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Film room: Kyle Shanahan’s brilliant run game adjustments showcase skill player versatility

Highlighting the new wrinkles that Shanahan has added this season

Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The 49ers thoroughly dominated the New England Patriots on Sunday afternoon 33-6, largely on the strength of their running game. 49ers had 197 total rushing yards, with the running backs accounting for 193 of those yards (Garoppolo added a 4-yard scramble early in the first quarter), and Jeff Wilson earned 112 of those yards. He also had three of their four rushing touchdowns, with fullback Kyle Juszczyk adding his own rushing touchdown as well.

Whereas in week six, the 49ers relied on combining elements of the outside zone blocking scheme with their push pass “Deadpool” package to Deebo Samuel, in week seven, the 49ers relied on a more traditional running game but still incorporated elements from previous weeks to counter what Shanahan calls Belichick’s “illusion of complexity” on defense.

After the Rams game, Shanahan mentioned that the personnel grouping and the run package built around Deebo is his “Deadpool package.”

“Terminology-wise, usually it’s just the same as the run plays. They’re all run plays. When we do it to a receiver, we just pitch it to him so he can hit it full speed. When it goes to Deebo, we usually have a Deadpool type of word that goes with it, because that’s how it all started. It was called X-Force, which is a run play and we shortened it with Deadpool because that’s Deadpool’s group that he put together in the movie. I think he called them the X-Force, so we just changed it to Deadpool and then we have plays off of it. So, that’s the word we use, but it’s the same stuff that we do throughout the game between [FB Kyle Juszczyk] Juice and Raheem. Then sometimes we do it between Raheem and Deebo. You just switch some guys up and whatever runs look good versus the front you’re going against.”

It isn’t even something any team can just line up and run. They need the personnel to do it, and having versatile players like Deebo, Brandon Aiyuk, and Kyle Juszczyk makes the job a lot easier in terms of how it’s schemed up. Each new wrinkle in Sunday’s game against the Patriots built upon earlier plays run this season and in the game itself.

Building on previous plays

Week 3 at NY Giants, 2nd quarter, 1:18

In their traditional run packages, the 49ers like to run outside zone from a strong or weak fullback alignment like they do below versus the Giants in week three.

Fullback Kyle Juszczyk (No. 44) has the responsibility to block the first defender on the line of scrimmage inside the tight end (ZORRO run concept) while tight end George Kittle releases to block the first force defender who comes downhill.

Week 6 vs. LA Rams, 1st quarter, 11:44

In their Deadpool package, the offense comes out in 11 personnel instead of 21 personnel and runs outside zone much the same way.

It’s just scored as a pass because Garoppolo pushes the ball forward instead of handing it off backwards. But it’s blocked just like 18 Zorro.

In week 6, Shanahan schemed up what I believe they would normally call 18 X Zorro or 18 X “Force” with X being Deebo Samuel and “Zorro” being the particular outside zone blocking scheme with Raheem Mostert as the inside edge blocker instead of Juszczyk. The Rams are in a 5-1 front against 11 personnel shotgun. Mostert works inside to chip the edge defender with Kittle before climbing to the second level. Kittle flattens his defender, and Mostert pins his defender inside, giving Deebo a path to score.

Week 7 at New England, 1st quarter, 10:33

Against the Patriots, Kyle Shanahan built off the previous plays by showcasing some of his own “illusion of complexity” by essentially calling the same look against the Patriots man coverage inside the red zone. Except the play call was “Jet all-go HB seam.” And just like the Rams, the Patriots are in a 5-1 front with cover-1 coverage behind them.

The thinking behind the 5-1 front against shotgun 11 personnel is the same as the 6-1 front: to isolate blockers and prevent double teams and prevent the offense from getting to the edge and sealing off.

All the elements of the play are the same, though. Mostert motions to the backfield, and Deebo is in a bunch stack to the left. Garoppolo sends him in motion across before the snap and fakes the push pass motion to Deebo after the snap. The Patriots all travel in man coverage with the receivers’ go routes, so there is nowhere for Garoppolo to go downfield.

The play has answers for both man or zone coverage, and that’s all the crease Deebo needs to get upfield. Had the flat defender widened with Deebo, Garoppolo might have had a window to Mostert on the HB seam route, but Garoppolo takes the smart play and gets it to Deebo in space.

Adding small wrinkles to core concepts

Shanahan reverse

Shanahan’s counter reverse has become an almost weekly thing in the NFL now with a half dozen teams running the play for explosive plays. It was made famous last season by the 49ers when Deebo ran the play three times for 93 yards and one touchdown.

In 2020, the 49ers have run it a handful of times and on one occasion it’s already gone for a touchdown when rookie receiver Brandon Aiyuk scored his first NFL touchdown on it in week three against the Jets.

The play incorporates all the elements and eye candy that make it so hard to defend.

Motion pre-snap, a pulling lineman and running back taking a counter step away from the play call, and another receiver orbiting around the backfield who can potentially get the ball. The linemen block down toward the counteraction and then peel downfield toward the reverse. And Juszczyk starts his path toward the counter side before reversing out to lead block for Aiyuk. Aiyuk runs untouched toward the end zone.

