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Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Film room: Dante Pettis’ rookie season review part 2 - Out-breaking routes, red zone, open field, and where he can improve

Mar 12, 2019 at 10:08 AM

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This is part two in a two-part series looking at Dante Pettis' rookie season. The first one can be found here.

In the previous article, I showed how Pettis is effective at getting open and creating separation against man and zone coverage, the variety of routes he can run against those coverages, and how he creates separation on each one. Today, we look at other aspects of his game, specifically how he creates separation on out-breaking routes, how he can be used as a red zone target, his open field runner ability, and where he can improve.

In both articles, I wanted to give readers a glimpse into his college tape, show how he developed his craft as a receiver, and show how it translated to the NFL in his rookie season. I'll do the same here: preface each section with some of his college tape and show how he carried it over.

Out-breaking routes

Pettis can run the entire route tree with ease, and is probably the 49ers best receiver in that regard. In the last article, I showed a variety of routes he can run like the inside slant, the deep post, the deep curl, and host of other routes in Kyle Shanahan's playbook, and the nuance he brings to each type of route.

One that I saved for this article in particular is the out-breaking route, commonly known as the deep out route. A good example of this comes from the 2017 game against Oregon in his senior year at Washington.

Pettis is the middle slot receiver out of a trips formation to the right, running a deep out route. This particular play is a good example of how a receiver "stems" a defender by angling his initial route stem at the defender to get him to square his hips, preventing him from being able to anticipate which direction the receiver is going to cut. Pettis holds the defender with his eyes as well, never giving any indication which direction he will go.

Once Pettis eats the cushion, the defender must decide what he is going to do. At this point in the stem, Pettis gives a quick jab step toward the post to get the defender to open to the inside. Once the defender commits, Pettis cuts out and works back toward the line of scrimmage to shield the ball from any defender over the top trying to make a play.

Fast forward to week one of the NFL season with the 49ers at the Vikings and Pettis working as the middle slot receiver here against nickel corner Mike Hughes (No. 21).

From the start of pre-season, his versatility running the route tree was evident, so much so that by week one against Minnesota, Pettis made several big plays to give his team a chance in that game. Late in the game in the 4th quarter with the 49ers needing to score down 24-13, Pettis made another huge play for his offense after getting them on the board with a late 3rd quarter touchdown.

Working in the slot against Hughes in man coverage, Pettis is running a deep out route. Hughes has slight inside leverage on Pettis but is turned and positioned ready to break on anything that goes out, almost as if he's daring Pettis to run an out route he can jump. Pettis is too skilled to let that happen though. It's also an indication that he's in man coverage as he's not even looking in at the quarterback. As he did so often in college and last season, Pettis created separation against a defender and secured a huge gain on a scoring drive.

With Hughes having taken away an in-breaking route, Pettis knows that the only way to get separation is to "stem" the defender here to slow Hughes' reaction time enough to get open. Pettis angles right at him, chops his steps and throws his head to the inside as he eats the cushion. Hughes is slightly turned out toward the sideline but ends up taking an inside step to the middle of the field as Pettis shakes him.

That step throws off the defender's reaction and Pettis breaks out on him where Garoppolo hits him in stride. Pettis turns and gets up field for 39 yards into Minnesota territory. Unfortunately, they settled for a field goal after Garoppolo missed tight end George Kittle twice wide open in the end zone.

Pettis was also able to separate against a more press coverage look in Denver's hybrid cover-2/quarter's coverage shell.

Pettis motions to the formation from a position outside the numbers and lines up off the line in a bunch stack with receiver Marquise Goodwin. The pair are running a high-low read on the right side with Pettis running the "flag" route or deep corner and Goodwin running a "drag china". The Broncos are in a cover 2-man shell on that side of the formation with the corner and nickel defender in man coverage and safety over the top.

