After the 49ers ran roughshod over the Atlanta Falcons defense this past Sunday in what might have been their most complete and dominant showing of the season, something became clear about the way Shanahan’s unit was built to operate at peak performance. The greatest skill of the skill position players is playing through, and oftentimes, initiating contact with defenders while exhibiting a thorough throwback attitude.
Whether it’s Elijah Mitchell lowering his shoulder to fight for extra yards, George Kittle dragging an entire defense downfield, or Deebo Samuel sending a cornerback’s mouthguard into orbit, opposing players have to worry about getting hit just as much as delivering one.
Deebo Samuel just knocked this CB's mouthpiece to San Jose pic.twitter.com/1hXdcqU4bs— KNBR (@KNBR) December 19, 2021
The assembly of this collection of offensive weapons was a journey unto itself that spanned numerous drafts and free agency classes. However, it seems finally that the right pieces have fallen into place, like Thanos popping infinity stones into his gauntlet one by one.
However, it wasn’t a typical Point-A-to-Point-B process. It was a bumpy road filled with multiple false starts and wrong turns like everything else in life. The 2017 offseason brought a couple of the unit’s stalwarts in the signing of Kyle Jusczcyck and the selection of George Kittle in the famous fifth round.
I’d imagine that even in the wildest collective dreams of Shanahan and Lynch, they never imagined these two’s impact being quite this large. Therein lies the upside of the gamble that every team makes when assessing possible fits.
It’s just as easy to whiff when stepping up to the plate, as evidenced by inking Pierre Garçon and Marquise Goodwin to deals or drafting Trent Taylor. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, those players never managed to live up to what was expected of them.
After betting big in 2018 on smaller, shiftier players, like Dante Pettis and Jerick McKinnon, who also didn’t pan out, it seems that the prototypical Shanahan receiver profile began to evolve. He always demanded excellence from the position, as a former wideout himself, and part of his requirements have always been and will be blocking.
Blocking inherently requires the ability to impose one’s will, and the ability to do that, at minimum, requires a willingness to do so. Unfortunately, many of the players listed above had the will but lacked the stature to remain healthy. Ultimately, players that can’t remain on the field can’t remain on the team.
Deebo Samuel’s entrance seemingly created a new paradigm. After that, the team set its sights on thicker and more powerful players who could hold up in all phases. This continued in 2020 with Brandon Aiyuk, who comes in only at 6’ on the tape measure, but over 200 pounds. His more filled-out frame has certainly helped his transformation into an elite run blocker this season.
Similarly, Jauan Jennings, a member of that same draft class, has also established himself as a monster blocker, managing to bait opposing players into penalties, decimate linebackers, and consistently open lanes on the outside. Since Mohammed Sanu's injury, he’s become a staple, and his consistency in springing Deebo Samuel rushing touchdowns is a huge reason for his emergence. But, of course, determination, like in the play below, helps, too.
Jauan Jennings starting to look like the monster from his college tape pic.twitter.com/09Fxg65czH— Ty Austin (@TyLAustin) December 22, 2021
He’s by far the tallest, strongest receiver on the roster at 6’3”, which offers a different look than the usually shorter group, especially when he’s lined up in the slot. George Kittle broke down what’s so difficult about handling the Niners' offense and mentioned Jennings and Aiyuk specifically.
“The last five, six weeks I think our wide receivers blocked their tails off every single snap and you can see it when you watch the film. You’ll see Aiyuk and Jauan sprinting in, digging out safeties, corners, linebackers, they don’t really care who it is, but they’re giving full effort. And it’s hard for a safety to [consider], “Hey, is this a play action, is this a run?” And all of a sudden, Jauan Jennings smokes them inside.”
The flashier element of this physical play is what they do when the ball actually ends up in their hands. Kittle, Samuel, and Aiyuk already founded the exclusive YAC Bros, a nickname that speaks to what they do in the open field after making a catch.
Not only can they scamper in open space, which Shanahan’s scheming creates in droves, but they also make would-be tacklers miss and breakthrough attempt to bring them down regularly. Their knack for escaping from the defense’s clutches by hook or by crook has led to eye-popping statistics and instant classic highlights.
So far this season, Deebo has notched 17 total broken tackles, 11 when lined up as a receiver, and six as a rusher. He also led the league at his position since 2019 with a whopping 53 defenders left in the dust, even as he missed 11 games over his first three seasons. His perfect blend of power and slipperiness makes the multi-positional threat so hard to bring down.
Meanwhile, from a pure power standpoint, George Kittle has also led the league at his position since he first debuted in 2017. His physicality has become the stuff of legend at this point, and he’s shown no signs of slowing down. It’s due in no small part to the mantra that Jon Embree, the 49ers’ tight end coach, ingrained in him years ago. “Don’t let one man tackle you.” He rarely does.
George Kittle vs the entire Falcons defense. pic.twitter.com/b8KcqwGwv9— John Chapman (@JL_Chapman) December 20, 2021
It feels as if this ethos has seeped out and taken hold of every player that gets regular touches. Particularly, this year’s standout running back, Elijah Mitchell, who quickly became a coach and fan favorite by packing a bigger pop than the opposition, and even his own teammates, would expect.
Trent Williams made a lofty comparison for the rookie, saying the last time he took a hit as hard as Mitchell’s by a running back was when Adrian Peterson tagged him at Oklahoma. The 320-pound left tackle continued, “...[Mitchell] definitely put one in my back and made me turn around and say, ‘Who the hell was that?’ I was like, ‘Damn if that’s what they feel when they got to tackle him, I can see why he breaks so many tackles.”
99 seconds of Elijah Mitchell making plays pic.twitter.com/F3kIiC7INC— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) November 30, 2021
It certainly doesn’t hurt to have a deep stable of runners who bring this mentality, or as George Kittle put it, “a dark place,” like Jeff Wilson. Wilson, an undrafted free agent, who has stuck with the team for four seasons out of North Texas, represents what some might call a thunder change-of-pace runner to the lighter and quicker backs. Now more than ever, his penchant for tenderizing tacklers makes him invaluable.
When you put all of these pieces together, it becomes clear why the offense has been humming as of late. Just getting these playmakers the ball drive after drive will eventually result in good things happening. It’s that simple. Meanwhile, we can all enjoy the clips of defeated defenders littering the field, left in a cloud of dust, as anyone of these players keeps on trucking towards the end zone.