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Shanahan staples: Reviewing five 49ers’ passing concepts

Five of my favorite route concepts that Kyle ran this past season

Super Bowl LIV - San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

We’re a little over three weeks away from the NFL Draft. As fun as the draft is to talk about, let’s take a break and relive some of San Francisco 49ers’ head coach Kyle Shanahan’s favorite concepts. Watching these college prospects score on the same route combinations (“smash”) in different games made me think of some of the Niners best staples from this past season. None of these are new, per se, but Shanahan, Mike McDaniel, Mike LaFleur continue to add wrinkles and innovation to the running and passing game that keeps San Francisco ahead of the curve. It’s incredible to see the evolution of the 49ers running game. They added gap principles to their zone schemes. Add in pre-snap motion 80% of the time, and that’s how you end up with Raheem Mostert running wild in the playoffs.

Here are the five different concepts.

“Alley” screens

The 49ers hit big on a few throwback screens in 2019. Richie James took a throwback screen over 50 yards at home against the Cardinals. George Kittle took a “Y throwback screen twice for double-digit yards against Carolina. Kyle’s timing on these screens is fantastic. During Week 16, the screen to Deebo Samuel stands out as a personal favorite. Why? Because the play involves everything that makes the Niners offense go. The play is a variant of an “Alley” screen.

Deebo motions from one side of the formation to the other. As you can see, that gives the offense +1 in the numbers game. The free safeties’ eyes are locked onto Kittle, who is the inline tight end to the top of the screen. The run action where Kyle Juszczyk comes across the formation and Jimmy Garoppolo fakes the handoff to Raheem Mostert—this is split zone—forces the two weak-side second level players to bite on the fake. Before Samuel has the ball, the 49ers have three players to block two defenders.

If you are a defensive coordinator, I have no idea what you tell your defenders to key above. That’s one of those plays where you’re wrong, even if you think you’re right.


Numbers, numbers, numbers. Shanahan’s best passing concepts are where he loads up one side of the field to make the defense think that’s where he’s going, only to attack the opposite side of the field. This next play is an incomplete pass, but the setup is beautiful. The play is called “Burner,” where the backside receiver works his way across the middle of the field on a high crossing route.

While the middle linebacker pirouettes, Emmanuel Sanders, has free access to the middle of the field. While the middle linebacker pirouettes, Emmanuel Sanders, has free access to the middle of the field. Mostert is key here. His route holds 30 if the weakside linebacker to the bottom of the screen doesn’t react to the run and will “rob” Sanders on the crossing route. If the linebacker picks up Sanders, then Mostert is open on the “rail” route down the sideline. Here is the play:

Again, you’re wrong, even if you’re right. Every linebacker is taught to bite on the play-action. It’s natural to recover to the strong-side of the formation. Why wouldn’t you, as the offense has three eligible receivers to that side. Another critical factor in this play is Richie James bending his route inside to the bottom of the screen. If the free safety gets too aggressive and jumps on Sanders, you have 1-on-1 deep. That’s unlikely, as most safeties will respect the first deep route they see. The execution of the play wasn’t there, but the design is brilliant.

The beauty of these plays is that there is always a built-in counter. The screen play had several. On the play above, James can fake the corner and run back to the post. If you recall, that’s how Kittle scored against the Packers during the regular season.


This may be too soon, but the design is perfect. Kyle loves the double slant concept he calls “Lion.” I’d love to know how many yards the 49ers gained on this concept last season, but I’d guess it was easily over 1,000 yards. It’s a simple, three-step drop where both receivers run a slant. As always, you build counters off of this play. Shanahan added more RPO’s as the season went along, which helped San Francisco’s running game. We didn’t see it often this past season, but “Bluff” was the concept in the Super Bowl toward the end of the game where Chiefs DT Chris Jones batted the pass that would have been a sure-fire first down.

Deebo motions out wide, which forces the defensive end to respect him in the flat. Kittle and Juice “bluff” like they’re blocking, then run slants. Kittle is the first read in the slot. When defenses know you’re going to run the ball and load the box, you won’t find a better play-call than “Bluff.”

The last thing I want to do is argue about if the 49ers should have run the ball or if Jimmy G should have bypassed the first read that was open. The play was perfect; the execution was not. That happens 20 times a game in football.

Shanahan’s best concepts come underneath, in my opinion. The plays where there are run fakes and the middle of the defense parts like the red sea. This play below against the Panthers to Kendrick Bourne is a prime example:

The pre-snap motion gives the 49ers free access over the middle. Kittle coming across the formation on “split-zone” action holds the linebackers, leaving nobody to cover Bourne. That play happened over and over during 2019.


I’m a sucker for “hi-lo” concepts. The defense always “takes the cheese.” On these concepts, if you play it safe, the underneath receiver is open, and you’re giving up an easy pitch and catch for a first down. Here is an example of “heat” the 49ers ran against the Ravens during the regular season.

In this play, the offense fakes one of their bread and butter plays, “sift zone.” Juszczyk comes across the formation to kick out the defensive end. The two fakes on this play—to Mostert on the handoff and Sanders on the end around—help clear the middle of the field. That allows Kittle to settle down in the vacancy.

That’s how the play looks against a single-high safety look.

Rich helped me find that play. Shanahan has been running “heat” for years. Here is newly signed wideout Travis Benjamin running the same concept against a two-high safety look:

One defender is going to be in a bind no matter how you slice it. There are always three or four moving parts in Kyle’s concepts, and that’s why we will continue to see receivers running open.