The 49ers removed a huge monkey off their back by beating the Seattle Seahawks on the road in week 17 by a final score of 26-21. The 49ers win secures them the number one overall seed in the NFC, a division title, and a first-round bye. The Seahawks claim the fifth seed and a trip during wild-card weekend to Philadelphia on Sunday. It is the first time since 1997 that the 49ers are the number one seed in the playoffs.
It was also their first win in Seattle since Christmas Eve of 2011 when the team, led by Jim Harbaugh, won 19-17. And, it was the second-most points scored in Seattle since 2008. They had never scored more than 20 points on the road in Seattle since a 2008 game they won 33-30. And it literally came down to the final inches in the field of play for the 49ers to secure the victory when linebacker Dre Greenlaw tackled tight end, Jacob Hollister, just short of the goal line in a play reminiscent of the end of the Falcons game.
This time, the 49ers were on the correct end of the call when Greenlaw kept Hollister from crossing the plane of the goal line with the football. He was spotted just a few inches short of the goal line, and the result was a turnover on downs. The sequence couldn’t have been possible without one of the biggest blunders of the season when the Seahawks got hit with a delay of game penalty on second and goal from the one.
The offense played a much better game, though, and it came on the backs of receiver Deebo Samuel, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, and tight end George Kittle. Samuel had five receptions for 102 yards and two carries for 33 yards and one touchdown. Juszczyk had several key blocks and a huge 49-yard catch and run on a scoring drive. Five of Kittle’s catches went for first downs, several on scoring drives. We’ll also look at Dre Greenlaw’s fourth-down stop and the parallels to the 49ers first-ever Super Bowl run.
1. Use of RPOs
Shanahan has been using the run-pass option (RPO) since he was the offensive coordinator of the Washington Redskins and coached Robert Griffin III as a rookie. The Redskins under Shanahan utilized a variety of RPOs that he has since evolved into their current form. He also ran them with the Falcons and did so from under center, not usually the traditional way they’re run since the quarterback is unable to read the defense, so determining where to go with the ball was done pre-snap.
The primary recipient of the RPO this season has been Deebo Samuel. Against the Seahawks this season, Samuel caught three passes on RPOs for 84 yards (video above from week 10). He caught two of those on Sunday night in Seattle for 54 yards.
RPOs are usually run out of 11 personnel or some other spread formation with multiple receivers. The 49ers line up here in 22 personnel with an inline tight end, tight end split out wide, and two backs. Deebo is the single receiver to the left in a cut split, which will enable him to get across the field quickly in case quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo looks to pass.
The Seahawks rarely come out of their base defense, and the 49ers being in 22 personnel doesn’t automatically tip them off to a potential RPO even though they’ve seen this play before, though the play from week 10 came out of 12 personnel.
Juszczyk started as a wing on the left side of the formation and motioned over to the right slot as his man followed, indicating man coverage. With Kittle, Juszczyk, and tight end Ross Dwelley over to the right, the Seahawks set their strength to the defensive left. The 49ers would be running into the strength of the defense as they have four from the center over to the right against the Seahawks five in the box on that side.
Garoppolo is reading middle linebacker Bobby Wagner for his decision on whether to pass or give. Wagner chases the run as the three interior linemen pull like they’re running a sweep play recognizes the play but chases too far and vacates his zone coverage responsibility in the hook area. Garoppolo finds Samuel on the alert slant, and Samuel does the rest and gains 30 yards on the play.
Later in the third quarter, the 49ers came out in 22 personnel again, but this time lined up in a YY formation and later motioned Juszczyk to the left, indicating they might run the ball. The Seahawks counter by setting their strength to the offense’s left. Instead of shotgun, Garoppolo goes under center.
The defense flows with the run action despite Garoppolo never turning to simulate a handoff. Whereas the first throw to Samuel can be characterized as a post-snap read RPO, the play here is a pre-snap read RPO. The defense has a seven on six advantage against the blockers to the strong (left) side, so Garoppolo takes the snap and hits Samuel on the backside alert slant.
