The San Francisco 49ers didn’t face Minnesota in 2019. Still, familiarity with Mike Zimmer allowed Kyle Shanahan to script a gem of an opening drive and take advantage of the weaker parts of the Vikings defense. Shanahan is even more familiar with his foe in the NFC Championship. He was Mike Pettine’s offensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns five seasons ago. So Shanahan has all that practice and meeting time to know Pettine’s train of thought and also has game experience. Despite C.J. Beathard starting one game, Shanahan is averaging 33.5 points per game, 143 yards rushing in these games with an average of 5.5 yards on the ground. Both coaches will have new wrinkles this time around, but last week in the Wildcard round showed that Green Bay still has clear disadvantages on defense.
You can run, but you can’t hide, Blake
If your scheme continually puts a linebacker on a receiver, you have a bad scheme. Against the Seahawks, linebacker Blake Martinez was matched up against Tyler Lockett twice. He gave up 45 yards on two catches, both resulting in first downs. For the game, Martinez gave up four receptions on five targets for 68 yards and three first downs. The first time these two teams played, the 49ers went after Martinez six times. He allowed six receptions for 72 yards and three first downs. It wasn’t just George Kittle eating Martinez alive, either. Kendrick Bourne and both running backs made were involved as well. The offense didn’t do anything out of the ordinary. Fake the run one way, throw the ball to where Martinez was. Rinse. Wash. Repeat.
Watch 50. There will be a bullseye on Martinez’s back.
Over and over, offenses caught Martinez out of position. There was one pass to the running back where the linebacker fell for a play-action fake and was ten yards away from the back. The Packers as a whole struggled against Seattle on play-action. Russell Wilson finished 9-for-12, 117 yards, and eight first downs. Wilson scrambled on a couple of those and made some nice plays, but Green Bay’s aggressiveness was used against them. During the regular season, Green Bay allowed 8.3 yards per play on play-action passes, which was good for 25th in the NFL. For reference, the 49ers were first at 6.0 yards per play-action. It’s not as if the Packers are a heavy blitz team, either. Pettine’s bunch blitzed the fifth-fewest amount during the regular season at 22.7%, just in front of San Francisco. That suggests a lack of discipline by Green Bay’s second-level defenders, which is the opposite of what we see from the Niners linebackers. Garoppolo attacked the middle of the field with plenty of success in Week 12:
That should be the case again Sunday afternoon.
The Packers had seven defensive backs register a snap against Seattle. This defense lives in “Dime” packages. Green Bay ran a defense with six or more defensive backs 74% of the time this season. Jaire Alexander is a reliable cornerback that is fiesty and has terrific ball skills. You can beat him, but you’re playing with fire if you keep throwing his way. On the season, Alexander’s success rate was 60%. That’s higher than Richard Sherman, who was a second-team All-Pro. We are in the middle of January. What a player did in October means absolutely nothing in my eyes and doesn’t tell the story. Alexander is still a player you want to avoid in this secondary. Since Week 12, Jaire has allowed 56% of his targets to be completed. He’s only surrendered one touchdown on 34 targets in that stretch.
Pettine comes from the school of thought that I co-sign where your defense is at its best when there are more athletes on the field. If you have a competent third safety, use him. The Packers may be undisciplined at linebacker, but that’s not the case in the secondary. They gave up the 12th fewest explosive plays since Week 12 and had the third-best success rate on defense through the air at 44%. They aren’t falling for your tricks.
The play below is a 3-vertical concept to one side of the field. You’ll usually see a defender dive on Deebo Samuel going in motion, which vacates the running back and leaves him open. The Packers swarm Samuel, and instead of a shot play down the field, it’s a minimal gain.
The Packers are the first team I've ever seen defend this play effectively. Shout out to Jon Heacock and Matt Campbell. pic.twitter.com/zaAZcgeoNl— Steven Ruiz (@theStevenRuiz) January 15, 2020
If the Packers are in a single-high coverage, they run man 82% of the time. Because they have all those defensive backs on the field, you’re not necessarily at an advantage on offense. Also, you’re not up in the numbers game because the Packers aren’t coming after you. They’re loading the box with athletes and relying on speed to win. It’s worked. Green Bay makes you earn it.
