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How the 49ers diverse run game could open passing lanes in the RPO for Jimmy Garoppolo and the receivers

How the 49ers various running game schemes can dismantle the Chiefs defense.

Atlanta Falcons v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

In part one of this Super Bowl film review, we looked at the ways the 49ers defense could slow down the high powered Chiefs offense. The narrative all week is that the 49ers defense has no chance to stop or slow down the Chiefs offense. But no one is really asking how the Chiefs defense will slow down the 49ers offense. Perhaps they know they can’t. Perhaps we’re in for a shootout.

The 49ers offense ranks 7th in Football Outsiders DVOA, and outside the Titans and Ravens, the Chiefs have not faced another explosive offense until this Sunday. The 49ers have not needed to rely on their passing game as much in the playoffs with Garoppolo completing only 17 passes on 27 attempts, one touchdown, and one interception. They largely got to the Super Bowl on the back of their running game.

The 49ers running game has racked up 471 rushing yards on 89 carries, 5.3 yards per carry, in two playoff games so far. They haven’t really needed to rely on their passing game as much, but they certainly can if needed, and this game would be the perfect time for Jimmy Garoppolo to show the world what he’s capable of. And he likely will need to throw as many passes in this game as he has in the previous two games.

Good thing he’s shown that he can, though you wouldn’t think so given the narrative surrounding him for this game. That’s okay though, Kyle Shanahan will scheme it up for Garoppolo to execute and if that happens, this game will be closer than anyone thinks. How will Shanahan do it?

A diverse run game that features zone and gap scheme

The Chiefs defense is ranked 14th in DVOA per Football Outsiders, but they’re largely one dimensional. Their run defense ranked 29th this season, and outside the AFC Championship Game, they have had a hard time containing the run, especially on the edge. Per Pro Football Focus, the Chiefs gave up 5.5 yards per carry on outside edge runs, ranked 30th in the league. The pass defense was ranked 6th overall, but largely because they were able to make teams one dimensional, forcing their opponents to pass.

But the Chiefs defense is not without their flaws. Their linebackers are a liability against the run. Outside of Reggie Ragland, who boasts a decent 72.0 grade against the run per PFF, Anthony Hitchens (37.3) and Damien Wilson (56.2) are prone to get blown up in the run game, not shedding blockers very easily and getting washed at the point of attack. Despite all that, they managed to hold the Titans to under four yards per carry in the AFC championship game.

The Titans and Chiefs met twice this season, with the first meeting coming in week 10. The Chiefs gave up 225 rushing yards, 188 of which came on the legs of Derrick Henry.

Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith draws influence loosely from Matt LaFleur, who is off the Shanahan coaching tree. That influence still shows up on game days. The Titans are running a play similar to a staple play the 49ers always run, the fullback lead zone. The Titans are in an I-formation in 21 personnel running lead zone to their left.

Quarterback Ryan Tannehill motions the tight end over on a Y-trade motion, and the defensive line shifts their over front (3 technique to the tight end side) to their right side. On their run fits, linebacker Reggie Ragland (No. 59) should be responsible for any backside cut lane but gets caught inside as Henry follows his lead blocker into the hole.

The Chiefs do a decent job, but Henry cuts back against the grain and edge setter Chris Jones is nowhere near the cutback lane. Henry runs for 68 yards to the touchdown.

The Titans came back to the same play in the AFC title game, and the Chiefs lined up in the same defensive front. This time, they were ready for it with a simple adjustment.

This time instead of the 3-tech tackle slanting into the B-gap, Jones sheds his blocker and disrupts the A-gap. Ragland, who is shifted to the strong side this time, fits the B-gap this time, and both Jones and Ragland disrupt the running back path. Ragland’s penetration forces Henry to cut inside. Jones, already through the A-gap, is waiting for Henry’s cutback into the middle of the defense and makes the stop for a one-yard gain.

If the 49ers feel the Chiefs are going to be overly aggressive to the strong side while in 21 personnel, they have a variety of options to get, the front moving one way while the play hits the other way.

One way they do this by getting the strength of the defensive front moving in one direction with the blocking while the running back and fullback abruptly shift direction after a couple of steps. They do this with their arc bend running play, Suzy, that is designed to look like fullback lead zone to the weak side before both the running back and fullback cut the opposite way back to the strong side. Week five gives us an example of this play, where running back Matt Breida ran 83 yards for a touchdown on the first play of the game on offense.

