengals try to stalemate the 49ers’ offensive line, but the down blocks seal them inside anyways, and Breida goes for six yards.

An effective run game will also create a favorable box advantage by pulling defenders out of it while also gaining blockers at the point of attack. Shanahan did this using fly motion to take a defender out of the box to make the assignments easier on his blockers and to create a running lane for Matt Breida.

This time instead of the fullback on the GF counter, Kittle becomes one of the lead blockers with left guard Laken Tomlinson (No. 75) on the GY counter. Garoppolo sends Goodwin on the fly motion. The fly motion gets the defense to shift over, but the counter footwork holds the backside defenders in place while the fly motion washes linebacker Nick Vigil (No. 59) out of the box and creates a running lane behind Tomlinson and Kittle. Breida gains six yards on the play.

Shanahan came right back to the GF counter down inside the five-yard line on what would become the game-winning touchdown in the second quarter when running back Jeff Wilson Jr took it up the gut for the score.

The key to this play is the “influence” block at the line of scrimmage by Kittle, which draws the defensive end Carlos Dunlap (No. 96) to the outside and holds him on the edge long enough for left guard Mike Person to kick him out on the edge. Juszczyk meets linebacker Nick Vigil in the lane and washes him out completely, leaving Wilson 1-on-1 in the running lane running downhill at free safety Jessie Bates (No. 30).

That level of nuance and details coached into the game plan against the Bengals paid dividends early in the second half in the third quarter where they gained another 202 yards in just one quarter.

Misdirection zone

The Bengals halftime adjustments included fitting more defenders in the box to account for the lane and new gap the counter run creates. Shanahan anticipated this and went right back to his base running plays.

The Bengals, expecting gap blocking up front, adjusted their run fits to clog the middle of the formation if they saw any indication of an inside run. At the snap, the line zone blocks to the right while Breida’s initial step is to the right. The defense crashes hard in the middle, but Breida’s next step is to the left and behind the sift block of Kittle.

Sift rules state that Kittle should kick the end man on the line of scrimmage out if he sets the edge, but Dunlap gets caught too far inside so Kittle leaves him and heads to the next level as Breida gets out on edge. Kittle throws a block at corner Will Jackson (No. 22) that springs Breida for a few more yards and a first down.

Shanahan came right back to the same play but instead, this time created a favorable box advantage with both the fullback and running back, taking counter steps to the left.

The defense reads their cues and flows to their right while the zone blocking seals them inside, taking defenders out of the play as Mostert takes the handoff running to the right behind Juszczyk. The only thing that kept this from being a more significant gain is Juszczyk missing his block on the Dre Kirkpatrick (No. 27) out on the edge. Mostert gains nine.

Fly motion lead zone

Later in the third quarter, Shanahan went back to the zone running scheme and two plays back-to-back, the 49ers used jet motion to influence the defense’s movement.

We haven’t seen much fly zone motion in Shanahan’s running game, but they used fly motion several times on Sunday, adding to the misdirection element of the game plan. On these two plays, the 49ers use Goodwin on their fly motion. The fly motion can be added to any run and has the effect of holding defenders on the backside and removing them from their gap responsibilities because they have to respect the fly reverse.

On these plays, the fly motion slowed the pursuit of the backside defenders due to chasing the fly motion away from the play. This creates running lanes that open for a longer period, giving the running back time to diagnose the lane while running behind his lead blocker.

The plays above ended the third quarter and to start the final quarter, and the 49ers went right back to the gap scheme by running a power blocking scheme run.

Similar to counter, power also uses a pulling lineman, and sometimes another lead blocker, to lead them back through the hole, but the running back does not take a counter step and instead takes a “draw” step in the direction of the play.

The interior defenders come up to play the run but hesitate on the running back’s first step and get sealed off inside by the lead and down blocks of the offense. Jeff Wilson takes it up the middle again for the touchdown.

Play action pass

Before the 49ers really even established any running attack, the aggressiveness of the Bengals defensive front got them in trouble with a simple play-action concept called “Leak.”

One of the benefits to Shanahan’s running game relying on the outside zone is the run action it creates with aggressive lateral movement of the offensive line. It looks like they’re running outside zone because the pass protection assignments are the same. We’ve seen Shanahan run this play with Kittle and Juszczyk but Sunday, Shanahan used Goodwin on the “leak” route.

Later in the game, Shanahan called up another play-action staple, the “rider” concept. Normally, when we’ve seen this concept, it’s run out of 21 personnel with the quarterback under center.

However, Shanahan’s adjustment here was to call the play out of 11 personnel and in shotgun. Garoppolo sends receiver Dante Pettis on a fly motion across the formation, getting the defense to rotate down to the passing strength. The play fake draws them up further as Garoppolo meshes with Mostert on the fake.

As this is occurring, Goodwin is running the deep “over” route behind the strong safety into the open area of the field as the free safety and deep corner are both occupied with Richie James go-route.

Play action worked, not because the team “established the run” but because the linebackers and other second-level defenders have to read their cues if they see run and have to flow toward their run fits. Since the offensive line movement and fly motions on the play-action pass looks the same as the run plays, the defense gets lost chasing the run, forgets about Goodwin on both plays, and Garoppolo can find Goodwin for big gains.

Shanahan’s usage gap scheme runs, misdirection, and fly motions show that he has one of the most diverse running games in the NFL. He correctly identified the Bengals strength, which is their interior defenders, and neutralized their aggressiveness in a variety of ways. Expect to see more of this kind of preparation with Joe Staley out. They’ll need to find ways to adjust and limit the fast flow of teams that are inevitably going to attack the left side of the offensive line.