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Film room: The 49ers turned to Kittle after the Seahawks stifled their running game

The Seahawks were able to limit the 49ers run game to less than three yards per carry while George Kittle provided most of the offense.

San Francisco 49ers v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

The 49ers' Week 13 game in Seattle was a tale of two halves. At one point in the first half, the 49ers led 17-7, then 23-14, before going into halftime with a two-point 23-21 lead.

Those 23 points were the only points they would score, as Seattle shut them out in the second half. The 49ers could not move the ball until the final four minutes of the game when they started what would need to be a game-winning drive on their own two-yard line.

They drove the length of the field to the Seahawks four-yard line but were unable to punch the ball into the end zone on a goal-to-go series when defensive end Carlos Dunlap batted down a Jimmy Garoppolo fourth-down pass in the final seconds to end the game. For much of the game, the 49ers' offense seemed stagnant outside of a few chunk plays in the passing game, mainly to George Kittle.

Garoppolo finished 20/30 for 299 yards, two touchdowns, and two costly interceptions. George Kittle had 181 receiving yards out of Garoppolo’s 299 passing yards and two touchdowns. However, 108 of his receiving yards came after the catch. Outside of Kittle’s 48-yard catch and run plus two other deep pass catches, the offense generated little production from anyone else in the rest of the passing game. In contrast, the running game averaged 3.08 yards per carry (23 no quarterback scramble rushing attempts for 71 yards).

For much of the game, the running game seemed lifeless. So how were the Seahawks limiting what the 49ers could do in the running game? By playing a mix of bear front and under front defenses.

Seahawks run defense limits 49ers run game

Bear 3-0-3 front

The “bear front” defense is an old-school defensive front scheme made famous by Buddy Ryan in the 1980s with the Chicago Bears. The front was a 6-man defensive line with the strong safety walked down to the line of scrimmage and was designed as a way to combat the running game when teams played heavier personnel packages.

Now, in 2021, no one is playing an actual 46 bear front defense, but at times teams will play the traditional three-down linemen front with two extra defenders on the line of scrimmage.

The defensive linemen in a 3-0-3 technique alignment with the defensive ends in a 3-technique shaded outside the offensive guard’s outside shoulder and the nose tackle in a 0-technique heads-up position over the center.

The bear front has two main objectives: 1) create 1-on-1s with a five-man pass rush and 2) clog the interior of the offense in the run game by preventing linemen from double team blocking defenders or from reaching the second level. This is particularly problematic in the zone running scheme.

On Sunday, the Seahawks employed the 3-0-3 front on numerous occasions, preventing the 49ers from getting to the edge in the wide zone scheme and limiting the big chunk play runs we’ve grown accustomed to from a Shanahan offense.

This, combined with the fact that Seattle’s defense moves well sideline to sideline, makes them one of the tougher defenses to run against than someone like the Rams (who play a lot of light boxes) or the Jaguars (who just aren’t very good in any phase of defense).

The Seattle 3-0-3 alignment helps to keep their second-level defenders free from offensive linemen blocking and helps to collapse the interior of the offensive line. By the time linemen can reach the second-level blockers, safety Jamal Adams is already in the backfield as the only block he has to defeat is from the wide receiver in front of him, Trent Sherfield. Easy win for Adams.

Notice linebacker Bobby Wagner (No. 54) as well. By the time Brunskill is able to disengage and get to the second level, Wagner is already fitting his run gap assignment against an offensive line that’s collapsed in the middle. Elijah Mitchell gets nothing.

Under front

Another way the Seahawks like to keep their second-level defenders clean is by playing an under front, the front that made the Seattle 4-3 cover-3 scheme famous, and one 49er fans would be familiar with under Robert Saleh.

In an under front, the defensive line sets a 1-technique defensive tackle and a 5-technique defensive end (the “big” end) to the tight end side. On the weak side, the front is home to the LEO, or weak-side defensive end is aligned outside the tackle in the 5-technique. This front can also look like a 3-4 defense with the strong side SAM linebacker walked up on the line of scrimmage in a 2-point stance.

The Seahawks will play Al Woods (No. 99) as the big end in their under front. Playing Woods at the big end position allowed the Seahawks to control the B-gap bubble and allowed their second-level defenders to stay clean and roam to the open gaps to make plays. The 49ers typically stayed away from the strong side runs when Woods was aligned to the tight end side. This did not work well for them.

