sharesShare this on Facebook Share this on Twitter Share this on Google+ Share this on Tumblr Flip into Flipboard Share this on Reddit Share via SMS Share via Email
The 49ers' newly acquired head coach Kyle Shanahan brings with him an explosive offense that ranked 7th all-time in points per game (tying the 2000 St. Louis Rams "Greatest Show on Turf"). Under my personal favorite metric, Football Outsiders DVOA, the 2016 Falcons offense ranked first overall by a wide margin. DVOA measures efficiency on a per-play basis and the Falcons ranked first in the passing game and seventh in the running game.
In a couple of other recent breakdowns for Fansided's Niner Noise, I've examined various aspects of the passing and the running games. Today and in a later post, we'll look at how Kyle Shanahan uses the running game to set up play-action passes. The Falcons were no strangers to big plays, ranking 2nd in the NFL in pass plays over 25 yards and 6th overall with the combined run and pass (big plays in the run game are runs that go for 10+ yards).
In 2017, the 49ers will predominantly be an outside zone running team, and many of the recent hires would suggest as much. First, Kyle Shanahan was undoubtedly influenced by his dad Mike Shahanan, who primarily ran the outside zone with the Broncos in the late 1990s and 2000s. The father of the modern day zone running game is Alex Gibbs, who I covered at length in an earlier post linked above. He is primarily an outside zone running game expert and was crucial to the success of the Broncos two Super Bowl championship teams. Second, the 49ers hired running backs coach Bobby Turner, who also coached under Mike Shanahan and Alex Gibbs in Denver. And lastly, the 49ers hired John Benton, who worked with Kyle Shanahan in Houston under Gary Kubiak, who also coached under Mike Shanahan in Denver. So the roots are plentiful.
Now that I've established the Shanahan coaching tree, let's get into some film.
The one coach we're going to focus on here is Alex Gibbs, who is widely considered the father of the modern day version of the zone running game. I've covered the inside and outside zone runs under Chip Kelly, but whereas the inside zone was the staple running play of the Chip Kelly offense, the outside zone — or wide zone — is the base running play of Shanahan's offense.
While the inside zone seeks to push a defense vertically, the outside zone seeks to move a defense laterally and pin them to the inside. To accomplish this, the linemen will use a blocking technique known as the "rip and run" to either pin defenders inside (rip) or, if they have not reached their defender by the third step, seek to run the defender to the sideline (run). At the snap, the telltale sign of an outside zone run is the kick step to the sideline the offensive line takes.
It's here where Gibbs makes perhaps his most important coaching points: by the running back's third step, he should be making his determination on where to cut up field based on where the offensive line is holding its blocks.
Gibbs notes that:
On the third step, the running back is either going downhill or taking the ball outside. The reason the decision is made on the third step is the timing of the blocks within the offensive line. On the third step, the offensive linemen make their push on the defenders. The push of the offensive line and the cut of the back must coincide. The back does not know where the cut will be until he gets his third step on the ground. He makes his decision on that step and commits to it. Whatever decision he makes, he lives with it. He does not dodge defenders or double cut with the ball. He takes what the picture says and gets the ball upfield and outside right away.
The running back has a three-cut responsibility dictated by the movement of the offensive line. Gibbs stresses that this isn't a cutback, but rather a 1-cut and get up-field decision by the running back. The blocking and movement of the defense creates three reads for the running back: bounce, bang, bend. This is based on reading the two defenders on the end of the line of scrimmage to the play side. The landmark to make the read is butt of the tight end:
If there is no tight end, the running back will use the ghost alignment of where the tight end would be as his landmark. Once the back gets to this landmark, he will read the end man on the line of scrimmage (EMLOS). If EMLOS No. 1 is hooked, the running back will "bounce" outside toward the sideline. If EMLOS No. 1 is outside of the landmark and No. 2 is sealed, he will "bang" between Nos. 1 and 2. If Nos. 1 and 2 are both outside the landmark, then the running back will "bend" it back inside No. 2.
Against the Raiders in week two, the Falcons here are in 21 personnel (two RBs, one TEs, two WRs) in their pre-snap alignment with the strong side of the formation set to the right and the tight end in a wing aligment (important for later). At the snap (above pic), Falcons running back Devonta Freeman takes the handoff and by his third step, he already knows where he's going. The no. 1 EMLOS is outside the landmark and No. 2 is sealed to the inside.
After that third step, Gibbs says this is where the running back will begin to act on his read so that on those fourth and fifth steps, he makes that cut. In this case, with the defenders sealed inside, Freeman "bangs" up the middle for a four-yard gain. You can see by the time Freeman gets to his third step, the cut lane is dictated for him.
The next two gifs show the "bounce" and "bend" reads. Pay particular attention to the Nos. 1 and 2 defenders on the end of the line of scrimmage, which way they pursue, and where the running back makes his cut.
OUTSIDE ZONE PLAY-ACTION BOOT
All play-action bootlegs are built around the same principals and are designed to achieve the same goals. Play-action bootleg plays utilize misdirection to confuse defenders, particularly the front seven. They look like running plays, slowing the pass rush and drawing the linebackers close to the line of scrimmage to open passing lanes. The run-action also slows the pass rush, and the movement of the quarterback forces defensive linemen to change their pass-rush angle. Finally, play-action bootlegs usually flood one side of the field with receivers while putting the quarterback in position to execute short, easy throws.
All successful play-action passes are built from running plays and Shanahan will use the outside zone to build his play-action passing game. Later against the Raiders, the Falcons come out in 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, 2 receivers) with the tight ends again in a wing alignment. The offensive line still technically blocks like they would on the zone run, being careful not to get too far ahead of the line of scrimmage for risk of drawing an illegal man downfield penalty.
Shanahan runs the boot-action with 3 levels in the passing progression. The tight end coming across the formation away from the boot leaks into the flat immediately. The play side tight end crashes down and angles out above the #1 to a depth of about 5-6 yards. The third receiver in the progression runs the deep crossing route at a depth of about 10-12 yards, mainly to occupy the safeties. The clearing route, either a streak or a corner route, is the last progression and is basically there to run off the safety.
In the above image, the play starts off looking like the outside zone with the offensive line taking their zone steps and the quarterback selling the hard fake to the running back. The receivers all sell their blocking assignments before crossing the field in the opposite direction.
On this play, the safe play is the first tight end in the shallow flat since the outside linebacker pursues the quarterback, leaving the flat wide open for an easy completion. Quarterback Matt Ryan flips it over the defender and the tight end takes it for a 16-yard gain down the sideline.
OUTSIDE ZONE BOOT U-WHEEL
The final play in this set is what is generally know as the outside zone boot play-action with a wheel route on the backside. The play follows a similar pattern as the outside zone and the boot play-action.
The play begins by looking like the outside zone with the quarterback faking to the running back before booting out the opposite way like the regular bootleg play covered earlier. The backside tight end runs the crossing route between 5-8 yards while the backside receiver runs the deep post route. The concept is designed to pull the coverage to the roll-out side of the play while the strong side tight end blocks down before releasing down the field in the opposite direction on the wheel route.
All-22 end zone view
In the next installment of this two part series, we'll look at a different variation of the play-action Shanahan will likely use with the 49ers that will help you identify it when you see it on Sundays. Feel free to let me know if I have missed anything or got anything wrong with the descriptions and leave any comments or questions on here or on Twitter @rjmadrid.
All gifs and images courtesy of nfl.com.
All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless otherwise indicated.