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Shanahan staples: How the 49ers used RPOs to help Mullens defeat the Giants

The Mullens to Aiyuk connection came by way of a familiar play the 49ers used last season.

San Francisco 49ers v New York Giants Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan is widely viewed as one of football’s best offensive minds. We saw him create a perfect gameplan for backup quarterback Nick Mullens on Sunday against the New York Giants. What made Mullens so effective and one of the most efficient quarterbacks of the week? RPOs and play-action. Seventeen of Mullens 38 dropbacks had run-action.

Linebackers react to the run, and that gives Mullens defined easier reads. They weren’t all layups, as Mullens had to make a handful of plays in the face of pressure. He did a fantastic job executing the gameplan on Sunday, but today we’ll concentrate on one of Shanahan’s staples: “Dart.”

The perfect counter for teams loading up to stop the run

Teams have been selling out to stop Shanahan’s running game for years. This season, it’s been a big reason why the 49ers running game has struggled. Shanahan has the perfect counter for defenses who put extra men in the box, an RPO tag called “Dart.” The 49ers do a great job of dressing this play up, as it comes off one of their staples, the wide zone. The quarterback acts as if he’s going to hand the ball off to the running back, but he’s eyeing the backside defender, whether it’s the end man on the line of scrimmage, the hang defender, or the weakside linebacker.

As soon as the defender starts to creep up and bite on the run, the quarterback pulls the ball and throws the backside slant for an easy pitch and catch. Here are two examples of “Dart” from last year against the Seahawks.

As you can see, the end man on the line of scrimmage to the top of the screen is caught in no man’s land, which leaves Deebo Samuel against a cornerback with all types of space to work with. You’ll take that matchup every day of the week.

Against the Giants, Shanahan went to the well a couple of times by using rookie wideout Brandon Aiyuk as the backside receiver. Pre-snap motion from the tight end forces the defense to overcorrect and shift to the strong side. The weakside linebacker walks down on the line of scrimmage, which leaves Aiyuk in a similar position as Samuel in the play above.

Expect Aiyuk to break one of these this year.

More RPOs

The concept worked so well that Shanahan called the same play two plays later. The 49ers remain in 21 personnel here; the difference is fullback Kyle Juszczyk is now the slot receiver to the bottom of the screen. After Ross Dwelley motions to the strong side of the formation, the Giants don’t have an overhang defender to get in the throwing window where the slant would be, making it another easy pitch and catch for the Niners.

This difference between this RPO is Aiyuk runs a five-step slant. On “Dart,” it’s a one-step slant as the receiver is the “hot” route, in the event that the quarterback has pressure in his face. Another difference is that this play has a “split zone” action, meaning Dwelley will come across the formation behind the line of scrimmage to block whoever the end man on the scrimmage line is.

These are easy plays to execute and even easier throws for the quarterback. The best way to identify RPOs is by watching the offensive lineman. If they fire off the ball like they’re run blocking, it’s an RPO. If they take a step back as if they’re pass blocking, it’s a play-action pass. Watch Juice in the slot to the bottom of the screen; he’s coming off the ball, expecting the play to be a run.

RPOs are nearly impossible to defend when a team runs zone. Your second-level defenders are flying up to stop the run, while a receiver is running a route behind them. They’re not easy to cover if a defense is in man coverage, either. If you miss a tackle, the receiver is off to the races. Shanahan has a handful of RPOs in his playbook, and they’re most effective when you have a receiver that can create after the catch. We know Samuel is the king of breaking tackles and creating for himself when the ball is in his hands. Once the game slows down for Aiyuk, he’ll shine in this RPO/play-action offense.