Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Film room: A cornucopia of Thanksgiving holiday weekend problems

Nov 28, 2018 at 1:01 PM

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The 49ers dropped yet another game in Tampa Bay 27-9 in a Week 12 match-up where I can only assume the Thanksgiving festivities and tryptophan caught up to them. They certainly played like it in all phases of the game, from offensive turnovers, to big plays given up on defense, to special teams penalties.

Oh, and the team's star linebacker and former first round pick Reuben Foster was cut from the team within 12 hours of being arrested at the team's hotel on allegations of domestic violence, his 2nd such incident in less than a year. It was as the title of this article suggests, a cornucopia of problems. There was enough variety to go around for second and third helpings of issues.

On the day, quarterback Nick Mullens finished 18 of 32 for 221 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions. Receiver Dante Pettis was a prominent feature in the offense since Marquise Goodwin and Pierre Garçon were inactive. Pettis finished with four receptions for 77 yards and a touchdown. George Kittle finished with six receptions for 48 yards. Running back Matt Breida capped off another 100 yard rushing day with 14 carries and 104 rushing yards. He added three receptions for 34 yards in the passing game. Breida is currently ranked second in the league in yards per carry at 5.8.

The offensive leaders were all contributors to the team's only touchdown drive in the game, a drive that lasted 5:42 and went 84 yards in nine plays. It was yet another example of what could be the norm when the team is fully healthy and featuring its offensive weapons next season.


The drive began at the 49ers 21-yard line early in the second quarter after the first three drives ended in a series of mishaps that led to punts. The defense kept the game close enough to that point that the 49ers now had to make something happen. And they finally did. What follows is not every play from the drive but the key plays, which were more than half of that drive anyways.

First Play: 2Q, 1st and 10 at the SF 21, 14:14

The 49ers line up in 11 personnel in a shotgun far doubles formation. Mullens motions Breida (No. 22) out to the left wide outside the numbers. The Buccaneers are in a cover four shell and looking to keep anything from coming across the middle. No problem as Shanahan looks to take advantage of the soft coverage.

The play concept to Mullens' left is what Shanahan calls the "smack Y-gator." Breida is running the "smack" route, a choice route to either run a six-yard stop or curl route or quick out/pivot cut at 10 yards against man coverage. Inside of Breida, Kendrick Bourne is running a seam route that breaks more toward the middle of the field to occupy the safety. Kittle, the inline tight end, is running the "gator" route or "juke" route as it's commonly referred to. On the "gator/juke", Kittle has the option to break inside or outside depending on the coverage of the linebacker. The middle linebacker "walls-off" (turns hips parallel to sideline) the inside with inside leverage.

Mullens tips his hand by looking at Breida just before the snap and confirms the soft coverage over him. Mullens takes the snap and delivers a nice quick throw to the outside shoulder of Breida, allowing him to turn up the sideline and gain a few yards before the defender pushes him out. The 49ers set the tone for themselves and develop a nice rhythm on the opening play of this drive.

Second play: 1st and 10 at the SF 32, 12:54

After Breida picked up a short yardage first down after his previous reception, the 49ers were on the move.

They stay in 11 personnel and keep the ball on the ground to take advantage of an aggressive defense that had been getting up field and into the back field most of the time up that point. The play is a simple jet sweep, what Shanahan calls "fly zap". "Fly zap" reveals several things about the defense to the quarterback and is used to take advantage of an aggressive pursuit.

Kittle starts out on the right and motions over to a wing position on the left, getting the defense to shift into a more favorable front to play the run to the offensive left, and shifting the coverage into a cover three shell from a quarters coverage shell. Kittle begins his fly motion back to the right and takes the handoff from Mullens. He gets out on the edge and turns up field.

The Buccaneers don't initially follow the fly sweep though. Their interior defenders are preoccupied with the zone run action up the middle before they realize Kittle has the ball. McGlinchey blocks down before getting up to the second level but misses middle linebacker Adarius Taylor (No. 53) and Taylor actually limits the gain to 10 yards by forcing Kittle toward the sideline on what could've been a much bigger gain. Nonetheless, the offense gains 10 and moves the sticks.