Week 7 at New England, 2nd quarter, 11:08

Shanahan is always looking for ways to stay one step ahead of his opponents and that means not running the same exact reverse play when teams might be expecting it out of a certain look. So he just drew it up a slightly different way.

It’s technically scored as a pass even though it’s basically blocked and run like a running play. Aiyuk takes the push pass from Garoppolo in the shotgun while the play side guard pulls just like he’s blocking a counter run away from the play call.

The Patriots linebackers are simultaneously reading the pulling lineman, the running back, and the fly route by Aiyuk. As a result, they hesitate just enough as the lineman reaches the second level to block them. Out on the edge, Juszczyk lead blocks for Aiyuk to the short side of the field, and Aiyuk gains 20.

Fullback dive

As much as Shanahan loves his versatile players, sometimes, it’s nice to use one of your most versatile in the traditional role that his position title suggests as a regular fullback up the middle.

Week 5 vs MIA, 2nd quarter

In week five against Miami, the 49ers ran Juszczyk up the middle for a touchdown on a fullback dive but not just a regular fullback dive.

The run is a fullback zone dive to the weak side. Before the snap, Garoppolo sends Deebo Samuel on a fly motion toward the strong side. The fly motion plus the running back zone stepping toward the strong side moves the defense out of position at the goal line and opens a crease backside behind guard Laken Tomlinson and the center as their defenders flow toward the running back.

Week 7 at New England, 2nd quarter, 6:52

The 49ers ran it again inside the five yard line for a touchdown against the Patriots but with a slight adjustment to the fly motion.

Instead of running the fly motion away from the run call to the strong side, Shanahan called it with the fly motion toward the weak side. Just enough of an adjustment that the Patriots couldn’t fully key on it pre-snap.

If anything, the fly motion away may have clued the defenders toward a run to the strong side, and then the running back stepping strong confirmed what they suspected. The second level defenders all stepped down to the strong side and opened a lane for Juszczyk to score.

Use of fly and orbit motions in the passing game to create space

A couple of weeks ago, I detailed how the Rams use fly motions in their running and passing games and how it adds to Sean McVay’s ability to create space and favorable angles in his offense. Kyle Shanahan does the same and uses fly and orbit motions to create space and favorable angles.

Week 7 at New England, 1st quarter, 12:23

Here in the first quarter, the play is just a simple swing pass out to the left of the formation but it’s all the pre and initial post snap movement that freezes the defense and keep their eyes in the back field before they realize what happened.

First, Deebo is put into a fly motion across the formation. The defense barely shifts and is probably expecting a run to their left or up the middle. At the snap, the defense keeps eyes on the mesh between Garoppolo and Jeff Wilson and loses track of Deebo into the boundary. By the time they realize Garoppolo has kept the ball, he’s throwing it out to Deebo on the swing, who has space to run.

On the edge into the boundary, Shanahan created space for Deebo by using a switch release for George Kittle and Kendrick Bourne, which created easier blocking angles for the two and aided by the fly motion, which moved Kittle’s defender down outside toward Bourne. The two switch release and block the other’s man. The result is Deebo racing down the sideline for a 23 yard gain.

On other plays, the play call called for orbit motions to create space for the receivers. On two similar plays in the first and second quarters, Shanahan got the two looks he was hoping to get based on how they were called and the players’ responsibilities.

Week 7 at New England, 1st quarter, 11:47

The first play is a bluff slants concept where the receivers on the edge simulate stalk blocking in order to get the defenders to widen with them. The defenders widen with the receivers in part because there is a potential swing pass out behind they are keeping their eyes and who they anticipate getting the ball.

The Patriots rotate to 2-high coverage with a deep safety protecting the deep seam area in case Kittle runs up the seam. Kittle doesn’t run up the seam and instead “bluffs” his stalk block and cuts inside on a slant in the area vacated by the field safety. The orbit motion and the widening of the bluff slants created a large window for Garoppolo to hit Kittle for a gain of 15 yards.

Later in the second quarter, Shanahan dialed up a similar play call utilizing orbit motion but didn’t tag the bluff slants with it.

Week 7 at New England, 2nd quarter, 3:32

Garoppolo motions Deebo into a two-back shotgun set again and sends undrafted free agent rookie running back JaMycal Hasty on the orbit motion. The Patriots rotate their coverage from 2-high to single high and drop a safety down into the hook zone where Kittle caught the earlier pass on the bluff slant.

But the receivers aren’t running bluff slants and instead of blocking for Hasty, who gets the pass out on the orbit swing. The safety who came down to play the pass in the seam is now a non-factor due to the poor angle his rotation down created for him.

Hasty races down the sideline for a 16 yard gain. The orbit motion created space for Hasty the instant the safety came down because it essentially took him out of the play and put him into a position to chase from behind. All Hasty to fight through were the two blocks on the edge as he turned upfield.


The 49ers would add two field goals in addition to their four rushing touchdowns, and the defense would add four interceptions, holding the Patriots to just six points. Shanahan will need to continue to dig into his bag to keep the play calling ahead of schedule with the Seahawks, Packers, and Saints up next.

The 49ers just learned that Deebo would be out for at least two weeks with a hamstring strain suffered late in the Patriots game. It will be interesting to see how Shanahan scheme’s around this as it seemed like the offense was finding a nice rhythm heading into the toughest part of their schedule.