Pettis and Goodwin "switch release" at the snap so the defenders "banjo" their coverage, meaning they switch responsibilities when the outside receiver cuts in and the inside receiver cuts out. Pettis angles in and up on his stem against the defender, getting the defender to play more inside. With the defender in trail, Pettis "stacks" him with an inside move to the post before cutting out on the "flag" route and catching a well-timed pass from Mullens.

As a red zone target

Last season Pettis also showed how he can be an effective red zone target. I've shown an earlier example of how Pettis wins with separation against man coverage on an inside slant inside the red zone. Now we can see how he does it at the goal line as a fade option.

The end zone fade is a low percentage throw and not one that you want a quarterback to consistently throw. In fact, it's best to avoid it all together as the above-referenced article from Pro Football Focus shows that it has the lowest expected total points of any type of throw. Having a receiver like Pettis in that situation might be more advantageous to the average NFL offense however.

In college, Pettis was able to be the guy who could get separation and score from the goaline and it's primarily due to his ability to understand spatial relationships and defender leverage. In this play from a game against Oregon State, Pettis shows why he can be a consistent red zone threat.

The defender has press coverage with an inside shade against Pettis and he still gets the defender to take that inside step toward the middle of the field with a quick jab step and head fake toward the middle. He creates a "half-man" relationship by getting hip to hip with the defender, negating anything the defender can do to out-leverage the receiver.
The defender tries to lock Pettis up as he cuts out toward the pylon and fights through contact as he swipes away the defender's jam. He gets outside and is able to high point the ball for a touchdown catch.

Against Rutgers in this cut-up, Pettis again wins the half-man relationship. The inside move with the head and shoulders gets the defender to widen to the inside before Pettis cuts back out to the corner. He fights through contact again and holds off the defender with a stiff-arm that keeps his upper body clear of contact by the cornerback. He's only able to get one hand on the pass over his outside shoulder and displays great concentration in doing so even though he was ruled out of bounds before he completed the process of the catch.

During his rookie season, he had a chance to showcase this goal line ability against Denver for a late first half touchdown.

Working against Broncos corner Isaac Yiadom (No. 41) at the goal line, Pettis easily grabs a touchdown from Mullens. On the previous play, Pettis tried to run a quick slant to the goal line against Yiadom but slipped and fell. On the next play, Yiadom jumped inside as Pettis initiated his release with a quick jab that direction again. Yiadom likely wanted to beat him to the slant. It didn't matter.

Pettis quickly cut back outside to the pylon and created separation and room for Mullens to float the pass out to him for a quick touchdown.

Scramble drill

Before last year's draft, The Athletic's Ted Nguyen sat down with Pettis to break down some of his favorite highlights and provided unique insight into his decision-making process when he's running routes. One highlight was from a scramble drill where Pettis described the process for when his quarterback breaks the pocket and has to scramble.

Pettis is running a quick slant that requires a quarterback to throw at the top of his 3-step drop. Quarterback Jake Browning pulled the ball down before he threw due to a defender being in the throwing lane. At that point, the quarterback must either throw the ball away or quickly break the pocket.

Pettis saw that the ball had not been thrown when he was expecting it and he immediately and instinctively cut up field away from the defender and back out toward the sideline.

He described his process in the second hyperlink above:

"Once I saw him scramble, I just worked our scramble move we're always taught to take our DB up, go up five yards and if there's anyone over the top of us, break it down and come back to the quarterback, if not we're just going to keep going. There was no one over the top but it would've been a crazy throw him, it would've been 50 yards on the run, so I just broke it off to the sideline and made it an easier throw for him."

Against Minnesota in week one, Pettis caught the 49ers' only touchdown of the game on a scramble drill and pass from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

Garoppolo drops back and stands in the pocket waiting for Pettis' deep dig route over the middle to come open but as he looks to throw, the backside safety cuts off the throwing lane to Pettis and he's flushed out of the pocket. Pettis sees that the pass hasn't been thrown so he gives a quick look up field, sees no one immediately over the top of him, and sprints to the only open area of the field, the end zone, as Garoppolo rolls out to his left.

