The 49ers punched their ticket to their seventh Super Bowl appearance and will face the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl 54 in Miami. They got there on the back of running back Raheem Mostert’s four-touchdown performance and yet another stout defensive showing that didn’t give up a score until the Packer’s first drive of the third quarter with 8:29 left. The game was out of reach by then anyway, and the 49ers held on easily even with a late Packers threat.
On offense, it was as dominating of a win as the 49ers have put together all season. Jimmy Garoppolo passed for just 69 yards on six completions, but the catalyst for victory was Mostert, who ran for 220 yards on 29 carries and four touchdowns. In both games against the Packers this season, the 49ers led by 20-plus points going into halftime.
Defensively, the 49ers were every bit as swarming as they were in the week 12 game. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw two interceptions, had two fumbles (one lost), and was sacked three times. The Packers made a late and desperate attempt at a comeback getting within two scores, but the 49ers iced the game late in the fourth with a field goal to put them up three scores. Cornerback Richard Sherman had the game-sealing interception on a deep pass down the middle.
The Packers were 23rd against the run per Football Outsiders DVOA in 2019. But in the first match-up in week 12, the 49ers did most of their damage through the air. In the run game that week, Shanahan gave us a glimpse of what he might do in a potential rematch. The run game in that game relied on a mix of trap and gap scheme runs that took advantage of the bubble gaps in the Packers front.
In this game, they came right back with a heavy dose of the same. After the game, Garoppolo stated that “We got a couple of big plays the first time we played them, and we thought we’d have those opportunities, but they wanted to take those away and open up the running lane.”
On the first scoring drive, the 49ers were faced with a 3rd-and-8 at the Packers 36-yard line. The 49ers lined up in a 3x1 set with Kittle in a cut split to the left as the lone receiver opposite the bunch stack. In the past, the 49ers have run their run-pass option package out of a similar set, and the Packers were probably expecting it.
The 49ers broke tendency though with Garoppolo motioning Mostert over to the right, creating a 4x1 for the Packers defense to account for. The entire formation looks like a potential pass play. The Packers treat it as such too with the edge rushers in a 2-point stance ready to rush.
The Packers end up sending a 5-man pressure to combat the pass. The key block on the play is right guard Mike Person (No. 65), who is trapping the blitzing linebacker and letting Preston Smith (No. 55) rush upfield. The formation creates easy blocking lanes for the linemen to down block on the backside and seals off the defense. The result is Mostert having a huge running lane and a path to the end zone for the touchdown.
Later in the second half, the 49ers are in a nub formation with the tight end opposite the trips set running along trap with a fake fly sweep to the left.
Garoppolo starts Deebo Samuel on the fly motion to the left. The defense gets little chance to react to the shift before the snap goes off, and the 49ers got the match-up they were looking for with Deebo and Mostert out on the edge versus linebacker Blake Martinez. The defense crashes inside, and the edge defender is washed out by Person’s long trap.
With the Packers in single-high, there is no other defender who can come down to set the edge. Samuel leads Mostert upfield, throws a good block to prevent the safety from making the stop, and Mostert dives for the pylon and finishes his run with a touchdown.
It wasn’t all gap scheme either. Shanahan is going to call plays where he feels he’s going to get the best match-up or a certain look. On Mostert’s third touchdown of the day, Shanahan came back with inside zone to the weak side against the Packers who were in man coverage.
With the Packers in man coverage and an 8-man front, the offense can run inside zone and still move defenders out of the box. Darnell Savage is man-to-man with George Kittle, and Tramon Williams is man-to-man with Kendrick Bourne. Za’Darius Smith (No. 55) is lined up outside wide to Bourne’s left.
At the snap, Kittle steps forward and pops over to the side to block Smith instead of Savage. Savage is looking for a tight end screen most likely and flows outside as Kittle takes on Smith. Bourne stays locked up with Williams, and the result is a hole wide enough to drive a truck through. Savage washes himself out of the play away from the point of attack as Mostert sprints through to the end zone.
Receiver Deebo Samuel had 159 rushing yards on 14 attempts this season, good for 11.4 yards per attempt, and had three touchdowns. Two of his more notable runs came on a fake counter reverse. One against the Saints was ran out of 11 personnel with Kittle as the lead blocker. The other against Seattle in week 17 was out of 21 personnel with fullback Kyle Juszczyk as the lead blocker.
Variety of ways to get Deebo the ball on a reverse. This looks initially like their zone arc bend run except the ball goes to Samuel on the reverse toward the side of the zone run. The zone flow moves the defense and gives Samuel the edge. pic.twitter.com/kcOSaeq3Q3— rich (@richjmadrid) January 23, 2020
Shanahan has a lot of ways he can get Deebo the ball on the reverse, with the play above looking initially like a zone running play we’ve seen numerous times but instead ends up being a reverse where Deebo gains 11.
Two plays later, the 49ers rerun it in 21 personnel like they did against Seattle (against New Orleans, it was run out of 11 personnel). But the formation is different this time. Instead of Juszczyk in a wing position, he lead blocks from a more traditional fullback position. Kittle is also spread out wide instead of inline and motions down into a stack with Sanders.
The play looks like it’s going to go the left as Mike Person pulls to the left, and Juszczyk sells the blocking inside before reversing his direction and getting out on the edge. The offensive line seals the defense inside as they pursued the inside run downhill.
