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Shanahan vs. Zimmer: Why history and familiarity give the 49ers offense the advantage

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Previewing where the 49ers can take advantage of the Vikings defense, and why history is on San Francisco’s side

San Francisco 49ers v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

This feels like the longest week ever, but we’re almost there. We have discussed how dangerous the Minnesota Vikings pass rush is. We have discussed how the San Francisco 49ers need to take advantage of a depleted secondary. What we haven’t talked about is how the 49ers will attack Minnesota.

The Niners passing game has been one of the best in the league over the last month and a half of the season. They are second in success rate since Week 11, but it’s not as if Jimmy Garoppolo is dinking and dunking the ball down the field. Only two teams generated more passing plays over 20 yards during that stretch than San Francisco. That’s key, as Kyle Shanahan has had success against Mike Zimmer defenses going back a decade.

History is on the 49ers side

I went down quite the rabbit hole to see how these two coaches have done against each other. Their first meeting came when Kubiak was still calling the plays in 2008, so that doesn’t count. The second meeting came in 2012 when Robert Griffin III was Shanahan’s quarterback. Shanahan scored 31 points on Zimmer’s Bengals defense—despite two turnovers— with a rookie quarterback and tight end Fred Davis had a big day.

The next meeting is telling. Shanahan is in his first season with the Atlanta Falcons, and Zimmer holds the offense to ten points. Atlanta didn’t score a touchdown until the fourth quarter. That wasn’t a great year offensively for the Falcons, as they were 23rd in DVOA on offense. Quarterback Matt Ryan was overwhelmed in his first season. Shanahan runs a complex system with a lot of adjustments that players aren’t used to making, and it showed in 2015. The second year in Shanahan’s offense is when players tend to breakout, and that’s exactly what happened the next season in Atlanta. Matt Ryan goes on an MVP run, and the Falcons make the Super Bowl.

In his first offseason under Shanahan, Garoppolo’s first start of the season comes on the road against Zimmer’s defense after Zimmer and the Vikings had months and months to prepare. Garoppolo turned the ball over, but he also had four passing plays over 20 yards.

Playing right into the 49ers strength

The Vikings have performed poorly on early downs all season, and that was no different against the Saints last week. New Orleans gained 7.4 yards per play on first down with a 63% success rate. In late December, San Francisco was averaging 6.5 yards per play on first down, which was the highest in the league. Shanahan loves to run the ball on early downs. Minnesota has trouble stopping the run on first down. They were dead last in success rate at stopping the run, allowing 57% of runs to be successful. It gets better. Opposing offenses have a 72% success rate and are averaging 6.9 yards per carry when they use 21 personnel against the Vikings. Guess who leads the league in 21 personnel? Juice You guessed it.

San Francisco has the versatility to give Minnesota problems on the ground and through the air. All season it felt like New Orleans was this two-trick pony. Stop Michael Thomas or Alvin Kamara, and you stop the Saints. Last week, Zimmer bracketed Thomas and forced New Orleans secondary options to beat them, and they couldn’t.

Shanahan has relied heavily on George Kittle, but after that, good luck figuring out who gets the ball. Endless options make this offense potent and tough to stop, even for the top defenses in the league. You can bracket Kittle, but you are leaving a safety and a backup cornerback to guard Emmanuel Sanders and Deebo Samuel. Shanahan’s greatness stems from his ability to counter. You take away one thing, and he has two others that you didn’t see coming.

Throw it early and often

Shanahan is tremendous at finding your weakness. Some play-callers know their opponent’s weakness and will take advantage of it a couple of times a quarter. Not this guy. Shanahan will all but put that player on the Jumbotron to make sure everyone knows who the weak link is and put him on the spot for four quarters.

Familiarity has been the theme this week, and I bet Shanahan steals a page out of Sean McVay’s playbook from last season. Remember, those two were on the same staff in Washington together. It’s Week 4, and the Vikings are playing the Rams. The Rams hang 38 on Minnesota. McVay is spreading Minnesota out and matching up linebacker Anthony Barr against Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods. Barr didn’t stand a chance. On the day, Barr gave up four catches on four targets for 119 yards and three touchdowns. The Vikings had no answer for the Rams presnap motion and play-action. They’d fake a wide zone play one way, and sneak Kupp out of the backfield from the opposite direction on a “slide” route. It turns into a foot race and, despite being athletic, it’s not a good matchup for any linebacker.

The Rams scored a 70-yard touchdown on a “leak” concept—bootleg concept, and the receiver “leaks” out to the other side of the formation and up the field, generally against a linebacker—something Shanahan has run numerous times this season. Jared Goff lit up the Vikings on play-action. He finished the game 26 of 33 for 465 yards and five touchdowns. Most defenses are susceptible to play-action, but with what Minnesota asks of their linebackers, they are more vulnerable than most defenses.

Pick your poison

I mentioned how the 49ers had success down the field against Minnesota in Week 1 of 2018. The Vikings do not give up big plays. since Week 11, they’ve allowed the fewest explosive pass plays in the NFL. Some of those are coverage busts, which makes that stat even more impressive. It’s important to understand that it does not make them a “stingy” defense by any means. Minnesota is allowing a success rate through the air of 51% during that stretch. That’s 20th in the league since Week 11. You can move the ball on this defense.

