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During previous San Francisco 49ers football seasons, the thought of hope would shrivel up and die before the brain's neurons could even conjure the electricity necessary to think.

The 2018 season had experts and fans sure the 49ers would be at least a .500 team, but those utopian fantasies were built upon an unstable foundation of overhype. In spite of injuries and thin roster depth, the 49ers have had moments that reignited hope in the fan base even with continued struggles to put points on the board, hold the lead or cover even a simple dig route.

Film examination shows there's more to the 49ers than the sum of its failures.

Last Sunday's loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was ugly, but once the dumpster fire cooled, there were handfuls of diamonds sitting among the charred ashes.

3rd Offense: 1st and 10 at the SF 30 (4:55)

Part of the beauty of head coach Kyle Shanahan's offense is its simplicity. Tight end George Kittle gained 12 yards on a play that looks a bit more like a flag football concept than something in a professional playbook.

The under and quick out route combination at the top of the screen was window dressing. What made the play successful was running back Matt Breida's flat route combined with wide receiver Dante Pettis' slant. These routes cleared the middle of the field and allowed Kittle plenty of open space to catch and run with the ball.

The weakside linebacker was in man coverage with Breida and moved to his right at the snap. Kittle, running an under route, created separation with a hard step outside and head fake.

Quarterback Nick Mullens sold the play by immediately looking Breida's way at the snap, and came back to Kittle for an easy throw and a 12-yard gain. It was the second largest gain for the 49ers' offense on its first three possessions.

5th Defense: 3rd and 9 at the TB 39 (6:24)

Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh continues to receive flak for his defense, but it's been held together with chicken wire, balsa wood, and Bubble Yum. Saleh hasn't made excuses and does his best to call an aggressive game with the 11 men he has on the field.

On the Buccaneers' fifth possession, Saleh disguised his secondary in a Cover 2 look. As the Buccaneers set up the formation, defensive back Antone Exum, Jr. crept in from the safety position.

Once Winston had the ball in hand, Exum was at full speed and aiming right at the B-gap. Defensive lineman DeForest Buckner moved down the line of scrimmage to the opposite A-gap, taking the center out of the play. Linebacker Malcolm Smith occupied the guard and linebacker Dekoda Watson looped around the tackle which created a wide-open gap for Exum.

Exum's rush forced quarterback Jameis Winston to hurry his throw. 49ers' linebacker Fred Warner tipped the pass which nearly led to an interception.

Saleh's great awakening came in a Week 8 loss to Arizona. Something or someone was finally able to convince Saleh that sending four defensive linemen to pressure the quarterback wasn't getting the job done.

Indeed, Saleh still falls back on his four-man rush, but he's finally come around to placing his foot on the accelerator with more force. Debate all you'd like about Saleh's scheme, but keep in mind the 49ers rank 10th overall in run defense and 17th overall in pass defense.

7th Offense: 1st and 10 at the SF 21 (14:37)

I have no doubt the play above has complicated verbiage, but it's nearly identical to the lead play my high school football team ran from 1994-1997.

Breida gained 11 yards on the run, with help from the strongside linebacker's over-pursuit. However, that's not what impressed me about the play.

I noted right guard Mike Person made three difficult reach blocks against the Buccaneers. In the play above, the defensive lineman was in a 3-technique, just outside Person's right shoulder. For the run to succeed, Person needed a perfect reach block to seal off the defender.

Person was able to get his hips around the defensive tackle in three quick steps and held his block to keep the running lane open for fullback Kyle Juszczyk's lead block and the ball carrier.

Here's the view Bredia had as he turned upfield. He has four teammates blocking four opponents, making it easy for him to gain 11 yards.

5th Offense: 1st and 10 at the SF 26 (2:01)

I'll cut to the end of the story on the play above. Mullens was sacked for an 11-yard loss. The 49ers couldn't stop an inside exchange and center Weston Richburg and tackle Mike McGlinchey ended up on the ground.

Stay with me because there's a moment of hope in between the red and yellow lines.

Left guard Laken Tomlinson made quite possibly his best pass block as a 49er. First, Tomlinson went inside to chip defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and then moved left to stop the looping nose tackle.

Unfortunately, McCoy got back on his feet, knocking Richburg off balance and who then fell into McGlinchey.

Mullens had no time once McCoy was up and barreling down on him. The receivers running deeper routes were not at the top of the route stems. Kittle was running an out route, but McCoy was too fast and took Mullens to the turf.

Tomlinson's block had an unintended ripple effect on his teammates, but his awareness and quick movement came out of nowhere. The offensive line may be one area the 49ers do not need to worry about going into the offseason, so long as they cut tackle Garry Gilliam.

The struggles for the 49ers on offense and defense are not play calling, but a lack of talent executing the scheme. For each play above, I have plenty of notes and diagrams showing players out of position, missing blocks or drawing a flag for a penalty. A lack of physical execution and mental discipline is not on a coach.

A two-win team is hard to defend, but there is more to the 49ers than the score on the board. It's hard to believe some professional writers and football experts are happy feeding readers bombastic statements about Shanahan but refuse to crunch the tape and offer proof for their opinion.

All photos courtesy of
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference.
  • Bret Rumbeck
  • Written by:
    Bret Rumbeck has been writing about the 49ers since 2017 for 49ers Webzone and 49ers Hub. He is a Turlock, CA native, and has worked for two members of the US House of Representatives and one US Senator. When not breaking down game film, Bret spends his time seeking out various forms of heavy metal. Feel free to follow him or direct inquiries to @brumbeck.