Throwing it to run it
As we saw in the divisional round, San Francisco has no issues turning around and handing the ball off and getting four, five, and six yards a pop. One scoring drive against the Vikings San Francisco handed it off eight plays in a roll, and the offensive line steamrolled Minnesota down the field. Green Bay can give you fits through the air, but on the ground is where the 49ers should excel. On the season, The Packers were 23rd in run DVOA and 30th in EPA per play and success rate. They improved during the final stretch of the season against the run, but still finished 23rd in success rate at 50%.
Right up the middle is where Green Bay has been most vulnerable all season. They’ve allowed 5.3 yards per carry, and 16 explosive runs behind the center. Since Week 12, the defense is middle of the pack in allowing runs for ten or more yards. During that same stretch, here is Green Bay’s success rate by direction:
This screenshot matches up well with where the 49ers have excelled since Week 12. Running behind Laken Tomlinson has been the best bet for San Francisco, with a 56% success rate. Remember, five and six-yard gains are a win for the offense. That’s what we want.
What makes the 49ers run game so lethal is everything looks the same, despite all the moving parts before the snap. The pre-snap motion forces defenders out of their gaps, then Kyle Juszczyk coming across the formation during the play messes with the linebackers keys, and they block themselves. These are the second and fourth runs of the third quarter drive where San Francisco scored. Watch 54 and 50 on defense. They have no clue where the ball is going.
These are the Niners’ bread and butter runs. The second run, “Wanda Sift,” is run anywhere between 10-15 times a game. It’s beyond me why other offenses don’t move as much as San Francisco—whether before the snap or during the play—due to how much chaos it causes for the defense.
I mentioned how undisciplined Green Bay is at the second level. In Shanahan’s run scheme, there is a built-in pass for run action. Let’s go back to a play-action pass from Week 12. It’s a similar formation to the second run above; this time, the 49ers are in 13 personnel with Kittle and Juice on the same side. Juszczyk comes behind the formation as an extra blocker. There are times he leaks out on a “slide” route to the flat as well. Poor Martinez. Watch 50 again in the middle. He’s watching the ball like a spectator in the crowd or at home:
I’m a firm believer that you can run play-action every play if you wanted to without a successful run game, and it would still work. We saw that last weekend with Seattle. You saw Wilson’s stats above, both on the ground and play-action, which is why Shanahan takes shots down the field out of heavy personnel like 13. Green Bay is in a single-high look, remember man coverage predominantly. With that amount of space, against Kittle, you’ll take that matchup every time.
Winning like Walsh
There are an incredible amount of similarities to the start of Bill Walsh’s career, and Shanahan’s that I’m sure you have heard all season and won’t go away anytime soon if the 49ers advance past this round. Walsh was so ahead of his time from an offensive approach that it’s no surprise he was a 3-time Super Bowl champion, and you still see his fingerprints on offenses today. Coaching comes down to preparation, strategy, and tendencies. Walsh’s offenses were always big on play-action and throwing the ball on early downs, long before that became a thing. Walsh has a few books out that have some quotes that scream Shanahan. Walsh understood people couldn’t randomize.
“He’ll blitz about every other down...He’s not going to do it again the next down...as soon as we get to the 25 and I see the opponent didn’t blitz, in goes a play to beat the blitz.”
Shanahan has been a step ahead of opposing defenses for years. He’ll be in a heavy-run formation and hit you over the top with an explosive passing play. Want to stop his wide zone running scheme by overloading one side? Here comes a reverse or some throwback screen. Shanahan is efficiently unpredictable with every move he makes.
Walsh was a believer in running the ball effectively. He said, “Now most people at any level will prefer to run the ball. We prefer to run the ball successfully. We prefer not to run the ball if we’re not successful. That was the 49ers offense in a nutshell during the second half of the season. Injuries forced a few changes in the run game, and, in turn, Kyle had to rely on Jimmy G and the passing offense because San Francisco was struggling to run the ball effectively. How’d that turn out? Over the final eight games, Garoppolo was second in yards per attempt, fourth in touchdowns, and eighth in throws that went for first downs while completing over 68% of his passes.
The Vikings found out the hard way what happens when you can’t stop the run. Minnesota’s defense stopped the big play, but couldn’t get off the field. It was death by 1,000 cuts. They left Shanahan no choice to run the ball. Versatility is king on offense. With their motions, speed, and efficiency, it’s tough to imagine Shanahan struggling against Pettine. Similar to Walsh, when Kyle knows your weakness, you’re in trouble.