The 49ers pulled off an upset victory over the Rams as time expired on the game clock when Robbie Gould split the uprights with the game-winning kick. The win improves the 49ers to 5-6 and keeps them in the playoff race while improving their chances to make it to 17.8% per Football Outsiders playoff odds. This was a 13.1% increase over the previous week. They’re still last place in the division, but with the seventh playoff team’s addition in each conference, it’s not out of the question by any means.
Making a late playoff push comes at the right time, too, as the 49ers got back Richard Sherman, Raheem Mostert, and Deebo Samuel back in the lineup. Trent Williams was a late addition off the covid list as Brandon Aiyuk remained on it and will likely be back for the Monday Night Football game against the Bills this coming Monday.
The playoff push also comes amid a lot of growing criticism of Shanahan, the in-game play-caller and head coach as fans increasingly grow restless with a less than functioning offense and on a team where. But what are the criticisms, and are they fair? I’ll attempt to answer those in this article.
Is the offensive line really that bad in pass protection?
The main source of fans’ frustration right now is the offensive line play and what’s perceived as Shanahan’s unwillingness to adjust his gameplan to give his quarterbacks time to get throws off. But that’s not really warranted. For one thing, every play in Shanahan’s playbook has a built-in hot route or sight adjust based on a blitzing defender.
Against the Rams on Sunday, Nick Mullens was under pressure on 12 of 38 dropbacks, was sacked twice, and was hit three times per Pro Football Focus. He didn’t face his first pressure until late in the second quarter.
First pressure Nick Mullens faced was late in the 2Q when Donald split the double team of Brunskill and rookie Colton Mckivitz. Not a good game for McKivitz going against Donald. pic.twitter.com/fnHCaS9Pe5— 49ers all22 analysis (@49ersAll22) December 4, 2020
Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald made easy work of the double team of Daniel Brunskill and rookie right guard Colton Mckivitz. Mullens escaped to the left and got a pass off. It was the first real pressure he faced. Later in the drive, he faced another pressure, but it was on a screen pass that went nowhere and shouldn’t really count as a pressure anyway because of the entire right side of the offensive line released downfield.
But in the second half, most of the pressure he faced was quarterback-driven pressures when he failed to read his progressions properly or held the ball too long and took two unnecessary sacks.
This is a good example of quarterback-generated pressure. The play call is all-go four verticals with a check down underneath. The pressure comes from the right side again, with Donald trying to split McKivitz and Brunskill again. From the end zone view, you can see Mullens has a lane to climb the pocket to his left, and it would take one hitch step for him to get a clean throw to reed down the left hash.
Instead, Mullens shuffles around and runs right into the rushing lane to his right as both Donald and Leonard Floyd collapse the right side. On a five-man pass protection, Mullens has to process this faster and do a better job of seeing the routes develop and feeling the rush. As a result, he takes a hit, and it’s recorded against the interior linemen rather than Mullens.
On another quarterback-generated pressure, Mullens made the wrong read.
Reed motions over to the right, creating a 2x2 formation with the running back offset to Mullens’s left. To the right, Mullens has a 3-over-2 situation. His pre-snap read should’ve told him to look left first, where he essentially has a 3-over-3 matchup due to the back releasing to the left flat. The Rams are in cover-6 (quarter-quarter-half) with the cover-2 side into the boundary.
Mullens drops back and looks right first instead of left. He’s looking for routes that never come uncovered or develop long enough to get open. By the time he scans to the left, the pressure is already in the backfield.
Some plays with longer developing routes are not meant to have full-field reads, especially with five in protection because the line cannot hold their blocks for four-plus seconds as they did here. Had he started left, he could’ve come off the whip route and back to the flat (the go route was automatically not an option due to the deep safety).
Mullens was also sacked twice, and both are largely his fault. His first sack came late in the third quarter after Donald had already generated some pressures. His second sack came midway through the fourth quarter.
On the first sack, the 49ers are running play action. The goal with straight drop-back play action to so slow the pass rush long enough for the quarterback to find an intermediate-range throw downfield. That doesn’t happen here. Mullens turns around and looks to throw and almost immediately has pressure in his face. Once he turns and sees the rusher, he should know to look for his checkdown right away. He doesn’t and takes a sack.
Now, McGlinchey does deserve some blame for this because he barely touches Donald and should’ve held his block longer. But it’s Aaron Donald. The quarterback can make players like Donald irrelevant throughout the game by making quick throws and quick decisions.
On the second sack, he had a little more time to get rid of it and still held on to it.
On the second sack, he never anticipated the running back coming open. But he had the time, and it would’ve required an off-platform throw, which the 49ers quarterbacks make with some regularity. So it’s not like he couldn’t try to. The throw was there.
Or he had Bourne and Reed breaking open on in-breaking routes to the right that he could’ve thrown with some anticipation before the rush arrives in his lap. As a result, he pulls it down and tries to escape but gets knocked down for the sack.