Garoppolo escapes the pocket and launches a pass off-balance to the back of the end zone as Pettis races to get there. The pass is placed perfectly over the head of Pettis and away from the defenders closing ground. Pettis catches it at the back of the end line and keeps his feet in bounds for a touchdown.

Open field ability

It's not just Pettis' ability to get open at the snap that makes him an effective weapon heading into next season. What he does in the open field after the catch can be just as dangerous for an opposing offense to deal with.

Against Seattle in week 13, Pettis scored on a short route inside the red zone. The play call is "2 Scat Z Spot Lion" with Pettis motioning over to the right side of the offensive formation and running an "arrow" route underneath a deeper seam route. The pass concept is designed to get the arrow route open by vertically and horizontally stretching that side of the defense with the seam and flat routes.

Pettis finds the opening in the zone, catches the pass and immediately turns and transitions to a runner. As he turns up field, he stiff arms corner Shaquill Griffin (No. 26) and runs around the block of fullback Kyle Juszczyk before sprinting into the end zone.

Pettis stiff-armed another Seahawks defender a couple of weeks later in week 15 as he caught a pass and turned up field. Pettis is running a "locker" route (deep in route over the middle) and catches the pass. As he turns, he gives safety Tedric Thompson the business by using a stiff-arm to shove him into the ground as he's running to get up field.

Where he needs to improve

For all his strengths, Pettis does have a couple of areas he needs to work on to elevate his game to the next level and it will come with experience more than anything as the issues aren't skills that he lacks.

Playbook depth of knowledge

Shanahan's playbook isn't an easy one for a player to pick up and know the nuances of every route to run against a particular coverage. Often times the routes have designated dotted lines of where the receiver should run against a particular coverage and it can be a lot to take in before your first game as a rookie.

Pettis is running a "basic" route in Shanahan nomenclature, which is really just a deep in or deep dig route. The play is a flat-7 combo to the right and a levels concept to the left. Pettis cuts in and reads the defender incorrectly, sitting in the zone he thinks will open but the defender drops into the passing lane. Garoppolo throws it to where he thinks Pettis should be because he should've taken his route across the field.


Against Tampa Bay, Pettis slowed on a route that he needed to be running at full speed to have any chance at making a play on the ball. The pass wasn't perfect but Pettis made little effort, probably because he thought he wasn't getting the ball, which is breaking a cardinal rule of being wide receiver.

The play call is "Fake 19 Wanda", the standard naked bootleg in Shanahan's offense. Mullens boots out to the right with Pettis running the backside deep over route to the end zone. Pettis slows down significantly when he sees he's not getting the pass as Mullens forces the pass into triple coverage. Had Pettis kept running, he could have been in position to make a play on the pass or to at least prevent the defender from making the interception.


The last area where Pettis needs to take the next step is developing the situational awareness of where he is in relation to the sticks for a first down.

On several plays this season, seen in the cut up above, Pettis failed to get up field and secure a first down despite being in position to do so and chose instead to try and make defenders miss. This was a talking point that Shanahan stressed to him after the Giants game, where he was seen scolding Pettis on the sideline after failing numerous times to catch and get up field.

Luckily for Pettis, these areas of improvement aren't the norm in his overall game and he does possess the traits that outweigh some of the flaws. As rookie, it's a little more excusable but going into year two, he's going to be counted on to take the next step and carry his share of the offense so he cannot afford to have many of the plays he has above.

Depending on the direction Shanahan goes in with the receiver group, Pettis should slot in at or near the top as the primary or nothing lower than the secondary target in the offense. The traits he possesses finally came to fruition late in the season as he took advantage of the opportunity he was given to be the primary guy. Unfortunately the injuries that hampered him took a larger toll on his rookie season but still accounted for 20% of the team's passing touchdowns.

Pettis heads into the offseason program recovering from an MCL injury that thankfully didn't require surgery. Hopefully the injury bug doesn't strike again because if the last quarter of the season is any indication, we could be in for an electrifying season from the second year receiver.

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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