Linebacker Cody Barton shuffles down the line as the backside contain but can’t disrupt the throwing lane enough to break up the pass. Samuel catches it in stride and nearly scores from 25 yards out, but he’s tackled at the 1-yard line. Two plays later, the 49ers would punch it in with a run over the right side to Mostert and take a 19-7 lead late in the third.
2. Deebo reverse
Samuel scored on an identical play that he had a 31 yard gain on against the Saints in week 14 when he took an end-around for 30 yards late in the first quarter on Sunday night.
On the play against the Saints, the 49ers are in a wing formation with Kittle inside. Against the Seahawks, the 49ers get in the same formation after Juszczyk motions inside to the wing spot this time with Samuel in a cut split over to the right. But the play call is the same.
Samuel takes the handoff on the end around as Juszczyk reverses course and wraps around to lead block. The Seahawks defense aggressively pursues the initial counter run action and gets caught inside as Samuel races around the edge. He makes a defender miss with a spin move and goes into the end zone for the touchdown.
Shanahan summed up Deebo Samuel after the game: “Deebo is a stud.” Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll summed it up after the game when he said, “We didn’t tackle Deebo Samuel very well. He looked great. I thought he had a fantastic game. I thought he was a difference-maker in the game. “
3. Juszczyk run blocks and key catch
It wasn’t just Deebo who made his mark on the game. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk had some key blocks as well in the run game on key runs that directly led to two touchdowns.
49ers' taking advantage of Deebo Sameul's running ability with an end around off fake counter action. This time Kyle Juszczyk starts out as if he'll be the wrapper on the counter before redirecting and leading the way on the perimeter. pic.twitter.com/Dve2UnSz7b— XandOJunkie (@Spread_it_Out) December 30, 2019
Deebo gets the lion’s share of the credit for the touchdown run above, but it’s actually Juszczyk’s block that springs him free down the sideline when he threw a crushing block on cornerback Shaquill Griffin (No. 26) trying to make the tackle.
Later in the game, Juszczyk caught a 49-yard pass down the sideline to get the 49ers into Seahawks territory on a route they’ve often used to get him the ball. The formation and play itself were set up by the first RPO call to Samuel above.
The play call is a play-action “read rail” with Juszczyk running a “stalk rail” route where he fakes the run blocking utilizing a “stalk” technique and then taking off down the numbers to a landmark five yards from the sideline. The Seahawks are in their 3-sky coverage, and the corner to the strong side, Griffin, has “zebra 1/3” responsibility, meaning that he is supposed to midpoint #1 and #2 instead of running with #1.
Garoppolo fakes the outside zone and looks at the slant backside (likely just a decoy) as Juszczyk “stalks” the defender like he’s going to block before taking off. He looks left before looking right to Juszczyk is who wide open down the sideline against Seattle’s single high defense as Griffin traveled with the inside vertical instead of passing him off to the deep safety. The play was a huge gain on a drive the 49ers needed to answer the Seahawk’s ability to score quickly.
A few plays later, Juszczyk had the key block on a goal-line touchdown run by Raheem Mostert to put the 49ers up 19-7 after a failed two-point conversion.
Kittle goes on a return motion indicating man coverage in Seattle’s 5-3 front. The play is a simple fullback lead zone to the right. At the point of attack, Juszczyk hits the man coverage defender who followed Kittle and kicks him out of the play. Mostert reads the blocks and cuts inside off Juszczyk’s block and gets skinny through the hole for the touchdown.
4. George Kittle remains unstoppable
This season, tight end George Kittle was Garoppolo’s favorite target on third down. Garoppolo converted 65 third downs on 130 pass attempts. Of those 65 conversions, Kittle caught 18 of them for first downs. On all passes, Garoppolo found Kittle for 53 catches that converted any down to a first down. On Sunday night against Seattle, five of his seven catches went for first downs, and two came on a scoring drive.
