The 49ers underwent a makeover a few weeks ago and have since never looked back. So what’s been the change? Positionless football. Look no further than the sequence where Deebo Samuel scored his 20-yard touchdown. Backup running back Jeff Wilson Jr. served as a lead blocker.
A defense can’t clue in on who is getting the ball when one play Deebo is a lead blocker, the next Elijah Mitchell is, and now both players are used as decoys on the ensuing plays. When you know there’s a threat of play-action or misdirection. It forces your second-level defenders to hesitate for a split second.
That hesitation is all it takes for the Niners playmakers to get around the corner. The smash-mouth style of a running game with multiple wrinkles led to the 49ers rushing attack to have .010 EPA per play. For a running game, that’s spectacular. For reference, the Vikings EPA per play was 0.06 on passing downs. The Vikings had the 13th-highest EPA per dropback in the NFL this week.
Kyle Shanahan is known for running and revolving his offense around the wide zone. Credit Mike McDaniel, but the evolution of the 49ers running game is the primary reason this offense has scored 30 points a game in the past three games. Pre-snap motion helps, but defenses don't have a clue what's coming when you’re running inside zone, sweeps, power, duo and every other running concept under the sun.
Now, it helps to have plus athletes. Deebo touched the ball six times, and one carry went for 20 yards while another went for 49 yards. It’s a heck of a luxury knowing that your guy is better than the opponent. Still, without a change in scheme, the 49ers are still running outside zone, wondering why it’s not working.
Dating back to Bill Belichick against the Rams in Super Bowl 53, 6-1 defensive fronts with variations have been key to slowing down these wide zone plays that Sean McVay and Shanahan love. First, you cover up every offensive lineman, which takes away their ability to climb to the second level and block a linebacker.
How have Shanahan, McDaniel, and the 49ers countered these looks during the past couple of weeks? By running right at you. That forced defenses to play the Niners honestly and, when that happens, it opens up the edge for players like Mitchell and Samuel.
We cannot talk about the Niners running game without acknowledging Kyle Juszczyk and George Kittle doing their part. With Juice, he will come across the formation and take out a defensive end as if he’s one of the best fellers around. Kittle destroys whoever he is blocking on the edge. He mauls people.
Both players' athleticism allows them to execute blocks and track players in space that few in this league can. The duo makes the 49ers' rushing attack potent. Their vicious demeanor rubs off on their teammates. Look no further than Samuel’s first touchdown where Jeff Wilson Jr., as a lead blocker, sent an oncoming defender flying, which paved the way for Deebo.
In the breakdown below, I highlight the changes the Niners have made in their running game, how it works, and why it’s sustainable moving forward:
The Jimmy-coaster was in full effect
Whenever you mention Jimmy Garoppolo, it’s a sore subject. As one of the comments in my YouTube video you’ll watch below says, “You would think we are 3-8 the way you are grilling a quarterback on his way out of Santa Clara.”
It’s about the process. It always has been. I’m going to talk about the good and the bad, no matter the player or result. Because it’s the quarterback, it sounds as if I’m bashing him. I’d be doing you a disservice to only reference EPA or stats that paint Garoppolo in a positive light. There were a handful of bad plays as well as positive plays. Each is mentioned.
Sunday, Garoppolo played one of his worst halves of the season. He was inaccurate and indecisive in the first half. It led to him not seeing the field, missing open receivers, and taking sacks he shouldn’t have.
It started with the first dropback when Jimmy threw it into double coverage and missed a wide-open Kittle. Honestly, as egregious as the miss was, I don’t fault Garoppolo too much for not throwing to Kittle. That play is a muscle-memory play.
During practice, the defense doesn’t let Kittle run wide open. Jimmy throws it to Deebo as he was open in practice, I’d imagine. Now, pre-determining throws are the larger issue and something that’s been prevalent with Garoppolo all season.
The misses are frustrating, so much so that the head coach walked over and spent a good 20 seconds giving Garoppolo an earful. The Jimmy-coaster wouldn’t be complete without a few eyebrow-raising throws — in a good way. Jimmy G threw a few lasers into tight coverage and got better as the game went along:
Jimmy’s best throw was to Brandon Aiyuk on a third-down conversion where he threaded the needle over a Vikings linebacker. However, his best play came when the 49ers needed to move the chains.
Backed up in their territory, on third down, Garoppolo went through two progressions, didn’t flinch in the pocket under pressure, and found Trent Sherfield for a first down.
Consistently inconsistent is the best way to describe Jimmy. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a middle ground with him, which is why the conversation surrounding Garoppolo is all over the place.