The Aaron Rodgers-led Packers juggernaut of an offense came into Levi’s Stadium last Thursday night and walloped the 49ers 34-17, but the final score does not tell the whole story. It was 34-3 until midway into the fourth quarter when the 49ers managed to scrape together two scoring drives late.
Covid and injuries were the theme of the week as the 49ers learned Wednesday morning before the game that Kendrick Bourne had tested positive for the virus, forcing the organization to vacate the premises that day and conduct business by Zoom meetings. Shanahan said they installed the red-zone package via Zoom with the players. When they were cleared later that night, the team met for a walkthrough practice for some things they’d expect to execute in the game.
The offense was without Bourne, Brandon Aiyuk, and Trent Williams due to covid isolation. They were also with Coleman, Mostert, and Kittle due to injuries. At wide receiver, they were forced to play Richie James, Trent Taylor, and River Craft. The talent drop off was apparent. Still, the 49ers gave themselves chances early that could’ve kept the game close and didn’t seize the opportunity to do so.
Richie James continues to show he deserves more playing time
Richie James filled in nicely again for the 49ers and was practically their whole offense on Thursday night. In fact, every time he’s gotten into a game, he’s made an impact in some kind of way. It’s just baffling why he doesn’t get more reps. The cut-ups below show what he’s been able to do with his limited reps.
He can do it all when he’s given a chance, get open, pick up yards after the catch, and go deep. Hopefully, in the future, he gets more snaps. On Thursday night, he filled the role Aiyuk would’ve normally been asked to fill. After the game, Shanahan stated that they weren’t sure if he was going to be available for the game coming off of an ankle injury and then thought he might only get limited snaps.
His larger role was a spark for the offense early, and though it wasn’t enough, he did a little bit of everything: went deep, caught intermediate passes and gained yards after the catch, and even took a fly pass inside the five-yard line.
On the late touchdown, a mixture of soft coverage and a blown coverage, the 49ers finally got on the board when Richie James went deep and was uncovered 20 yards downfield.
The play call is “Skinner Hurricane” and runs out of a 3x1 bunch to the field with a deep crosser, an out route to the flat, and James on a “widen post” route that he ends converting to an alert go route due to being open.
The Packers bust their coverage as two defenders travel downfield with River Cracraft on the deep crosser. James is wide open down the numbers where Mullens finds him. He dodges the safety’s tackle attempt and sprints into the end zone for the touchdown.
Earlier in the game, Mullens tried to find James deep on a deep post route over the middle, but Mullens was hit as he threw by Za’Darius Smith after Smith beat back-up left tackle Justin Skule.
James is running the deep post route from the bottom of the screen. The Packers are in cover-6 coverage, so the corner stop route to the right of the offense’s formation occupies the far hash safety, leaving James 1-on-1 with the near hash safety. The throw is open, but Smith handily beats Skule to the outside and can hit Mullens as he throws the pass that falls well short of the target.
Richie James did have two other big catches off play action that kept the chains moving for the offense.
The play action concept is “dagger.” On dagger, the outside receiver, James, is running the dagger route while the slot receiver runs a deep crosser to open the field behind the linebackers for the dagger.
In the first clip, James gets wide open on the dagger route after the flat defender widens with the flat route. Mullens has a wide-open window to throw into and hits James in stride. James eventually goes down but not before he picks up 43 yards. In the second clip, Mullens’ pass is too far in front and too low, but James makes a nice diving catch to keep to get the first down.
After James had already racked up yards on the dagger concept, the 49ers used that same look to get him in space on a screen pass in the third quarter.
James motion outside the receiver to the left, and the ball is snapped as soon as they present a bunch stack. He releases outside like he’s going to run the dagger route but steps back to catch the screen pass. The corner and safety both zone drop expecting to get the dagger route again, but this allows the blockers time to get upfield and provide an escort for James, who sprints for 47 yards.
While Shanahan might have adjusted on the fly for not having Aiyuk or Deebo, he still dialed up a nice wrinkle to their end around series.
The play looks outside zone strong from shotgun. James motions over into a stack with tight end Ross Dwelley who is the back sift blocker.
Dwelley’s sift block also serves as a lead block to the backside as James takes the tap pass from Mullens and sprints around the edge. The Packers defense crashes hard on the outside zone run fake, and James can find a crease around the edge for a gain of five on a nicely designed end-around.
Shanahan’s usage of James shows that he was willing to let James shoulder the load, and he delivered, showing that he should earn more reps going forward.
Packers 6-1 front scheme adjustment
Midway through the first quarter, the Packers adjusted to a 6-1 front and slowed down the 49ers run game due in part to the personnel the 49ers were missing and a timely schematic adjustment by defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. More and more teams have been using a 6-1 front against the 49ers this season, particularly the Dolphins.
The 6-1 front is very effective against outside zone teams because the front does not allow linemen to get up the second level, allowing those defenders to fit the run and stop it for a minimal gain.
Against the Dolphins, the 49ers were still able to move the ball through the use of a fullback and escort motion to get extra blockers at the point of attack.
The Packers had some success with it but the 49ers were in deficit early on and went to more spread looks with their formation to get space for their offense.
Against the Packers 6-1, the 49ers struggled to move the ball until they added an escort motion to create a crease for McKinnon to cut up through (last clip). The escort motion adds an extra blocker on the edge and allows the offensive line to handle the play side defenders so that an interior blocker can free release up to the second level and block the roaming linebacker. That block buys McKinnon a few extra yards. The Packers never really went back to it.
Rodgers deep passing torches the 49ers secondary
The 49ers got burned several times by Rodgers deep passing in this game, giving up three deep completions, two of which went for touchdowns.
The first deep pass came on the first drive of the game. The packers dialed up a variant of three verticals called “double go” with a middle read by the inside receiver who has the option to cut horizontally across the middle against middle of the field closed (1-high) or run to the post against middle of the field open (2-high).
The other routes are just basic go routes from the outside receivers and a good way to get 1-on-1 matchups with speedier guys. The 49ers are in single high and as Rodgers drops back he holds the safety in the middle of the field with his eyes before coming back 1-on-1 to Devante Adams down the sideline. He places the pass in over Moseley and Adams hangs on for the touchdown.
Later in the second quarter, the Packers burned the 49ers as they rotated to cover-6 with a post-corner-post route (dino), a double move route the Packers had frequently run with Jordy Nelson.
The 49ers rotated to cover-6 with the jet motion to a 3x1 with cover-2 to the boundary and safety Marcell Harris dropping deep.
Harris gets caught flat-footed and is unable to stay over the top of the route as Marquez Valdes-Scantling puts the double move on him. The field safety is occupied with the deep crosser, so Harris is all alone in the middle of the field. He never recovers, and Valdez Scantling walks into the end zone for the touchdown.
A combination of factors combined with working against the 49ers on Thursday night. As they get healthier each week, that should nudge them toward being more competitive and give them a chance to hang in games. It’s just not known if it will be good enough to win some close games. Shanahan will give the offense opportunities if week 9 is any indication. The offense, despite missing key pieces, was still running guys open and free through the Packers secondary. We’ll see going forward how often they’ll be able to take advantage of those opportunities, but it won’t be easy.