Third play: 1st and 10 at the SF 42, 12:23

Keeping with the uptempo pace, the 49ers spread the Bucs out in a shotgun empty 3x2 formation.

The play called is a two-read levels concept to the two-receiver side on the right with Kittle out wide running a shallow dig route and Kendrick Bourne in the slot running the deeper dig route. With the Bucs consistently in a two high coverage shell, the 49ers again look to take advantage of the soft coverage on the outside. The corner reads to Kittle's shallow dig and drops off but the zone is open underneath since the defender over Bourne has seam responsibility and plays the "wall" technique.

Kittle cuts across the formation and is open in the middle of the field as Mullens has an easy pitch and catch. Kittle quickly transitions to a runner and gets up field quick to gain 11 before the tackle.

Fourth play: 2nd and 8 at the TB 45, 10:51

After Kittle's reception above got them across mid field and a short gain after that, the 49ers seemed to gain yards in 10-11 yard chunks thanks to the soft zone of the Bucs cover four defense.

On this play, they shifted into a cover one man free shell to try and limit some of the underneath route combinations that Shanahan was using to that point. The play call for the 49ers was an outside zone swing RPO. The play has an outside zone run blocking scheme by the line on the play side to the left while Kittle motions next to Mullens in the F Back position and runs the swing out to the right behind the blocking receivers.

Since the numbers on the swing pass option are less favorable than the zone read portion, the read man becomes linebacker Riley Bullough (No. 49). If he chases down the line, Mullens will keep for a quarterback run. If Bullough stays in the box, then Mullens can give to Breida. In this case, Bullough follows Kittle.

Mullens reads this at the mesh point and gives to Breida. The offensive line opens a small crease and kicks the defenders out. Linebacker Adarius Taylor is left alone in the middle of the field and tries to scrap over the top with action of the zone. This allows the left side of the offensive line to kick the edge of the defensive out, opening the "bend" read for Breida. Breida shows his athleticism and never breaks stride before cutting up into the crease to gain 11.

Fifth play: 1st and 10 at the TB 34, 10:24

Breida gets the offense into the red zone on this play with a 21 yard gain on a toss crack play.

The "toss crack" is an offensive running play that is characterized by a "crackback block" executed by a player split out wide (who motions in) or in tight to the formation who then executes a "crackback" on the edge defender when he turns to follow the play, effectively sealing him off.

Bourne and Kittle crash down and execute the crackback blocks as right tackle Mike McGlinchey (No. 69) and fullback Kyle Juszczyk (No. 44)
get out on the edge to lead block for Breida. The 49ers create a pile of bodies in the middle of the field and Breida follows his blockers who are about to take on the two remaining defenders. They lead Breida up the sideline as he cuts up for more yards. Breida almost escapes the tackle of safety Isaiah Johnson (No. 39) but he is taken out of bounds after a gain of 21.

Sixth play: 2nd and 10 at the TB 13, 8:57

The end to this drive was a touchdown and was their only meaningful scoring drive of the day. They would later add a field goal after what appeared to be two separate instances of Breida and Mullens getting into the end zone but the plays were not signaled as such and upheld during replay.

But for now, to focus on the positive, the game featured the return of Dante Pettis, not to the line up, but to doing something significant and showcasing why he's arguably one of the best route runners in the league. The 49ers are still in 11 personnel, the main personnel grouping on this drive as Mullens motions Breida to the left slot making the formation a "gun empty trey" or a "twins left" in Shanahan terminology.

The Bucs defense is in a cover one shell, confirmed by the motion of Breida to the left slot and the linebacker that moves out over him. The play call is broadly what Shanahan calls the "lookie" as there are multiple variations like "both stick X lookie" or "scat X lookie Asia". A "lookie" route is a quick three-step slant and cut to the inside and this is the route that Pettis is running from the right slot. The coaching point on this is to do anything the receiver can to cross the face of the defender to the inside. If the receiver gets cut off, he's taught to break the route off to the outside.