Players running free through the secondary
On any given Sunday, Shanahan manages to scheme his receivers and tight ends more than should ever be expected for a head coach or allowed by the defense. On some plays, there is nothing but open grass. In other plays, there are wide-open windows. The Rams game had both.
Mullens missed a chance to convert a 3rd and long when he overthrew a wide-open Jordan Reed over the middle running a basic route (10-12 yard dig route) over the middle. He had a clean pocket and time to step into the throw, and he sailed too far in front and too high for Reed to make an attempt at catching it. If Mullens hits the catch radius anywhere near Reed, that’s at a minimum a 15 yard gain.
When he’s not off-target with throws, Mullens can seem indecisive on his reads and therefore put the ball in harm’s way.
Reed is to the left running a quick out. To the right, fullback Kyle Juszczyk is running an arrow route with Dwelley over the top of him running a basic route across the middle. Mullens drops back and doesn’t trust what he sees. He winds up for the throw, doesn’t throw it, and pumps to Reed instead. This is just wasted movement. He attempts the throw to the next progression, Dwelley over the middle, but he doesn’t have the arm to make it.
This hesitation prevents the offense from moving the chains. And it’s not an uncommon thing that Mullens does. In Week 10 versus New Orleans, Mullens missed a wide-open Brandon Aiyuk with similar wasted motion.
In that game, on the first drive, Shanahan called a one-man iso route play called “read.” Aiyuk is the lone receiver running a “read” route where he has the option to sit at a depth of 20 yards or take off on a go route. The safety turns his hips to run with a deep route, so Aiyuk sits at 20 yards and turns for the pass. As he’s coming open, Mullens double clutches for some reason and doesn’t trust what he sees. As a result, he throws late, and the pass is nearly intercepted.
Later in that game, Mullens had another receiver schemed wide open due to the route distribution stretching the defense laterally, but he never came off the read to consider the first down throw he had at the sticks, choosing instead a much tougher throw into coverage.
Mullens sort of double clutches again, not really sure if he should pull the trigger when he sees it opening, causing him to be late on the throw, wasting valuable movement and time he needs to fit a pass into tight coverage. He had Bourne open on the deep sit route to that side, which would’ve been a much easier wide-open throw.
How much of that is Shanahan responsible for? If he’s coaching Mullens through the progression in the film room and on the practice field based on the likely coverage he’ll get on the throw; then there isn’t much he can do beyond that. Receivers have been running wide open through the secondary since week one this season, and both starting quarterbacks have failed to do the basics required of their position. It has cost them way more drives and points than anything Shanahan is failing to do.
Shanahan doesn’t adjust?
Of course, this isn’t true either. For one thing, Shanahan has adjusted the foundation of his run game to account for the 6-1 fronts most teams are playing by using sifts and escort motions to get extra defenders at the point of attack.
When the 49ers were able to crack the code on the defense late in the first quarter on their touchdown drive, they did through the run game.
One addition to the playbook they’ve made to the running game (though it’s scored as a pass) is through the use of their new “Deadpool” package for Deebo Samuel. It’s a package they used with success against the Rams in week six out of 11 personnel. In week 12, they used it to gain 33 yards on their touchdown drive, but this time out of 12 personnel from the shotgun.
The play is blocked like their outside zone concept “Zorro.” Zorro tells the F back to block/protect the inside gap of the tight end while the tight end kicks out or reaches the edge defender. The F, in this case, is Jeff Wilson, offset to the left of Mullens. Deebo comes on a jet motion, takes the tap pass with a full head of steam, and runs the edge behind his blockers downfield.
The 49ers deployed this package at key moments in the game against the Rams in week six but it’s tough to prepare for a multi-varied rushing attack.
Another run game adjustment this season is the escort motion to get extra defenders to the playside and create new gaps.
The 49ers have three to block four to the play side. The run tags have a sift block plus a fly/escort motion to get blockers over to the play-side against the Rams six men on the line of scrimmage and 8 in a condensed box for the formation, creating extra gaps the Rams can’t account for. Mostert gets to the edge, and all he has to do is beat the cornerback alone on an island. Remember what Alex Gibbs said about making corners tackle? Easy six.
The reinforcements have arrived and at the right time too. The 49ers are in a position to make a potentially late playoff push in the final quarter of the season, but the margin for error is small. They cannot afford to give away drives on offense at any point in the game due to mistakes, throwing, blocking, dropped passes, etc., but the returning players should be able to hold the line until a potential week 16 return of Jimmy Garoppolo and George Kittle.
The 49ers will also play their next two games in Arizona due to being shut out of Santa Clara during a three-week pause in sports in the county at all levels due to the rising covid cases. It’s unclear where the 49ers will play their remaining home games after that, but for a team facing a ton of adversity, getting wins on the road has been easier than winning at home anyway, and the next several weeks will tell us a lot about this team as we advance.