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One 49ers’ strategy that’s rooted in decades-old stat, according to Kyle Shanahan

Marc Adams
Nov 18, 2023 at 10:54 AM--

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After losing three straight games, the San Francisco 49ers got back on track and beat the Jacksonville Jaguars handily last week, winning 34-3. In the game, there were a couple of big turning points, right before...and right after halftime.

With just over four minutes left in the first half, and the 49ers leading 10-3, Kyle Shanahan's team got the ball back. They went on an 11-play, 61-yard drive to kick a field goal right before halftime. Then only two plays into the third quarter, Brock Purdy hit George Kittle for a 66-yard touchdown pass. The score put the 49ers up 20-3. And San Francisco never looked back.

This is known as "lapping" your opponent. It's when you score right before halftime, then come out at the start of the second half and score again. It's a great advantage for the team that can pull it off, and Shanahan places a lot of emphasis on being the last team to touch the ball in the first half.

Shanahan spoke with Greg Papa on this week's episode of "49ers Game Plan," and revealed his thinking behind trying to lap the other team, or at least be the last team with the ball going into halftime, as well as why it's become so important for the 49ers.

"We ended with one more possession than them in the game; I think we had nine, I think they had eight," Shanahan said. "It's usually that way or dead even. That happened because we scored with no time left in the second quarter, and then right when we got back, we got the touchdown. It's a 7-3 game with four minutes in the second quarter, and you go on a four-minute drive, you get to kill that clock, you kick a field goal, three of them to finish the second quarter.

"We take about 20 minutes off, come back out, and their offense hasn't touched the field for about an hour now. And last time they were out there, they were down four, now they're down ten, so it's a completely different it's a huge difference. They're going in there thinking it's a tight game at halftime, then when you get the ball back next time, it's two scores. When you do that, usually good things happen."

It was actually not as close as Shanahan first recalled. With the 49ers' touchdown after the half, the Jaguars got the ball back down by 17. But it makes Shanahan's point all the more. Jacksonville's offense scored to move to within four points. The next time they touched the ball, about an hour later, they were down 17.

Papa asked Shanahan about the statistics of lapping a team, and being on the positive side regarding the number of possessions, rather than on the negative side. Shanahan's response signaled the importance of lapping your opponent, and why the 49ers are intent on doing it.

"It's one I've heard for a long time, used to always hear it as a coordinator, never really followed it, started doing it our third year here," Shanahan said. "There's a huge stat over the last 40 years that the team who finishes with the ball at the end of the second quarter or if they score at the end of the second quarter, their winning percentage in that game over these last 30 years just right below turnovers. I think blocked punts is bigger. So it's one of the top stats in the league for winning. It doesn't completely make sense. That's why I ignored it for so long."

Shanahan even went as far as to suggest that you don't really even have to score, you just have to possess the ball and keep the other team from scoring before halftime. Of course, being able to score before and after the half is a much greater advantage.

"As long as they don't get an opportunity to do it," Shanahan explained. "That clock runs out. If you score, obviously much better, and that percentage goes up. But just finishing with the football, that stat is like that. I had the same facial expression as you for a while. We spent a lot of time looking into it, and it was all accurate. 2019 was the first year I really tried it. I thought our defense was going to be pretty unbelievable that year, and we were going to take that in and commit to it. If you watch how that year went, it went that way the whole year. We were so successful with it, the stats were even better than what I imagined, and we've always stuck with that."

During the 2019 season, of which Shanahan spoke, the 49ers held the ball before halftime an incredible 12 times (including the postseason). They won all but two of those games. Of the two losses, one was on the road in rainy Baltimore. The other? Super Bowl LIV.

So far this season, Shanahan's team has held the ball last (in the first half) eight times. They are 5-3 in those games. The 49ers have lapped their opponents twice and are 2-0 in the two games.

Pittsburgh Steelers (won)
Jacksonville Jaguars (won)

Had the ball at the end of the first half
Los Angeles Rams (won)
New York Giants (won)
Arizona Cardinals (won)
Cleveland Browns (lost)
Minnesota Vikings (lost)
Cincinnati Bengals (lost)

The analytics have spoken, and Shanahan seems convinced. And with the results the 49ers have had, who could argue with him?

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