Mullens has time and waits for Pettis' route to break open and fires a quick pass over the middle to him. The middle of the field is wide open as the safety is too deep and Kittle's defender is parallel to the sideline in a "wall" technique. Safety Isaiah Johnson (No. 39) jumps out toward the hash and never recovers as he has a bad angle to work toward Pettis. Pettis shakes him and walks into the end zone for six.

Speaking of Pettis, the rookie's scouting profile during the draft was that he was quick and explosive off the line. When he's been on the field, we've seen glimpses of this but his production has been limited in an offense without its starting quarterback and he's been hampered by a leg injury off and on this season.

Pettis is the perfect receiver to run this after Kittle because of his elite route running ability. At the snap he gives three quick stutter steps before he cuts inside. He accelerates off the line and sinks his hips, throwing his head and torso toward the defender's outside shoulder like he's going to release up the seam. Instead, once he plants his right foot and gets the defender to turn, he cuts inside across the defender's face on the slant.


The Mullens hype came crashing back down with a less than stellar performance. He was 18 of 32 for 221 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions. He had a lot of off target throws, was under pressure on 16 of 36 dropbacks, was sacked four times, and showed limited pocket mobility.

In the first quarter, running a "Choice Buffalo" concept, as it's called in Shanahan parlance, the 49ers were in an empty backfield. The Bucs have a tackle-end exchange (TEX) stunt called to the offense's right with defensive end Carl Nassib (No. 94) taking his initial rush steps toward left tackle Mike McGlinchey (No. 69) before looping around to the A-gap and forcing Mullens to fumble. Underneath the coverage, Mullens had Breida and Juszcyk open for a quick completion after Mullens' first choice, Pettis, had tripped and fallen on his route. Mullens pulls it down quickly and looks to Breida but never attempts the pass in the time he had. He fumbled but recovered it.

Mullens also had two interceptions but they came late in the game as the 49ers were trying to rally on several third and fourth quarter drives. The first interception, a costly one (the second came late with fewer than three minutes to play and no chance for a comeback), occurred in the end zone and showed where Mullens needs to improve in the coming weeks: throwing with anticipation.

The play call is a "fake 19 wanda", a naked boot pass to the right with a deep comeback from the receiver out to the right and a two level crossing pattern from the wide left receiver and the slot next to him. "19 wanda" is the wide or outside zone run to the left. Mullens boots out to the right after a hard play fake but the receivers are blanketed in man coverage. There is a moment when Mullens should have pulled the trigger to either Trent Taylor (No. 81) on the middle cross by leading him or to Richie James (No. 13) by throwing with some anticipation before James comes out of his break. Instead, he threw the pass into triple coverage to Pettis in the end zone. Pettis had no shot at a jump against three defenders.

For as good as Shanahan is at scheming receivers wide open, it is unrealistic to expect them to be open 100% of the time on every throw. The ability to throw with anticipation into tight windows consistently is what separates the best quarterbacks in the league from everyone else. It's also what separates Jimmy Garoppolo from C.J. Beathard and Mullens too. Mullens and Beathard have shown flashes of being able to hit tight windows, but neither is as consistent with it as Garoppolo is.


Throughout the game, the defense did a good job of keeping it close enough for the offense to remain within striking distance. The defense held the Bucs running backs to 78 yards on the ground. Quarterback Jameis Winston added another 24 yards but they came on scrambles when the defensive coverage on the back end was good enough to cover the Bucs speedy receivers.

The Bucs also did something that virtually no team has done to this point in the season: target Richard Sherman. According to Pro Football Focus' charting, the Bucs targeted Sherman five times, completing all five passes for 113 yards and zero touchdowns. Before this past weekend's game, teams had targeted Sherman 24 times, surrendering 11 receptions for 153 yards and zero touchdowns. The only reason Sherman didn't give up a touchdown is because receiver Mike Evans failed to stay in bounds on a deep throw and catch down the sideline.

The catalyst for the Bucs' first scoring drive was a 42-yard completion to Evans (No. 13). He's lined up one-on-one with Sherman at the bottom of the screen and running a go route down the sideline. In press coverage, Sherman attempts to get a jam on him and forces Evans out to the sideline. The technique isn't very sound as Sherman jams him with two hands, killing his momentum. Sherman is slower than Evans, unable to keep up with him and never recovers. Winston leads Evans up the sideline with a nice throw but Evans misses scoring not because of the throw, but because he couldn't stay in bounds.