The Vikings defensive line is dangerous, but they didn’t get after Brees as often as you think. The naked eye will tell you they did, but they pressured Brees on 24% of his dropbacks. The difference is when Minnesota got there, they made Brees pay. For reference, Seattle (shocker) had the lowest pressure rate all season at 23.7%. That’s not a high number at all.

From a coverage point of view, you have to pick your poison against San Francisco. If you sit back in zone, Jimmy G has done a nice job of picking teams apart. The interception by Jalen Ramsey was an All-Pro making a spectacular play. The majority of Garoppolo’s throws are on target, but on time, so players can run after the catch. If you play man coverage, you’re asking for it. No team motions more than San Francisco, who motioned nearly 80% of the time before the snap this season. That creates conflict for the defense and usually leads to receivers running free in the secondary.

The Vikings run man coverage 36% of the time, while 64% of the time, they’re in zone coverage. They blitz 23% of the time. Some good presnap reads for Jimmy Garoppolo will be where the safeties are lined up. If it’s single-high, the Vikings are probably going to be in man coverage. That was the case 63% of the time this season. When there is a two-high safety look, the Vikings are in zone, which was the case 74% of the time this season.

How to attack in five plays

I’ve doused you in numbers, now let’s tie it together. San Francisco should have success whether they want to spread out Minnesota or remain in 21 personnel. I’ll show one play with a two-high safety look, a single-high safety look, a play-action pass, a first-down run, a presnap motion play that gave Minnesota fits. When reading articles, a lot of film work highlights extreme examples. When you call a play, you’d love to get a touchdown every play, but that’s just not realistic. These are every downplays where the 49ers can take advantage of Minnesota.

Easy pitch and catch

Thomas is in the slot to the bottom of the screen. He’s matched up against Andrew Sendejo, who is a safety playing slot cornerback due to injuries. This is a quick-hitting, Emmanuel Sanders special. Nothing fancy, but that’s a lot of turf for the defender to cover. These will be the plays that keep San Francisco ahead of the chains and allow them to take shots on second and short.

Single-high shots

Minnesota doesn’t try to deceive you. In short-yardage situations, they are going to come after the offense with one deep safety. It’s a perfect time to use play-action, as the defenders will likely react to a run fake, and leave them trailing any inline tight end you have:

San Francisco ran play-action 31% of the time during the regular season, which was the second-most in the league. The offense averaged 9.7 yards per play, which was the third-most in the league, and a perfect segue to the next play.

Play-action until they can’t stop it

If Jimmy gets a single-high look, he can RPO/play-action Minnesota to death. I mentioned the Vikings aren’t going to give up the big play, but death by a thousand cuts may be worse. One of the benefits of play-action is that you have an additional pass protector, so even if the defense blitzes, you can account for the extra defender. That’s what happens below. Watch how hard Minnesota bites and how the middle of the field opens up like the red sea:

Another benefit, as you can see above, is you get defined throwing lanes with play-action. For the 49ers, you have Sanders, Samuel, and Kittle 1-on-1 in man coverage. Someone is winning. I paused the GIF for three seconds to show that each Packers receiver was open, despite it only being a three-man route concept.

Shanahan special

By now, we know Minnesota struggles to stop the run on first down. When you run to either tackle, the Vikings are allowing a 70% success rate to both sides since Week 11. What that tells me is their linebackers are either getting “caught in the trash” as they pursue ball carriers. Look at both plays below from the Seattle game. The first play is designed to go outside, but Chris Carson cuts it up for a gain of 14:

The next play is a toss with some clever action to hold the backside linebacker. Rashaad Penny gives Eric Kendricks a hesitation move in the open field and scampers for a first down. The first run screams Raheem Mostert, while either Matt Breida or Tevin Coleman have done the same on a toss play this season.

Keep it moving

Shanahan loves pre-snap motion. It messes with the defenses keys and forces them to adjust in seconds. Most teams struggle to adapt, and that’s why the 49ers are putting up points at the rate they are this season. This play below is as simple as it gets. The tight end motions from one side to the other and the Packers are now in a 3x1 set. Most teams bump responsibilities with motion. Meaning that if you were reading the No. 3 receiver, now you’re reading No. 2.

This route concept is a perfect zone better for either a Cover-2 or a pattern match zone. Barr gets caught in no man’s land, not guarding anyone, and Davante Adams is wide open underneath. Kendricks has to carry No. 3 going down the field, and nobody is home over the middle.

This feels like a game where Shanahan knows the part of the field he can take advantage of to the hashmark. Like the New Orleans game, don’t be surprised if Shanahan leans on a guy that has been there in the biggest moments. A receiver with eight playoff games under his belt—including two Super Bowl appearances. This one feels like one of those, “oh yeah, Emmanuel Sanders is really good” games. I think his experience will lead to the younger wideouts picking his brain and, in turn, calming their nerves. That’s the value of Sanders we can’t quantify.

Shanahan said this would be the toughest defense the 49ers play this season. It’s tough to disagree, but that doesn’t mean San Francisco doesn’t have significant matchup advantages in this one. Where the 49ers excel, Minnesota struggles. Where the Vikings excel, San Francisco can combat that. Add in history, a bye week to prepare, and the best offensive mind in the sport and the 49ers have to feel good about their chances on offense Saturday.