Here, the 49ers run away from the strength of under front and instead run to the declared weak side into the 3 and 5-technique players in the weak side B and C gaps. Again, the Seahawks defensive line controls their gaps, allowing the lever and spill defenders (Jordyn Brooks No. 56 lever player and Bobby Wagner No. 54 spill defender) to fit the run while forcing the running back to stay inside and not allowing him to get to the edge.

The lever player (Brooks) plays with outside leverage on the running back to any run to his side, and the spill player, Wagner, works inside out to spill the ball carrier back to the backside lever player. The under front keeps them clean to force the running back into the heart of the defense.

George Kittle is the offense

On Sunday, George Kittle averaged 20 yards per catch, most notably gaining 48 yards on a touchdown catch late in the second quarter.

Late in the second quarter, Garoppolo quickly got the ball out to Kittle on a shallow crosser off a strong-side outside zone run play-action pass called “Zorro Keep Left Y Shallow.” The run fake is outside zone to the strong side. Kittle steps to the right with the entire offensive line to sell the run, then ducks down and sprints to the left immediately after selling the run fake.

The play is perfectly designed for someone with Kittle’s skill set as it allows him to sprint across the defense in space and outrun the second-level linebackers. Kittle sprints down the sideline behind a nice block from Jauan Jennings and tallies his second touchdown of the game.

Another interesting way Kyle Shanahan schemed Kittle open was on a play similar to Y leak. On Y leak, the offense fakes a keeper play-action pass in one direction while the tight end leaks out in the other direction. The play call here is “drift stalk” and hides Kittle’s route as an inline blocker.

The play is another strong side play-action concept that fakes a shotgun outside zone run to the left, this time with Kittle on the end of the line. Kittle steps left with the offensive line, sell the run block, and runs a stalk rail route before taking off upfield. Garoppolo works through the progressions from the backside drift route to the drift talk off route by Sherfield, then works to Kittle as the third read. He lofts the pass over the defenders for 29 yards.

Garoppolo’s leash gets shorter and shorter with every mistake

Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s play continues to decline after a decent two-week stretch. Against Minnesota, his erratic nature crept up once again with multiple bad passes, including a bad interception and two sacks he was ultimately responsible for. Against Seattle, he left a ton of yards all over the field and threw two bad interceptions

The turnover came on a staple play-action passing concept in Shanahan’s offense: drift. On drift, the primary read is the drift route over the middle of the field in the void vacated by the linebackers. The only problem is, linebacker Bobby Wagner doesn’t vacate the middle of the field, and Garoppolo never identifies him before throwing to Trent Sherfield.

Garoppolo should’ve waited for Sherfield to hit the second window on the throw, as Shanahan explained in the post-game press conference. “Wagner got back, which he does a great job of, and Jimmy has got to wait for him to go by him. He tried to throw it in the first window, and it’s a second window throw.”

Garoppolo tried to drop the pass in on the second interception over the two linebackers who zone dropped underneath the receiver on his eyes and cut off the throw.

Shanahan explained that “on the second one, both linebackers were back there, and Jimmy knew it and tried to drop it in over them which is an overthrow. He should’ve checked it down underneath them.” Instead, the play looks like a non-play-action dagger.

While both Shanahan and Garoppolo said Jimmy should’ve hit the check down underneath, he had time to layer a pass to Sherfield on the deep over route. Garoppolo gets Wagner to open flat down the throwing lane to the dagger route, which puts Sherfield in open space.

Instead, he tried to jam it into Kittle, a throw he likely predetermined because he sure didn’t read the defense correctly when Wagner stayed flat to wall off the dagger, highlighting a fundamental issue with how Garoppolo processes the game.

He has a flawed process and does not even consider the coverage rotation or what the defenders are doing in certain zones as he winds up to throw. That’s going to remain a problem as they continue down this playoff run.

Outlook

The 49ers find themselves in the 7th seed currently with several teams nipping at their heels. They still hold games on the Vikings and Eagles due to beating them should those 2 teams close the gap and challenge them for the 7th seed. A win this weekend in Cincinnati would be huge and a good start toward securing a playoff spot.

Hopefully, Deebo is back and can spark the running game, but they are going to need Garoppolo to cut down on the mental mistakes and get back to the formula they used versus the Rams and Jaguars. Every week for the next five games is a razor-thin margin error allowed. If it feels like every game is a playoff game from now until the end of week 18, that’s because it is.