To say the 49ers got off to a rocky start Sunday at home against the Steelers would be an understatement. They eventually found a way to win a game they should have, but they took a seemingly easy task against a team with a back-up quarterback in his first start and made it a difficult one. At the end of the day, the 49ers would prevail 24-20 after trailing 6-3 at halftime.
The 49ers offense committed four turnovers in the first half, two interceptions and two lost fumbles. The first fumble occurred as the 49ers were mounting a drive before coughing it up at the Pittsburgh 25 yard line. On the next drive, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo fumbled the snap at the Steelers 7-yard line, ending another chance at getting some points. They would finally get on the board midway through the second quarter with a Robbie Gould field goal.
Although the 49ers would add another turnover late in the game inside the red zone again, they would mount their best drives in the second half with three touchdown drives to seal the victory with a pair of touchdown runs by running back Jeff Wilson Jr. and a game-winning touchdown pass by Jimmy Garoppolo to Dante Pettis.
Touchdown drive #1
The drive started with two straight runs to Matt Breida for gains of five yards and six yards. I wrote late last week that to beat the Steelers effectively, they would need to get back to running the ball out on the edge and away from the core of the Steelers defensive front. They didn’t have much success running the ball in week one and shifted to a more gap scheme running game in week two.
Sunday they got back to a more outside zone-based running scheme. Their first two plays of the second half were on what Shanahan calls “18-19 (weak) toss force.” Weak toss force is an outside-zone running play with a toss instead of a straight handoff. The toss hits faster which allows the running back to read the gaps from outside to inside faster than he would be able to on a straight handoff.
The running back’s landmark on the weak side runs the butt of the ghost tight end (where the tight end would if he were on the line). Breida takes the toss going to the left side where he cuts back up the middle after seeing the kick-out blocks from outside-in for a gain of five. The second play is the same play but is just regular 18-19 toss force, which is run to the strong side behind the tight end. Breida cuts between the two end men on the line of scrimmage and gains six.
The 49ers converted on a third-down play two plays later when Garoppolo found receiver Kendrick Bourne over the middle on a deep in route for a gain of 22.
Garoppolo motions receiver Richie James out of the backfield into an empty 3x2 formation. On the backside of the formation, Bourne is in the slot running a “basic” route over the middle on what Shanahan calls the “follow” concept (a two-level high to low read). The Steelers are in a cover-5 shell (cover 2 deep with man coverage underneath).
The defense sets their strength to the passing strength to the offense’s left side after James motions out of the backfield. This leaves a window in the middle of the defense as Bourne runs his deep in route over the middle. The shallow routes by the trips side occupy the defenders and prevent them from locating Bourne over the middle. Bourne catches and gets upfield for 22 yards.
Jeff Wilson Jr would punch the ball in two plays later as he’s become the 49ers favorite short-yardage running back on the goal line. He would pick up the first of his two touchdowns on a familiar play, the GF counter, or what Shanahan calls “Stutter.”
GF counter is a running play the 49ers used quite efficiently against the Bengals. They did so on a few occasions on Sunday as well. GF counter involves the offensive line down blocking and sealing the interior of the defense to the inside while the guard kicks out the first defender into the hole and fullback leads the runner to the second level.
Left guard Laken Tomlinson pulls and leads to the right with fullback Kyle Juszczyk following him into the hole. Wilson plows up the middle inside behind Juszczyk for the touchdown.
Touchdown drive #2
After giving up a long touchdown throw to the Steelers, the offense retook the field late in the third quarter to try and regain the lead. The Steelers were moving Minkah Fitzpatrick around near the line of scrimmage, and the 49ers took advantage of that every time.
On the first play, the 49ers rerun the GF counter to the right, this time using some fly motion to remove box defenders and gain a favorable advantage in the box. Tomlinson leads the way again with Juszczyk close behind. The fly motion removed a defender from the second level and held the defensive end on the edge, allowing Tomlinson to kick him out. Mostert hits the hole and gains nine.
Two plays later the 49ers pick up the first down with a quarterback sneak from Jimmy Garoppolo. The 49ers stay with an uptempo pace and keep 21 personnel in there (two running backs, one tight end) and stay with the play-action, this time running the dagger concept.
Dagger is becoming a go-to favorite of the 49ers offense with receiver Deebo Samuel running the dagger route, or “Dover” route (deep over) as Shanahan calls it. The play is the perfect combination of play action with a deep over the middle route behind to fill the void of the linebackers drawn to the run action.
The 49ers get to the line in uptempo mode. Garoppolo gets good extension on the play fake handoff as he drops back, holding it in there just a hair longer on the fake. The linebackers get sucked in too close to the line of scrimmage as Garoppolo turns to throw.
He fires a perfect pass into Deebo at midfield, keeping the chains moving for a gain of 20. The Steelers put Fitzpatrick near the line of scrimmage to generate pressure but probably could’ve used him on the back end.
They kept the chains moving with another outside zone run. The Steelers dropped Fitzpatrick down into the box again to cover tight end, George Kittle.
