George Kittle made his return to the starting lineup on Sunday, and the Eagles immediately felt his presence in a big way. The tight end caught 15 passes for 183 yards and one touchdown after missing the last two games due to a knee injury sustained in week one. He was the team’s leading receiver and caught more passes than every receiver that had a target for the 49ers that night.
The touchdown pass was on a single high coverage beater in the red zone. Single high in the red zone is already a dangerous game as often times teams cannot adequately cover multiple receivers releasing into vertical routes in such a compressed space where the passes tend to be quicker as well.
Shanahan is a master at exploiting at exploiting single high coverages in the red zone and has done so with regularity over the course of his coaching career.
His best known example of this came in the 2016 divisional round playoffs against the Seahawks when Tevin Coleman caught a touchdown on H scissors out of the back field.
The Seahawks are in a single high coverage, cover-3, and their rules dictate that the corner will travel with the #1 receiver if he goes vertical. The flat route occupies the flat defender, and the safety helps the corner bracket the post route. Easy pickings for Shanahan as Tevin Coleman is left wide open.
On Sunday night, Shanahan called another single high beater for Kittle’s first touchdown of the season on concept broadly referred to as “bench.” Bench is a mirrored smash concept with the outside receivers running quick to the flats and the slot receivers running corner routes.
On this particular play, the 49ers are in a condensed 2x2 bunch at the 5-yard line. On the right side of the formation, the route combination is a switch release with a flag route and a “drag china” route underneath. The formation’s left side is the more traditional corner by the #2 receiver (Kittle) and the flat route underneath.
The Eagles are in cover-1 single-high coverage. The defender’s to the right side of the offensive formation banjo their coverage, meaning the cornerback outside takes the out route by #2 off the switch release, and the inside defender takes the release of #1 inside and up. To the offense’s left, linebacker Duke Riley (No. 50) is in man coverage on Kittle.
Riley has essentially no help on the play as Kittle runs by him. Safety Marcus Epps (No. 22) gets caught looking in the backfield instead of moving over to help Riley in coverage when he should’ve been sprinting to help on the backline over the top. The choice route by Jerick McKinnon occupies the defender at the goal line. There was no way Mullens was going to throw the corner route from the far hash.
Mullens drops it in there with the perfect pass over Riley, who doesn’t even turn to look for the ball. Kittle makes a nice adjustment to bring it in and get two feet down for the touchdown.
The plays are there for the taking if the offense can execute. Several times this season, both starting quarterbacks have missed opportunities to hit the open guys. Some of that is due to offensive not giving time to throw, some of it is on the quarterbacks for not giving plays a chance to develop or throwing bad passes. But Kyle continues to scheme it up, showing how much he understands his opponent’s schematic weaknesses.