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Film room: Dante Pettis’ rookie season part 1 - Man coverage versus zone coverage

Mar 11, 2019 at 11:57 AM

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In this two-part series, we'll look at Dante Pettis' rookie season and why he's going to be an effective receiver for years to come in Kyle Shanahan's offense. Part one looks at his skill set against man coverage and zone coverage. Part two will look at the rest of the route tree as well as usage in the red zone, the open field, and where he'll need to improve. In both articles, we'll compare his college film to his pro film to see if anything translated to the NFL and how.

Dante Pettis was selected by the 49ers in the second round of the 2018 NFL draft, 44th overall, out of the University of Washington. In four seasons with the Huskies, he totalled 2256 receiving yards and 24 touchdowns. He is currently the all-time punt return touchdown leader in the FBS with nine touchdowns. In his rookie season with the 49ers, he had 27 receptions for 467 yards and five touchdowns.

Games Receiving Rushing Total Yds
Year Age Tm Pos No. G GS Tgt Rec Yds Y/R TD Lng R/G Y/G Ctch% Rush Yds TD Lng Y/A Y/G A/G Touch Y/Tch YScm RRTD Fmb AV
2018 23 SFO wr 18 12 7 45 27 467 17.3 5 75 2.3 38.9 60.00% 1 -2 0 -2 -2 -0.2 0.1 28 16.6 465 5 2 3
Career 12 7 45 27 467 17.3 5 75 2.3 38.9 1 -2 0 -2 -2 -0.2 0.1 28 16.6 465 5 2 3
Source: Pro Football Reference

He missed four games due to a knee injury this season and that explains the low production. From Weeks 3-9, he had one target in four games. His usage saw an uptick when receiver Pierre Garçon was placed on injured reserve during Week 11. In Week 11 against the Giants, the broadcast showed head coach Kyle Shanahan visibly upset with the rookie receiver after he failed to get up field on a screen pass.

In Week 12 prior to the game in Tampa Bay, Pettis had a one-sided chat with Shanahan where Shanahan told him point blank that he expected more out Pettis.

"Yeah, he challenges me all the time. Every single play, I know that he expects more out of me. We've had a few talks about what he expects, so I guess you could say that kind of sparked something. It's nothing different than what I expect from myself, but when the head coach kind of calls you out, then it's like, 'OK, I guess I got to really get going.' "

The talent was always there. It's possible that Pettis was still trying to figure out his role in the offense, and so were the 49ers. Coming out of college though, the skillset was clear. A sharp, crisp route runner who could separate against man coverage and run any route on the route tree from the slot or out wide. He was also a deadly red zone target despite his height and size.

Other scouting profiles weren't as glowing. One called him a day three draft pick. One called him the 14th best receiver in the 2018 draft class. Another said at best he'd provide good depth to the wide receiver group because he's too "passive" and "struggles to get separation." Still others said he lacked physical ability about 10 different ways, because of course, that's what fan blogs do.

It becomes increasingly clear though, that his rookie tape mirrored his college tape in a number of ways and his skill set translated perfect from Washington to San Francisco.

Right away he began carving up defenses in his first NFL preseason game.

His skill set translates perfectly to what Shanahan is doing on offense. In the rest of this article, we'll look at his senior season of college tape and compare it to his rookie season and show how he fits in with the overall game plan. In particular, we'll look at how he separates against man coverage and how he gets open against zone coverage.

Against press or man coverage in college, Pettis excelled at separating because he has incredibly advanced and nuanced footwork and is an explosive athlete at the snap, utilizing his head and shoulders as weapons in selling the route. These traits combined to give him a great release off the line of scrimmage where defenders are rarely able to jam him or disrupt the timing of his routes.

How Pettis separates against man coverage: Footwork

First we'll look at his footwork.

His college tape is full of incredible plays that show off his footwork. On this play above in a game against Cal in 2016, Pettis shows why his footwork is elite. At the bottom of the screen, Pettis has a defender in press man coverage. At the snap, he utilizes a "4-step" technique that doesn't allow the defender to get a hand on him as he releases.

