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The 18-play drive that helped the 49ers find their identity and turn the season around

Kyle Shanahan’s opening drive against the Rams was his best of the season for numerous reasons. His creativity was at an all-time high

Los Angeles Rams v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan has been tinkering with the offense in recent weeks. That’s a good thing. You never want a complacent play-caller, even when you’re clicking on all cylinders.

According to Next Gen Stats, Jimmy Garoppolo finished with a career-low in play-action dropbacks Monday night with just one. Garoppolo also had one drop back from under center, which was tied for a career-low.

Since Week 8, Garoppolo has aligned in the shotgun on 96% of his dropbacks compared to a 66% rate previously under Shanahan. On Tuesday, Shanahan was asked what led to the change in philosophy:

“It’s always easier for quarterbacks to not take their back to the defense, be able to see stuff, which is why you want to be in shotgun a lot. I mean, why most guys prefer that, but it doesn’t always help people get open and honoring the run. So, you’ve got to balance that stuff out and you’re always trying to make it easier. First goal is to get people open and if you can do that, then you want to try to do it the easiest way possible. So that stuff changes week to week for the players and for what you’re looking at.”

Shanahan added that it all depends on how you’re running the ball. Since the 49ers ran the ball out of shotgun a lot, it’s easier to have a dropback passing game out of shotgun. The two go hand in hand, but neither is effective if you cannot run the ball successfully.

Out of 18 first downs, the 49ers ran the ball 17 times. Surprisingly enough, the offense was still effective, running it on early downs. You can thank that to window dressing, not fitting a square peg into a round hole, and utilizing the ultimate chess piece in Deebo Samuel.

I looked back on the 49ers' first offensive drive. From a football nerd’s perspective, the euphoria grew as the 18-play, 93-yard drive continued. The cat and mouse games Shanahan and Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris played during the drive were some of the best of the season.

The Niners live in 21 personnel (2 RB/1 TE) to dictate what the defense can do. When you have a do-it-all fullback, you have the advantage. Morris trotted out five and even six-man fronts when Kyle Juszczyk was in the game. Here’s one example:

So, how did Shanahan counter that? He not only relied on 11 personnel (1 RB/1 TE), but he used Deebo Samuel and Jeff Wilson Jr. both as lead blockers and ball carriers. As a result, the Rams had to honor both sides of the line of scrimmage while dealing with the endless pre-snap eye candy the 49ers use upwards to 80% of the time.

San Francisco ran the ball on 17 of their 18 first downs against the Rams. By doing so, you’re putting pressure on Jimmy Garoppolo to convert on third downs. That wasn’t an issue, as the 49ers turned into the “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams on late downs with a ridiculous 1.54 EPA/play with a 70% success rate through the air.

Garoppolo deserves the credit for hitting his receivers in stride and in tight windows while playing on time. Samuel and Kittle bounced off a would-be tackler, and the 49ers looked unstoppable.

Back to the personnel usage for the 49ers. By running more 11 personnel and adding pre-snap motion, Shanahan ensured he’d have a 6-man box to run into instead of an 8+ box. As a result, per Next Gen Stats, Elijah Mitchell only ran into an 8+-man box on 7.4% of his carries. On the season, Mitchell has run into an 8+-man box on 31% of his carries.

Kudos to Shanahan and offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel for finding creative ways to get 1-on-1 matchups with their ball carriers and taking advantage of the different body types they have on offense. Tough-as-nails players such as Wilson Jr. and Deebo allow you to be flexible and versatile in their usage.

I wish we would have seen Jaylon Moore play. Thankfully, there is no structural damage to his knee, so Moore shouldn’t miss extended time. He looked athletic, active, and anchored well against a talented player in Leonard Floyd. Aaron Donald made Moore look silly, but he does that to everyone.

I highlight how this was supposed to be the version of the 49ers we see in the video above. An offensive line that imposes their will while the skill players dominate. It’s crazy that WR3 doesn’t matter when you can run the ball effectively while getting the ball to your playmakers.

Going back to Shanahan’s media availability on Tuesday, he pointed out how the Rams' blueprint of running the ball and executing on third down in the dropback passing game was the key to the offense’s success in 2019.

I’m not sure how many more 18-play drives we’ll get. What I do know is that was the best the 49ers have looked all season, and that type of dominance served as a reminder of who this team could be down the stretch.