The key block occurs when Sanders impedes the path of Preston Smith on the edge, preventing him from chasing Samuel down from behind while Juszczyk gets a block on the defender trying to set the edge. McGlinchey provides the convoy out in front.
RPO orbits swing pass with sweep read
The 49ers offense isn’t typically known for a reliance on the run-pass option, but Shanahan has shown throughout his career that he can and will adapt his offense to his personnel. This season they have relied a bit more on RPOs to move the ball with the addition of Deebo Samuel.
Typically, the 49ers will line up in shotgun and run their RPO with a backside alert slant or “glance” route and give the quarterback the option to handoff on an outside zone or sweep. Here against the Packers, they add a layer by motioning Deebo into the backfield, then motioning him out on the orbit swing.
Post-snap, Garoppolo is reading the numbers advantage and sees a 3-on-2 defensive advantage to cover the swing, so he hands off to Mostert on the sweep. In the box, they have six blockers against three defenders upfront, allowing Mostert to hit the hole and gain the first down.
They ran this 3 times against GB. Here's the second time. JG could've probably thrown it too but that defender may get into the throwing lane. No big deal, first down anyways. pic.twitter.com/1g7ENcQQPI— rich (@richjmadrid) January 23, 2020
They ran this play three total times in this game. The second time they ran it, Garoppolo could’ve easily thrown it for a big gain, but he gives to Mostert and gets the first down anyways.
Needing to ice the game, the 49ers called this play again, but they reversed the roles of Deebo and Mostert. This time, Mostert is the motion man who comes into the split back shotgun set, then motions again out on the orbit. The numbers advantage favors the pass, so Garoppolo flings out to Mostert, where he nearly gets another first down.
Another stout defensive performance
The 49ers defense once again looked like an earlier version of itself when it was fully healthy early on in the season. In the first Packers game without Dee Ford and Kwon Alexander, the 49ers held Aaron Rodgers to 104 yards passing but just a net 81 yards with the sack yardage lost. In the first half of the NFC Championship Game, the defense held Rodgers to 65 passing yards and one interception.
Rodgers would end up with 326 passing yards and two touchdown passes, but it was not enough to mount a comeback. Despite the threat of a comeback, the defense still forced two interceptions and two forced fumbles, recovering one of them. The 49ers scored 14 points off their fumble recovery and interception.
The fumble between Rodgers and the center and subsequent recovery by DeForest Buckner was not caused by the defense, though it did lead to a touchdown drive. Instead, let’s look at how the defense suffocated Rodgers by focusing on the earlier fumble that led to a punt and field goal drive.
The 49ers have a single high defense called with man coverage underneath. The play call is a fire zone blitz to the weak side, the trips side to the field. The Packers play call sets up a high low for Rodgers with a spot route underneath a dig route deeper downfield.
Rodgers is looking for the spot route as he notices the blitz is coming off the weak side. There should be an open zone for him to hit the receiver.
But in a fire zone blitz, the edge defender opposite the blitz call has “rat” or shallow underneath hole responsibility for any immediate or quick crossers that could potentially replace the defender. That defender’s responsibility is Dee Ford. He sees the crosser coming and drops into his underneath zone as Rodgers is looking for the quick pass.
Rodgers has no throw and starts to look elsewhere, but nickel defender K’Waun Williams comes off the edge and knocks the ball free from Rodgers’ grasp. The Packers recovered it, but the play set up the punt on the next down.
Rodgers threw two interceptions in the game, one that led to a touchdown drive late in the second half, and one that ended the game and sent them to the Super Bowl. For now, we’re going to look at the first interception.
The defense initially showed a 2-high coverage shell, but as they have so often, the safeties rotate strong away from the trips, becoming a single high shell with the buzz safety dropping to an underneath hook zone to the strong side.
The Packers are running a hitch/seam combo by the #1 and #2 receivers. A common call for the cornerback during a safety rotation is to play midpoint/divider rules between #1 and #2. This allows the corner to break off his man and defend the vertical passes that could come into his zone.
Cornerback Emmanuel Moseley continues sinking between the curl route and seam route by Geronimo Allison. Rodgers thinks he has the seam throw, but Moseley is in a perfect position to make a play on the pass. Rodgers throws the pass low and outside, and Moseley picks it off.
I don’t think anyone really predicted how far the 49ers would make it this season. Personally, I thought that the six seed in the playoffs was their ceiling, at least for this year with Garoppolo coming off of a major injury and a relatively young team. They’ve certainly exceeded expectations and are now competing for a chance to win their sixth Super Bowl when they take on the Kansas City Chiefs in Miami on February 2nd.
Not many analysts are giving the 49ers a chance in this one, and the two-weeks long narrative surrounding the game is that Jimmy Garoppolo is incapable of matching Patrick Mahome’s offensive output. Many analysts are also predicting that the Chiefs will blow out the 49ers. No one is really asking how the Chiefs plan to stop the 49ers offense, though. And if the last two games are any indication, it doesn’t seem like there are any easy answers for Kansas City defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and his 29th ranked run defense.
In the next week before the game, I’ll briefly cover what the Chiefs do on offense that makes them so dangerous and what they do defensively that makes them so vulnerable.