In an email to me, former NFL and AFL cornerback Eric Crocker said "I thought him 2 hand pressing hurt him. It's hard to turn and run when you two-hand press and locks your hips, so if you combine that with him already being slower, that's a bad combination."

Sherman gave up another big play that ended up being the catalyst for a scoring drive as he surrendered a 34 yard reception to Evans again.

Evans is one-on-one with Sherman again at the bottom of the screen with Sherman in press coverage again until just before the snap. Sherman begins to bail in an effort to get over the top of any route by Evans, so that if he cuts in or goes down the sideline, he's in position with a head-start. He stays over the top of Evans as he cuts in a dig route toward the middle of the field. As Winston scrambles to find a receiver, Evans plants and cuts back quickly. Sherman's coverage over the top is less than ideal in this situation as he is unable to recover adequately to stick with Evans.

It isn't that Sherman played these plays incorrectly, it's just that Evans is probably one of the most talented receivers Sherman has faced in his career, certainly this season. The Giants two weeks ago rarely lined up Beckham on Sherman because it's far easier to take advantage of Ahkello Witherspoon. This should be troubling for the 49ers going forward if teams start taking shots at Sherman, who's played well, but clearly isn't the pre-injury Sherman.


Against the league's number one passing offense, the 49ers played quite a bit of zone coverage and it bit them several times, leading to either touchdowns or field goals. Against an explosive offense, even limiting it to field goals can be costly and almost seem insurmountable.

Here, the Bucs attempt to find a deep hole in the 49ers zone but they run a play that the 49ers are accustomed to seeing in practice all the time. It's a variant of the "Yankee" concept, what Shanahan calls "heat" or "rider." This variant has DeSean Jackson (No. 11) at the bottom of the screen running the deep route between the hash and numbers, angling toward the post then cutting back toward the corner. Opposite him on the other side of the formation, receiver Chris Godwin (No. 12) is running the deep over route. Winston executes a hard play fake to Jacquizz Rodgers (No. 32), who then runs out to the flat. The 49ers are in a cover three zone with the corners in press bail coverage and running with the receivers on any deep routes.

Linebacker Malcolm Smith (No. 51), replacing the recently released Reuben Foster, comes up for the run fake but sees pass and immediately turns his back and vacates the shallow middle and runs down the seam instead to his zone. He's likely thinking there's going to be a crosser coming from the left of the Bucs formation but the deep yankee route cuts back the opposite way and no one runs anywhere near his zone. Winston, seeing there's no one open, takes off and scrambles for 15 yards before Fred Warner's (No. 48) tackle.

And finally, it wouldn't be a full defensive effort without a little miscommunication sprinkled in.

The Bucs line up in a shotgun trips right formation with a route combination designed to stretch the cover three defense of the 49ers. The outside receiver Evans is running a curl, the middle slot receiver, Adam Humphries (No. 10), is running a deeper dig route, and Jackson is running a deep crossing route. Winston scrambles to find a receiver and the lapse in coverage begins. The secondary coverage remains firm, but the middle hook zones occupied by Warner and Elijah Lee (No. 47), both funnel across the field with tight end Cameron Brate (No. 84).

Instead of bailing toward the sideline with Winston, Humphries smartly leaks across to the vacated zone in the middle of the field as Lee follows Brate. Winston throws back across the field to a wide open Humphries and the secondary converges but fails to bring him down. The more troubling aspect of this play, aside from the touchdown, is that all six of the surrounding defenders failed to tackle him.

At this point in the season, as I keep saying lately, there are good and bad things to take away every week despite losing. It's clear the defense needs to find ways to prevent the big plays and for most of the game, do a decent job of it. It's just unfortunate in this game that the offense outside of one drive couldn't find more ways to get in the end zone. Nothing will get easier with the Seahawks, Broncos, Bears in the next four games but it could also be a good test for a young team to find ways to improve.

All gifs and images courtesy of the NFL.

All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless otherwise stated.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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