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Shanahan needs to be more aggressive as a play-caller

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Rotoworld did a study on 10 offensive metrics to see which team is the most successful from an analytics point of view

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Atlanta Falcons v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

Much has been made about San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan and his in-game management skills. From aggressiveness on fourth down, at the end of halves, to letting his quarterback air it out. Rotoworld’s Haden Winks used 10 metrics to evaluate how efficient and aggressive teams are:

  1. 4th Down Aggressiveness (rbsdm.com)
  2. Pass Rate on Early Downs (rbsdm.com)
  3. Pass Rate While Trailing (@HaydenWinks)
  4. Play-Action Rate (PFF.com)
  5. Downfield Pass Rate (@HaydenWinks)
  6. Middle of the Field Pass Rate (@HaydenWinks)
  7. Pre-Snap Motion Percentage (SportsInfoSolutions)
  8. Outside Run Rate (@HaydenWinks)
  9. Shotgun Run Rate (@HaydenWinks)
  10. Offensive Pace (FootballOutsiders.com)

Niners fell in Tier 3: “Room for Improvement.” Here is what Rotoworld said:

14. 49ers (HC Kyle Shanahan)

4th Down Aggressiveness: 24th

Pass Rate on Early Downs: 23rd

Pass Rate While Trailing: 16th

Play-Action Rate: 4th

Downfield Pass Rate: 31st

Middle of the Field Pass Rate: 6th

Pre-Snap Motion Percentage: 1st

Outside Run Rate: 14th

Shotgun Run Rate: 27th

Offensive Pace: 20th

Shanahan’s offense is a tough one to rank because it’s far more run-heavy than the numbers would like (23rd in pass rate on early downs), but he’s so creative with his blocking and pre-snap motion usage (1st) that it’s led to rock-solid results. The 49ers were 5th in expected points added per rush (-0.05), although they were still more efficient on their dropbacks (+0.16). A couple of reasons for that is Shanahan’s fourth-highest usage of play action passes and high rate of passes thrown over the middle of the field (6th). I also like how Shanahan increases his pass rate when the 49ers are losing (16th), a strategy that’s not being implemented soon enough into games in my opinion.

Shanahan is obnoxious with his pre-snap motion. The 49ers used pre-snap motion on 67% of their offensive plays. The Patriots were second at 60%, and the Titans were just over 50%. Kyle loves movement to keep defenses off balance. Throwing the ball over the middle of the field—especially using play-action—is the easiest throw for a quarterback to make. Seeing the 49ers ranked highly in both proves Shanahan puts his quarterback in a position to succeed.

There are numbers a few numbers on here that bother me. When you have a defense that can stop teams at a historical rate, that should be your chief reason to be aggressive on fourth down. When you, yes, you are the best play-caller in the NFL that should lead you to be aggressive on fourth down. Is that just who Kyle is? Did he not trust his targets on the perimeter? Or was it “because we have a good defense a punt/field goal is the safe play?” I hope it’s not the latter. The mindset of the offense would change completely if Shanahan showed he believed in them. That’s something I feel strongly about and for the life of me cannot understand why a team with so much talent plays so slow and isn’t aggressive. I wonder now that Jimmy Garopolo is a year removed from injury and Kyle knows what he can do if we see those pace/fourth down aggressiveness trends change.

Shotgun rate isn’t anything to worry about knowing Shanahan’s philosophy. The downfield pass rate is worrisome, and that’s something to keep an eye on in 2020. The big question here is if this is a Garoppolo or a receiver issue? I think Deebo Samuel is a better downfield target than given credit for, but he’s so good underneath that you don’t want to “waste” him on deep routes. Brandon Aiyuk is a true vertical threat, though. If the 49ers are outside of the top-25 in deep passing against next year, I think we know who to blame.