Kittle has evolved into an elite route-running tight end over the last two seasons. Here he’s running a deep out route called a “chase” route against man coverage on a sail concept. As he takes off downfield, he stacks the defender behind him before giving an inside jab step move and cutting outside.
The stack technique is designed to create separation on the defender because he has no idea which way the receiver will break and doesn’t have the leverage to cover. He picks up a gain of 15 on the pass.
Shanahan routinely mixes up who he has running, which positions in his offense. Here they are running a dagger concept that is usually run by a speedier receiver, but this time Garoppolo motions Kittle out wide to the stack receiver set.
The play call exploits a small void in the Seahawks 2-high safety coverage with Kittle finding the void between the middle and strong hook defenders. Both defenders spot drop rather than funnel to Kittle with Garoppolo’s eyes, and Garoppolo fits the pass in between both of them. Kittle turns upfield for a 26 yard gain.
5. The Stop II
Every 49er fans should now be familiar with “The Stop” in the 1982 Super Bowl. Super Bowl 16 that year in Detroit was decided by a goal-line stand by the 49ers defense. They held on to win that game...26-21. Bill Walsh was also 13-3 as a head coach that season...in his third season.
The parallels to that season are remarkable. But it was linebacker Dan Bunz, who wore #57, who made a key third-down stop just inches before the goal-line on running back Charles Alexander who caught a pass in the flat in front of Bunz.
On Sunday night, on the Seahawks final offensive play trailing...26-21, it was Dre Greenlaw who came up with the games most important and decisive moment when he hit and tackled Seahawks tight end Jacob Hollister just inches from the goal-line, dubbed appropriately “The Stop II.”
Greenlaw has seen an uptick in playing time since week 10 after the 49ers lost Kwon Alexander to the injured reserve for the remainder of the season. Greenlaw would’ve been the hero of the week 10 game against Seattle when he intercepted Russell Wilson inside the red zone on a pass intended for Jacob Hollister up the right side line.
On the fourth down play, the Seahawks lined up in trips to the left with Hollister as the inside slot in a cut split close to the line. He is running a shallow crossing at the goaline. The running back Travis Homer is running a flat route to the right. The play is designed to pull the weak hook defender Greenlaw out to the flat and leave Hollister 1-on-1 with linebacker Fred Warner.
The 49ers are playing red zone quarters to their left. Wilson takes the snap, and Greenlaw begins to widen with Homer but passes him off Sherman playing the flat. He works back inside to Hollister, who beat Warner off the line.
Hollister catches the pass in front of the goal-line, braces for contact, and meets Warner, where he is stopped just short of the end zone. After a review, it is determined that the ball never crossed the plane of the goal-line, sealing the 49ers’ first victory in Seattle since 2011 and the number one overall seed.
For the last couple of games after New Orleans, the offense has seemed flat and basic, almost as if Shanahan is reluctant to give too much more away in preparation for the playoffs. On Sunday night in Seattle, the game planning flipped, and it seemed the 49ers were able to find ways to score and move the ball almost at will. Shanahan has put a variety of concepts, personnel groupings, formations, etc., on tape, and it’s going to be tough for any opponent to adequately gameplan, especially while the 49ers have two weeks to do so.
The 49ers await the lowest-seeded winner from the wildcard round, and that means a possible rematch, their third of the season, with the Seahawks at Levi’s Stadium. And they’ll be getting back to close to 100% health on defense with the return of Dee Ford and Jaquiski Tartt with a very slim possibility Kwon Alexander returns if the 49ers were to make a deep run.
Speaking after the game, Shanahan stated that “We have had to win a lot of different ways this year. I feel like we have done it every way possible and then we find a new way to do it. I wish it would not have been that close at the end. It doesn’t matter now. I’m pumped how they finished it.” The playoffs are back in San Francisco for the first time in five seasons. It’s going to be exciting to see what other ways they can win a game that we haven’t seen yet.