His release technique here is also effective at preventing the defender from reacting quick enough to get a jam on him. Instead, Pettis pulls his inside arm away from the defender, who's caught inside, and Pettis releases up the sideline. Pettis' only recorded 40-yard dash time is 4.48, a time he posted while recovering from an ankle injury prior to the 2018 draft. But he clearly has the speed to prevent the defender here from catching him on the sideline fade.

Against Utah here in the clip above, Pettis shows off another tool in his technique arsenal. He's running a quick slant over the middle against press coverage. To get the defender to commit to an outside release up the sideline, Pettis utilizes what's known as a "dead leg" technique (credit to Brad Kelly) where he uses a one-step jab to the outside while dragging his trail leg where he eventually wants to cut.

The release sells the opposite stem and gets the defender to turn his hips and shoulders just enough for Pettis to get a clean release. The defender is unable to get a jam on him as he gives a slight lean back and swipes through the contact.

The quickness off the line with his footwork was vital to his ability to perform in the 49ers offense when he was healthy. In Week 2 against the Lions, an ability to get off the line quickly against press coverage can mean the difference between a throw being on time and a quarterback being sacked.

The 49ers are running the sail concept or "bingo chase" in Shanahan terminology. Pettis is running the deep out or "chase" route from the slot position. Pettis begins his motion by extending a step to the left to get the defender to commit to an outside stem route. The widened base gets the defender to turn just enough to the outside before Pettis' next step allows him to cut inside. The quickness to execute this stutter step allows him to stay clean in his release.

The defender recovers but not until Pettis hits the top of his route and breaks out to the sideline. Pettis still gets separation because of the look back to the quarterback, which also gets the defender to turn and look for the ball. By the time the defender sees the ball hasn't been thrown, Pettis has already broken off to the out route, catches the pass in stride, and goes for a 35 yard gain.

Against Tampa Bay later in the season, Pettis began to emerge as the primary receiver threat due to injuries to Pierre Garçon and the non-football related absence of Marquise Goodwin. Here, the 49ers are running "choice basic", which is a variant of the mesh concept. Pettis is the receiver to the bottom of the formation (route in yellow) and is running an underneath shallow cross.

Pettis sells the "go" route with a hard jab step and dead-leg simulating an outside release. This gets the defender to commit to an outside stem route when the defender turns hips thinking Pettis is running that way. Instead, Pettis' quick footwork allows him to slip inside the defender a bit easier on the shallow cross. The defender also can't jam Pettis from this position either as Pettis gives a subtle lean back, keeping his upper body clean and free of contact.

Unfortunately the pass from quarterback Nick Mullens is off target and out of reach of Pettis' leap but could've been a nice drive-extending gain.

How Pettis separates against man coverage: Head/shoulder movement

Footwork is important in the release process against man coverage because of the body movement it creates. Defenders aren't looking at the feet, they're looking at the torso for clues as to what a receiver might do and they have to commit to a split second decision as a result. Adding to the footwork, head and shoulder movement can create hesitation by the defender even more so than a quick jab step.

Head and shoulder movement really help to sell the route and good movement of the torso will follow a good jab step and really put a defender in conflict. Pettis possesses these traits and combines them with his footwork to create separation.

This isn't a trait he developed in his rookie year either. Against Rutgers here, Pettis generates separation by throwing his head and shoulders into the outside step, throwing the defender off balance. The defender grabs Pettis to disrupt the route but Pettis fights through the contact to get up field and cut out. His athleticism allows him to go up and high point the ball and shielding himself from contact.

Against Tampa Bay (credit to Ted Nguyen of The Athletic for the find), Pettis' quickness off the line of scrimmage with his footwork and torso movement show why he was drafted so high. Running the "lock" route or deep curl, Pettis throws his full torso to the outside to get the defender to commit. As soon as the defender gets outside leverage, Pettis cuts up and inside. The defender recovers (it's the NFL after all) but the damage is done.

Pettis sells the go-route with what's known as a "stack" technique where he puts the defender directly behind him for about two steps, enough to get the defender to commit to a deep seam route. The defender gets crossed up when Pettis curls his route. His hip sink and his ability to stop on a dime are elite here. It's so quick that the defender trips and falls due to the movement. Unfortunately Mullens was sacked.

