San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan is widely revered as one of the brightest offensive minds in the league, both due to play design and the timing in which he dials up specific looks to break the will of an opposing defense.
I’m going to focus on the latter part of the statement above, highlighting a three-play sequence on the same drive from the 49ers’ week 14 win in Cincinnati last year. These plays are a prime example of how Shanahan methodically sequences his play calls and how a play that might not appear to be significant at the moment is imperative to opening up this offense to its full potential.
On 2nd & 6 from midfield, the 49ers offense is going to line up in 11 personnel, with Brandon Aiyuk as the X, George Kittle as the Y, and Deebo Samuel as the flanker (Z). Jimmy Garoppolo is in the shotgun, with Jeff Wilson Jr. in the backfield to his right.
Pay attention to how Samuel will motion across the formation before the snap, moving from left to right.
Here is a video of the pre-snap motion. Watch as the defense shifts before the ball is snapped after Samuel moves in motion.
The play call here is going to be ‘GY Counter,’ and it’s going to have Laken Tomlinson (G for guard) and George Kittle (the Y) pull to the play side while the rest of the offensive line blocks in the direction of the backside.
Now watch from the end zone angle, and look at the way that Kittle and Tomlinson create a rushing lane for Wilson Jr. to explode through.
The play is successful, picking up nine yards and a first down to move the chains. This is important because now that Cincinnati has seen this look, they are going to be more intent the next time on bringing numbers to the play side to lessen the effectiveness of the pulling guard and tight end.
Two plays later on this very same drive, the 49ers are facing a 1st and 10 from the Bengals’ yard line. This is following a 12-yard run that again moved the sticks for the 49ers via the ground game, and it’s when you can sense that Shanahan smells blood in the water while watching how this Bengals defense is reacting to his run calls.
The 49ers will come out with the same personnel grouping that they did two plays prior when they ran ‘GY Counter,’ but with the formation flipped and a couple of players swapping places.
This time, Wilson Jr. will be lined up as the flanker, swapping places with Samuel, who is in the backfield to the left of Garoppolo.
It will be the same play call, but this time, Wilson Jr. will be the one motioning across the formation pre-snap.
This time the Cincinnati defense adjusts to seeing this call a couple of plays prior. Watch how many Bengals defenders follow the pulling guard and tight end to the play side, taking away the rushing lanes they created the first time this was called on this drive.
Here is the end zone angle. Watch how Von Bell (#24) and John Bachie (#49) cheat a bit to the right to fit the gaps where Kittle and Brunskill are blocking on the play side. As a result, they are able to limit Samuel to a short gain by cutting off the rushing lane that had been open when this same play was called earlier on the drive.
After being gashed on the ground for gains of 9 and 12 on the previous two plays, it appeared that the Bengals made the proper adjustment to take away a concept with which the 49ers were having tremendous success.
The Bengals held Samuel to a two-yard gain and had to feel good about their ability to make what seemed at the time like the correct adjustment on the fly. And that is exactly what Shanahan wanted them to feel like. This is where the brilliance of the 49ers' head coach really comes out.
On the very next play on 2nd & 8 from the 27-yard line, Shanahan will roll out the same personnel grouping as he did on the previous play. He shows an identical look pre-snap, once again having Wilson Jr. motion across the formation just as he did on the previous play.
The difference is that even though Shanahan is showing the exact same pre-snap look and identical motion, the play call will be entirely different.
After running ‘GY Counter’ out of this formation on two previous plays on this drive, Shanahan will dial up ’39 Spring’ this time. Which is going to be a handoff to Samuel on the complete opposite side of the field from where the Bengals defense is expecting the play side to be based on what the 49ers' offense had shown out of this formation on the two plays we just broke down above.
This strings all of this together and makes the connection between all these play calls so important. Shanahan is going to bait the Bengals defense into trying to cheat to the gaps they have grown accustomed to seeing the ball go out of this look they are now seeing for the third time on this drive.
And it worked. Watch how the Bengals' defense shifts before the snap to that field side.
When the frame freezes just before the snap, the Bengals defense only has two defenders outside the far side hash, which is problematic considering that’s exactly where this carry for Samuel is designed to go.
By baiting the Bengals defense to guess to the wrong gaps, Shanahan effectively creates a numbers advantage on the opposite side that gets Samuel a wide-open path upfield.
Watch how these 49ers blockers get in space and can account for every Cincinnati defender obstructing Samuel’s path to the end zone.
Finally, here is Samuel’s touchdown run, with the full play uninterrupted from the All-22 angle so you can see the final piece of this masterpiece in all of its glory.
This kind of play calling got Shanahan the “offensive genius” label he has rightfully earned. Shanahan’s methodical ability to layer and sequence plays as he did on this touchdown drive is truly special. It is a major part of why the 49ers have found themselves playing in the conference title game in two of the last three seasons.
Shanahan will deliberately dial something up to see how an opposing defense will react to a certain motion, route combination, or blocking scheme. He then circles back and exposes the vulnerability he discovers after these calls to break the will of an opposing defense, as you saw with the 27-yard touchdown run by Samuel in Cincinnati.
This is a game of chess being played at the highest level this sport has to offer, and when Shanahan dialed in like he was in Cincinnati, it’s hard to argue there is anyone better with a headset and a play sheet.