Around four weeks ago the 49ers had just been embarrassed at home against the Kyler Murray-less Cardinals and now all of a sudden they are deep in the NFC playoff mix but how did this happen? The key is that they went back to what works best for them. Like in the 2019 season, the offence was mostly built around zone running which allowed Jimmy G to get comfortable with the play action passing. While Jimmy may not be an elite quarterback, he can definitely be a very efficient one when he is able to get comfortable and the emergence of Elijah Mitchell has allowed him to do that as it forces the defence to stop the run which, in the cases of the last three games, they have been unable to do. This dominance in the run game also opens up opportunities for Jimmy to let it rip in the play action game as, for all of his flaws, Garoppolo is one of the most natural passers of the football in the NFL.
The running game doesn’t even mention the plethora of receivers that Garopplo and Shanahan have at their disposal, including one of the best tight ends in the league in George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk and recently the emergence of Jauan Jennings. Obviously all of these names are great to have, but maybe the most influential in the 49ers season has been Deebo Samuel who has seen a big increase in his workload in not only the passing game as a true YAC machine but he also plays a major part in the running game, at time being indistinguishable from a true running back with his pace and his vision with the ball. Deebo is a very strong component in the pass game with over 1000 yards receiving for the first time in his career but on top of that, is a very strong runner of the football both after the catch and in the run game.
With Shanahan as coach, it appears that he has spent a lot of his reign trying to build a position-less football team which was part of the formula which helped to take the 49ers to Superbowl LIV. George Kittle is a brilliant TE, one of the best, but he can also run routes and catch passes like a wide receiver and block like an offensive lineman with his presence in the running game making a huge impact. Not many tight ends have the ability to make an amazing catch and then go on to pancake a defensive lineman, and not just that, he loves doing it too as i’m sure we can all remember the video of him laughing in the endzone after pancaking a falcons player as the 49ers ran it in from close range. This seems to be a trait with a lot of the 49ers players this year, Brandon Aiyuk, who was not overly involved in the passing game nin the first few weeks played and still plays a huge role in the zone running schemes making important blocks which set up Deebo or Elijah Mitchell up for big runs down the field. We can also see this position-less style of football when we look at the backfield, specifically at fullback, Kyle Juszczyk. Juice joined the 49ers as a free agent coming from Baltimore and also plays a huge role in the 49ers offence. He can offer a lot for Shanahan in every aspect of the offence, as a runner, a run blocker, a pass blocker or just as an out and out receiver, even having a touchdown reception in the Superbowl. This level of versatility from all of the players in the offence helps Kyle to scheme up all sorts of havoc for defensive coordinators.
Obviously it’s great having flashy skill positions makes the 49ers a great watch for fans, they also need to win the battle in the trenches against opposition defensive lines. The 49ers front office traded for Trent Williams during the 2020 draft for only 3rd and 5th round draft picks, a massive bargain for a player of Williams’ caliber. Trent has come into the offensive line and has been up there in discussion as the best OT in the league and a great asset to have in the running and passing game. The 49ers have also strengthened the OL during the past off-season with the addition of centre, Alex Mack, who has also helped to stabilize the offensive line and keep Jimmy protected. While there has been struggles with some of the offensive line players, the OL has been key in the zone running scheme that has helped the 49ers to dominate opposition defence.
However, for all of their strength, the 49ers offence does indeed have some limitations, starting at the quarterback position. Like I've previously said, Jimmy G is not an elite quarterback, but in Kyle’s system, he doesn’t need to be, he just needs to be efficient. In the game against the Vikings, Jimmy made some good plays on 3rd down, with some good placement on his passes to Brandon Aiyuk, and George Kittle just to name a few. However, I will admit that after the first two offensive drives, I thought that it was just going to be another one of them poor games for the 49ers QB, especially after the interception by Harrison Smith. I thought that overthrown balls and passes thrown behind receivers was just going to be the story of the day like it has been at times with Garoppolo. However, I think Kyle saw what could have unfolded on Sunday when he realised that he had to switch things up and return to the dominant run game. Throughout his tenure as head coach, Shanahan has also had times where he had questions to answer, and a lot of the time it just seems to be that he wants to play a style that the 49ers and Garoppolo aren’t suited for. At times, it feels that he has simply abandoned the running game when that is what works for the team. I don’t want to keep re-visiting the Superbowl but could the 49ers have won that game if they had simply kept with the running game instead of forcing Jimmy G to throw the ball? Who knows, but one thing for sure is that the 49ers are back in the playoff race and a win against a Seattle team that looks to be on the downfall would be absolutely crucial. From a season that looked finished after losing five games out of a six game stretch, the 49ers seem to have it back on track which I believe is due to Shanahan going back to the basics.