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Shanahan Staples: Using base personnel to run “four verticals”

Kyle Shanahan has made a living off creating the big play while opposing defenses are in their base personnel. Today, we look at his vertical passing game.

San Francisco 49ers v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

The answers were all over the place when we discussed which non-star on the San Francisco 49ers you blindly support. My answers were Emmanuel Moseley and Daniel Brunskill. The runner up? Kyle Shanahan. I have no problem criticizing Shanahan’s in-game decisions. When you focus solely on his play designs, formations, and how he gets players open, it’s hard not blindly to support Shanahan. A few years from now, hopefully, with a Super Bowl title to his name, we will look back at some of the silly criticisms from Kyle and appreciate his innovativeness as a play-caller.

Today’s version of “Shanahan Staples” will focus on how the 49ers can lineup in heavy personnel such as 12, 13, 21, or 22 while still going empty and throwing the ball down the field. The mismatches Kyle creates just from the personnel being spread out is a big reason why the 49ers have so much success through the air. Add in pre-snap motion, and defenses are behind the 8-ball before the ball is snapped. Let’s take a look at three plays from last season.

Dimes to Dwelley

Shanahan calls his four verticals concept, “Aggie,” which tells the receivers “all-go.” Word association makes it easier for the players to remember their responsibilities in hurry-up situations. The play below was in the fourth quarter against the Rams. We see how formation can throw off a defense, as well as the importance of not taking the easy way out and why it’s so important to look off a safety. Here is the play:

There are two receivers and Tevin Coleman who motions out of the backfield to the top of the screen. To the bottom, you have Kyle Juszczyk and Ross Dwelley. Let’s start with Dwelley, who has an opportunity to make life easier on himself by going inside of No. 51. That’s the path of least resistance. If Dwelley takes the path, he not only allows the linebacker to cover less ground, but the same can be said for the free safety.

One of these years,’ cornerbacks will stop guarding fullbacks out wide. Jimmy Garoppolo doesn’t come close to looking toward Juice. So long as defenders keep honoring fullbacks, offenses can get away with these formations.

On these longer-developing plays, it’s important for the quarterback not to tip his throws. Jimmy does a nice job of looking off the deep safety long enough where he has to respect the vertical route on the other side of the field. Dwelley holds on after a big hit, picks up 15 yards for helmet-to-helmet, and the 49ers just had an explosive passing play. These plays are how San Francisco led the NFL in explosive passing rate last year.

Missing McKinnon

The next play takes us back to the preseason, and the value of a running back that can catch out of the backfield. We didn’t see a running back targeted over 15 yards in the air last season. That likely comes down to Kyle trusting the options out of the backfield.

The play below is out of 21 personnel. To the bottom of the screen, you have Kendrick Bourne, Matt Breida, and Dwelley. Kansas City has a coverage bust, and that’s enough to take advantage of:

The reason the Niners are so high on Jerick McKinnon is that he can get the job down out of the backfield consistently. When you have a single-high safety, there’s no way for him to get to each route. The slightest hiccup from a cornerback makes this route combination tough to stop if your spacing is right.

Always have an out

The 49ers tried to run “Aggie” in the red area a few different times last season. We’ll get to why it makes sense, especially with the receivers on the roster, to run it down here next. When you go empty, you’re vulnerable to pressure. I recall a few occasions where the pass protection couldn’t hold up and cost Juice a few big plays during the season.

If you notice the receiver to the far left in both plays above, he’s running a quick route, known as a “now slant,” which serves as a check-down route in the event Jimmy gets in trouble. If Garoppolo doesn’t like what he sees, he can check the ball down. Jimmy G found Raheem Mostert and Breida running the “now slant” for positive gains on two separate occurrences. When you run four receivers deep, it opens up a lot of opportunities underneath. This concept is a great way to get your best athletes the ball in their hands so they can create. Neither Mostert or Breida turned their receptions into an explosive passing play, but you’ll take a free seven or eight yards every time.

With receivers like Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk, getting them the ball with a full head of steam in the open field turns into a punt return before you know it. Let’s go way back to Week 2 to look at Mostert’s reception underneath. It’s 2nd & 1, and Mostert gains 13 yards:

Jimmy can get rid of the ball sooner here. If he does, especially with Mostert’s speed, he might find the end zone. It’s called a “now slant” because the “receiver” takes one step and gets across the field “now.” Also, as with a “now” screen, the quarterback gets rid of the ball as soon as he doesn’t like what he sees. Down in the red area, with the look Cincy gives, the ball should be out quicker. That’s an area where Garoppolo will need to improve in 2020: processing.

Juszczyk’s, lined up in the slot next to Mostert, outside release forces the linebacker guarding him to honor his route. Bourne, lined up next to Juice, takes the eyes of the linebacker over him. That creates a vacant middle of the field.

When you are playing a Shanahan offense, you can be right and still have a bad outcome. I’m looking forward to the 2020 49ers stretching the field and taking advantage of all the athletes and speed on the roster.