The San Francisco 49ers were dead last in the red zone touchdown percentage in 2018 at 41%, which was three percent behind second to last. The 2019 offense was much better at 55%. While the Niners ranked 20th, having a healthy quarterback to execute Kyle Shanahan’s offense made a world of difference, and the jump in red zone success was a big reason San Francisco made a deep playoff run.
A week ago, we went over some of Shanahan’s favorite passing concepts outside of the 20s. Today we’ll focus on Kyle’s passing concepts in the red area, where Kendrick Bourne made a name for himself in 2019. Bourne—who signed his one-year tender on Monday—scored all five of his touchdowns near the goal line last season. That speaks to Shanahan’s trust in Bourne, who can uncover when the play breaks down, fights back to the football, and has strong/confident hands to attack the ball. All of these traits are vital for success in the red zone. Bourne’s stats were video game-like inside of the 20. The 49ers only targeted Bourne five times inside of the ten-yard line, and all of those went for scores. In today’s “Shanahan staples,” we’ll go over why Bourne was so successful near the goal line.
One of my favorite concepts at the high school level, and a hi-lo route that Shanahan leaned on heavily in the red zone. The design is fairly simple. In a 2x2 set with the running back to your side, the inline tight end beelines five yards to the middle of the field to hold whichever defender is responsible for the middle of the field. The outside receiver, who is in a condensed split, runs a five-step “hammer” route to the back of the end line. In the event of a blitz, the tight end is the “hot” receiver, and that’s where Jimmy Garoppolo would go with the football. The outside receiver can cut his route short against man coverage. The critical part for him—Bourne in this case—is winning inside, something Bourne has no issue doing. Here is the play:
Motioning Tevin Coleman—lined up at the top of the screen— back into the formation gives Jimmy G an indicator that the defense is in man coverage. Coleman runs a flat route that takes a defender out of the picture. Once Bourne wins inside, the defensive back doesn’t have a chance. All KB needs to do is hold on through contact, which he does. Bourne knows how to protect the ball from the cornerback. There are so many subtle details about him that allow Shanahan to have so much confidence in Bourne.
Everyone is enamored with 40 times. If you can’t separate in the NFL, you can’t play. The best receivers in the NFL all possess top-end quickness. On this “drive” concept, Bourne shows how important winning with quickness is.
“Drive” is a concept that Bill Walsh made famous. It’s another high/low concept, but this involves Bourne running a shallow cross from the slot. Walsh would run this route combination with Jerry Rice, and Rice, despite a slow 40, would outrun defenders for big gains. Winning starts at the line of scrimmage, though.
The Seahawks are in man-to-man coverage. To the bottom of the screen, Emmanuel Sanders is the No. 3 receiver, then Bourne is the No. 2, and Deebo Samuel is out wide as the No. 1. Samuel runs a five-yard in cut. Bourne takes one step and takes his route across the middle of the field on a crosser, while Sanders bends his vertical route inside to ensure the safety cannot jump on Bourne’s route. Like the previous play, once Bourne crosses the cornerbacks face, that’s all she wrote.
Here is the play:
Bourne isn’t going to be a lot of DBs in a foot race. As you can see from his first two steps, he’s going to beat a lot of DBs to the spot Bourne wants to get to, and that’s far more important.
Fool me once, shame on you
Shanahan is the master of running the same plays but window-dressing them, so the defense doesn’t catch on. In Week 11, Bourne scored on the same route against the same cornerback, just from the other side of the field. The Niners are in 21 personnel, so Arizona thinks it’s a run. San Francisco breaks the huddle and lines up in shotgun, which immediately throws the defense off. Kyle Juszczyk comes across the formation to kick out the defensive end on the play-action fake, which draws the second-level defenders up. Before we get into the rest of the play, this action is the 49ers bread and butter run called “sift zone.” Any defender that has studied the 49ers will aggressively bite when they see the fullback in Shanahan’s offense cross the formation as Juice does here.
Ross Dwelley runs a shallow cross and, in turn, takes out three Cardinals defenders. That leaves Bourne 1-on-1, and we know how that story usually ends:
Bourne’s nuance as a route runner shows up on this play, and it’s a big reason why the 49ers relied on him down in the red area. You see him attack the outside shoulder of the cornerback, which causes the DB to widen. Once the cornerback widens, Bourne’s job becomes 100% easier. Throw in a head-fake for good measure, and Bourne gets to do what he does best. Dance. If the play above looks familiar, Bourne also scored on the same route in the playoffs against the Vikings.
Many expect the 49ers defense to take a step back in 2020, which is fair considering they lost one of their best players and historically were one of the best defensive lines and pass defenses. If that’s the case, the offense has to step it up. The area the offense can improve the most is in the red zone. Here is how the rest of the NFC playoff teams fared in the red zone. Green Bay, 67%. Seattle, 64%. Philadelphia, 63%. Minnesota, 60%. New Orleans, 59%. The Saints were 13th, and the 49ers were 20th. If the offense can make their way into the top half of the league in red-zone scoring, that’ll help offset the loss of Buckner.