If the 49ers need to switch up their run game, they can do so with a variety of other running plays like trap, power, counter, and use shifts and motions to create misdirection. The cut-ups below are some examples of various other runs in the playbook.

Attack the Chiefs edges

As mentioned above, the Chiefs were not very good defending their defensive edges against outside runs and were susceptible to giving up long runs, especially when they removed a safety from the box and went to a 2-high safety look.

Teams with similar offenses like the Broncos, Vikings, Raiders, and Packers all had success hitting the Chiefs defensive front with edge runs, especially with the Chiefs in 2-high due to the personnel packages employed by the offenses.

In these all-22 cut-ups from the preseason Week 3 game in Kansas City this season, the Chiefs tended to go 2-high against 12 and 21 personnel, likely to defend against potential deep passes from max protect.

Taking a safety out of the box can be problematic for teams like the Chiefs who are susceptible to giving up the edge because they rely on defensive front defenders to make plays and usually cannot match the numbers advantage the offense has.

The passing game and usage of RPOs/packaged plays

The Chiefs are susceptible to giving up the run-pass option play just as much as any other team is. They are an aggressive, flowing defense, and that can leave them prone to giving up the quick slant behind them if they come too far up to the play run.

Here against the Chiefs in week 11, the Chargers are running a power RPO. The read man is linebacker Damien Wilson (No. 54). Quarterback Phillip Rivers reads Wilson as his cue to either give or throw. If Wilson comes up to play the run, Rivers can throw it behind him. If Wilson drops in coverage, Rivers can just handoff. The point is to get your offense an advantage by removing one defender so you can either throw at a vacated zone or run against a lighter box.

Having a diverse running game allows Shanahan to create some unique-looking RPO designs. Some are as simple as marrying the outside zone with a backside slant. Others can be married with other passing concepts that might look like a previous play already run.

Here, the 49ers are running an RPO sweep with an alert slant backside to Deebo Samuel in week 17 against the Seahawks. The play is run out of shotgun, so Garoppolo can see what the middle linebacker Bobby Wagner is doing. Wagner flows toward the sweep, so Garoppolo pulls the ball and throws it to Samuel on the slant because Wagner is not in his hook zone on the hash.

Later in the game, Shanahan did some more window dressing with the same formation, but the only difference is the offensive line is blocking outside zone instead of sweep. Garoppolo even glances at the slant and holds the defense in place, preventing them from gaining any depth as he looks to fullback Kyle Juszczyk down the sideline.

Juszczyk was in the right slot running a “stalk rail” route. He got his defender to take outside leverage like the run was going to come his way and took off downfield when the defender was sufficiently out of position and still looking in the backfield. Garoppolo hit him a 49-yard completion.

The NFC championship gives us another glimpse into the RPO package and putting their linebackers on an island. On three separate occasions, the 49ers forced the Packers linebackers and secondary to play in space, and these three plays gained them over 30 yards. One was crucial to icing the game.

The play call is an orbit motion with sweep read RPO. Garoppolo sends Samuel on an orbit motion after he motions into the backfield in a two-back set. Garoppolo is reading the numbers advantage at the snaps and sees that a 3rd defender they have unaccounted for has vacated the box to play the swing pass.

With the Packers linebackers lined up deep off the ball 7 yards downfield, Garoppolo correctly reads that he should give on the sweep as they have the numbers advantage upfront.

They ran the same play again and Garoppolo handed off for another first down gain. The advantage of this RPO scheme is that it forces the linebackers to read and react on the fly while also having to play it in space.

To ice the game, the 49ers took advantage of getting linebacker BJ Goodson (No. 93) and Blake Martinez (No. 50) in space against the swing pass. Packers linebackers through two games could not run with the speed the 49ers use, especially on the perimeter. The Chiefs should fare no better with their corps of linebackers.


This isn’t a comprehensive plan, and the 49ers will undoubtedly rely on a more traditional passing attack with play-action and spread formations, but these are just some of the ways that the 49ers will likely attack the weaknesses of the Chiefs defense.

The offense presents a lot more match-up problems than I can possibly cover here and I have confidence that they’ll be able to keep pace with the Chiefs if needed. As long as the 49ers protect the ball, and it sounds cliche, then they have as good of a chance as any to beat the Chiefs on Sunday.