Pettis can also run routes from the inside slot with same precision and decisiveness. Against arguably one of the best cornerbacks in the league, Xavier Rhodes (No. 29), Pettis easily got open utilizing his head and shoulders in his initial stem.

On his stutter release, Pettis threw his shoulder into his last outside step of the stutter move and put Rhodes on skates. The outside move turns Rhodes' hips in a man-turn to the outside before Pettis plants and cuts underneath. Rhodes eventually recovers due to a wild pass from Garoppolo that was over the reach of Pettis and into the arms of Rhodes.

Against Tampa Bay, the 49ers are 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 "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 is taught to break the route off to the outside.

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 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.

Pettis against off coverage

In college, Pettis didn't just excel at creating separation and beating man coverage. He also did it against zone coverages as well, primarily with the use of speed to eat up cushions and utilizing techniques like the "stack" and "stem".

One of the concerns about Pettis coming out of college was that his production came largely against lesser talent and evaluators questioned whether or not he could do it week after week against NFL-caliber talent. While valid, the concern was overblown. It's not a matter of just simply beating lesser talent. Technical competence matters as well and when looking at college prospects, it's much more important to focus on technique and skill set to see how it will translate to the NFL.

On this play against Oregon State in 2017, Pettis is running a go-route down the numbers. With a defender playing off-coverage, Pettis releases down field and "stems" the defender, meaning he squares him up while running to take away the defender's leverage. Once he has the defender's hips square to him, he gives a sharp jab step and head fake outside before cutting inside and up the field.

He then "stacks" the defender by placing the defender directly behind him in a trail position, giving the quarterback an easier throw. Quarterback Jake Browning is able to throw the ball out ahead of Pettis as he runs under it and catches a long touchdown pass. This translated well to the NFL.

Against Tampa Bay in this clip, Pettis is running the dagger route from the X receiver position. At the snap, he eats the cushion of the defender by "stemming" him so that he's square to the defender, who then has to square hips to the receiver. This makes it easier for Pettis as he rounds off the route under the defender who turned his hips up field to run with a deep route.

As the defender widens, Pettis is already cutting across the field where Mullens finds him for an easy wide open completion.

Pettis does the same thing here against Seattle. Running a deep curl route off of a play action pass, Pettis grabs an easy completion. The defender bails before the snap, indicating to Pettis that he needs to run the deep curl route.

He has the option of going deep against press coverage but since the defender drops, Pettis runs the next route in the progression.

This is equally true of his skill set inside the red zone.

This clip from his senior year showcases that ability. Against Oregon State, the Huskies are inside the red zone at the 15 yard line and Pettis is out wide to the left running a post route. Space is limited inside the red zone so he cannot afford to drag out any kind of move that's going to require time to get open. Instead, he uses his speed to stem the defender who had inside leverage over him.

Pettis eats the cushion and gives what's know as the rocker-step technique where he plants his foot and gives an exaggerated head nod to turn the defender that direction before cutting back the opposite way. Pettis catches the pass for six.

Against Seattle in Week 13, Pettis' long touchdown reception came on a post route over the middle. Pettis described it in the post-game press conference:

"Right away when we lined up, I noticed the safety was down on the other side and normally I'm supposed to take a sharper angle and I saw that there was no safety in the middle of the field so I kind of took it higher and hope that Nick (Mullens) saw that too and he did and he hit me in stride and it was a good throw by him too."

The safety Pettis is talking about is Bradley McDougald, the free safety on the opposite hash. McDougald appears to be cheating over to the strong side of the formation. The Seahawks are in a cover 3 "buzz" after the snap but McDougald steps toward the line of scrimmage on the play action fake, creating a bigger void in the middle of the field.

As in the above quote by Pettis, you can see that he sees this and takes a sharper angle on the post route since there is no safety in the middle of the field and the corner is slightly over the top of his route. Mullens hits him in stride for the long touchdown reception.

In part two of this series, we'll look at some other aspects of Pettis' skill set such as on out-breaking routes and look at his separation ability inside the red zone to create space in compact areas as well as his ability to get open on a scramble drill and running in the open field.

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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