They’re running 18-19 Wanda behind Kittle and Skule. Kittle kicks out the end man on the line scrimmage, so Juszczyk takes Fitzpatrick through the C-gap. In an NFL GamePass Film Session, Kittle explained that the blocking between him and Juszczyk is dependent on what the end man on the line does. Anything into the C-gap first is automatically Juszczyk’s man with Kittle either reaching the second level or kicking the defender on the edge out.
The result is a running lane that opens right away for Breida. He gains ten on the run and keeps the chains moving with the 49ers staying in hurry-up mode.
By this point, the Steelers defense is appearing gassed and getting no push on their rush. The 49ers comeback with a quick passing game concept called stick. The two receiver side is running a stick flat combination, and the single receiver side is running a quick out.
Garoppolo throws the single receiver side to Deebo again on the quick out route. He could’ve hit the stick route too to Kittle on the opposite side as the Steelers defense were in a base cover-3 zone drop and unable to adequately cover the quick-developing routes. Deebo gains 11 on the throw after he lowers his shoulder into the defenders.
Much has been made about what is going on with Dante Pettis, and while none of are at practice, it’s a little concerning that his lack of usage and targets has carried over from week to week so far. That hopefully changed on Sunday as Shanahan got him more involved in the passing attack. He had four catches on the day, but two of them were in critical situations that set up touchdowns.
On his first key catch, he got the 49ers inside the five yard line on a second-and-8 when Pettis caught a pass on a stick route on the “stick cougar” concept. Pettis shakes the defender and with a quick 2-step jab move to get the defender to commit to the inside, he cuts back outside on the stick route and catches the pass, turns up field and gets tackled inside the five yard line.
On the next play, the 49ers come back on the edge with Jeff Wilson Jr. again for this second touchdown on the split zone.
The fly motion freezes the linebacker in place and allows Kittle to easily reach him up in the second level, leaving Wilson 1-on-1 versus the safety as he hits the hole. The trifecta of blockers at the point of attack led by Kittle, right tackle Mike McGlinchey, and Juszczyk seal the edge and allow Wilson to plow through into the end zone.
Touchdown drive #3
The offense caught a lucky break after fumbling the ball again inside the red zone on their previous drive when the defense recovered a Steelers fumble on their next possession. The drive started the Steelers 24 yard line.
Garoppolo found Kittle on a short pivot route on the right to get the drive started. Kittle shows why he’s such an effective receiving tight end. From the slot, he drives through the pivot route, catches the pass as the defender approaches, and sidesteps the impending tackle. He cuts back inside to gain more yards and gains seven on the play.
After a few minimal gains, Shanahan went back to a similar play like the one above to take advantage of the space vacated by the cover-3 defense. In the first play of the drive, the flat defender ran with the flat route but left a large cushion as the corner bailed to the deep third under the flat route.
In my piece from last week breaking down what the 49ers would need to do to beat the Steelers, one of the things I wrote was that they needed to attack Devin Bush. On this play, similar to the one above, they saw something they could exploit with Bush. The Steelers sent a five-man pressure again, making Bush the “hot to 2” defender. Shanahan lines up Richie James in the slot and uses him to get out to the flat against the slower Bush.
It may not seem huge, but it’s the little things Shanahan and the coaching staff noticed on any given play that they can use to come back and exploit a few plays later. And the completion got them closer to the end zone anyway. If not for the safety Fitzpatrick coming down and getting the stop, James might have walked into the end zone or just outside it.
After a quick run sets up a second-and-goal situation, Shanahan calls Pettis’ number again.
The concept is a simple one commonly run by Shanahan, McVay, and other teams with similar schemes inside the five-yard line because of the ability it has to space a defense out. They’re running a stick/flat combination to the left. Garoppolo drops back and locates the flat defender playing off while Juzczyk’s flat route is covered near the sideline.
He releases the pass as Pettis breaks to the outside on the stick route. The throw itself highlights the strides Garoppolo is making with his anticipation throws. Pettis is nearly blanketed coming out his break, and the only place to put this is in the path of the flat defender over the top of him.
Pettis breaks back toward the line of scrimmage and shields the pass from the defender, catches it, and gets back across the goal line for the game-winning touchdown. A combination of a great anticipatory throw and aggressive hands at the catch point put the 49ers over the top in a game they probably should’ve lost, as no team that’s committed four or more turnovers in a game has gone on to win.
Shanahan said after the game that “from what I saw was huge because it wasn’t like it was a play that got him wide open or anything. He ran a really good route but to have two guys fall back in and have the aggressive hands in that situation looks like that’s why we scored.”
There are still many issues they need to clean up but getting this win feels very much like the 2011 49ers; stealing wins when they shouldn’t have. They haven’t been 3-0 to start since 1998, and the more remarkable thing is they can still win games when they make egregious mistakes.
If they clean them up, this team can be a playoff team. But Shanahan also warned that being 3-0 “is good but it doesn’t mean anything. I’ve been 5-0 before and didn’t make the playoffs” and stressed the plan going forward is into week five is get more practices in and keep his 3-0 team focused.