Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Film room: Kyle Shanahan and the art of war - offensive operations part 1

Aug 8, 2019 at 6:00 AM

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This past spring at Washington State University, Cougars head football coach Mike Leach and former Washington state Senator and current Spokane County Treasurer Mike Baumgartner taught a course entitled "Leadership Lessons in Insurgent Warfare and Football Strategies." The five week course incorporated insurgent warfare tactics and operations into football strategy.

Modern warfare concepts and football are an interesting combination as really any tactical theory of the battlefield has some practical application to the gridiron. Head football coaches and their staffs operate in much the same manner as a general or admiral and their component command staffs. Whereas in football, coordinators and position coaches provide a level of expertise in their designated specialty, be they blocking, catching, running, pass rushing, etc., military command staffs function in the same kind of way, with, say, a US Navy fleet staff covering the naval warfare areas such surface warfare, air warfare, submarine warfare, mine warfare, and strike warfare. Whether it's football or military, these staffs cannot function at their full capability if one or more are missing or are under-performing, either on the battlefield (or at sea) or on the football field.

The theme of Leach's and Baumgartner's class was centered on how lesser or inferior opponents can achieve victory over their stronger counterparts. At a press conference on the course, Baumgartner stated:

"When I was teaching that class (about counter insurgency in Paris), I started using football paradigms to sort of explain some of the lessons. And what's really interesting about what Mike does is insurgent revolutionaries are essentially underdogs, and they have to turn strategic disadvantage into advantage against more powerful, conventional opponents. And there are a lot of parallels from a leadership standpoint, in terms of what Mike does, with the air raid offense and how he takes, perhaps, underdog football players and gets higher amounts of success."

It's not just counterinsurgency that provides a useful tool for understanding how to best a superior opponent on the field. Militaries must also win the conventional force versus force battle as well. And in the NFL, almost everyone is capable of beating almost everyone else they face. Using the United States Marine Corps' operational doctrine as a guide, we can see how those tactics and strategies are useful in explaining how head coach Kyle Shanahan exploits an opponent for tactical and strategic advantage.

The Marine Corps doctrine we'll be focusing on in this article is straight from chapter 9 of the Marine Corps Operations manual (MCDP1-0), "offensive operations." The manual describes "offensive operations" the following way:

"The offense is the decisive form of warfare. While defensive operations can do great damage to an enemy, offensive operations are the means to a decisive victory. Offensive operations seize the initiative, gain freedom of action, and create effects to achieve objectives. Offensive operations allow the commander to impose his will on the enemy by shattering the enemy's moral, mental, and physical cohesion. The enemy loses his ability to fight as an effective, coordinated force as Marine Corps forces generate an overwhelming tempo by conducting a variety of rapid, focused, and unexpected offensive actions."

You can see how a lot of this can apply to the football field as well. Within any successful offensive operation, there are several objectives such as avoiding the enemy's strengths and attacking his weaknesses, striking the enemy from unexpected directions, and overwhelming the enemy commander's ability to observe, orient, decide, and act.

The offense is organized around three spatial concepts: close, deep, and rear operations. For purposes of this article, we're only going to focus on the spatial relationships of deep and close operations on the football field.

Close operations

Marine Corps "close operations" are the definitive and decisive action in any battle because it is here where the bulk of the forces will be engaged:

"Due to the proximity of opposing forces, the intensity of operations dominated by fire and maneuver, and the potential for extreme rates of physical destruction, close operations will always be viewed as the decisive element in combat...Shaping actions should strip away the enemy's capabilities and attack the enemy's mental, moral, and physical abilities to force him into predictable actions."

"Force him into predictable actions" is the main theme we can see in how Shanahan gameplans for an opponent and that is highlighted by these next two plans from the Week 14 game against Denver.

On the first drive of the game the 49ers relied heavily on using Kittle in a flex position out wide. This gives the offense several advantages and reveals several things for it. It's looking primarily is to see who is going to cover the motion man and how the defense shifts in response to the motion. With Kittle out wide, Shanahan is looking to see if the defence will bounce a linebacker out over him, indicating man coverage, or a cornerback, indicating zone coverage.

The play is a wide zone toss play that Shanahan calls "zorro." The plays diagrammed above aren't necessarily the same play as below in the video due to the motion pre-snap, but the running concept is the same.

The Broncos line up a corner out wide on Kittle, indicating zone coverage. Mullens motions Kittle back in close to the line and the defense stays in its two-high coverage shell, leaving seven in the box. The play is a wide zone toss to the left, a play the 49ers have run with regularity over the course of two seasons. From the center over, the 49ers have five blockers to the Broncos four defenders because they did not rotate a safety down. The play ends up being a nine yard gain for the 49ers.

On the next play, the "predictable action" employed by the Broncos was to shift their defense to a single high to get an extra defender in the box for the run. The 49ers came out in the same formation but flipped their receivers and sent Kittle out wide to the right.

The Broncos again started in a two-high shell. Kittle goes in motion to the same in-line spot as the previous play but this time the defense countered with a safety in the box, giving it eight in the box and matching the blocking numbers the 49ers have.

Anticipating what the Broncos would do to their coverage by dropping a box safety into run support, Shanahan called up what he labels as "H2 X Bingo Y Chase" or what the rest of us know as a simple "sail" concept, a three-level vertical stretch passing play with a deep route down the sideline, a deep out route and a flat route.

Mullens drops back to pass, hits Kittle on the out route underneath the clearing route and the chess match continues unabated. Shanahan's anticipation that the Broncos would drop an extra defender into the box paid off as the 49ers were able to grab some points later in the drive, as they would do throughout the first half of that game.

Deep operations

Deep operations in combat:

"strike enemy forces throughout their depth preventing the effective employment of reserves, command and control nodes, logistics, and other capabilities not in direct contact with friendly forces. Conducting operations in depth allows commanders to sustain momentum and take advantage of all available resources to attack enemy forces and capabilities simultaneously throughout the area of operation."

These are operations that disrupt, divert, delay, and destroy enemy movements, logistics trains, communications, and force the enemy to employ any number of tactics for which it was not accounting.

Deep operations in football operate in a similar manner. Teams that employ a deep attack and are successful can break the will of the defense, open underneath concepts in the running game and passing game, and can shape the defensive structure for the rest of the game as they'll undoubtedly be on guard against the deep pass. The deep passing game can disrupt a defense's gameplan, delay its reaction to a particular type of passing attack, divert defenders to cover other areas of the field, and destroy the defense's will and motivation.

Shanahan's offense is among the best at designing deep shots, especially off play action, and taking advantage of the defense's coverage weaknesses. Deep passing exploits coverages by sending more guys downfield than a defense is prepared to deal with.

Against a cover three shell (or what looks like cover one in the hybrid Seattle defense in use by Gus Bradley), the 49ers are running a 3-verticals concept called "DBL STEM GO Y NOD" (the diagram shows "F" nod but it any slot receiver can run it, here with Kittle as the "Y") designed to put the safety into conflict. In this case, Kittle is running the deep "stick-nod" route that's designed to look like he's running an out route and quickly cuts back up the seam into the void left by the safety.

After the game, head coach Kyle Shanahan detailed the play:

"It was a zone play. So, all he tried to do was not show that he was running a seam so he ran a nod instead. When you run a seam, the safety carries you. When you run a 10-yard out, he doesn't. So, you try to make it look like that. That's why he was wide open. It was zone coverage. Then, it's up to C.J. to look the middle-third player off to get him to defend a go-route, which was on the left side. The O-Line gave him enough time to move his eyes to the right, to the left and to come back to the right. So, he moved the coverage well, which got Kittle open. He was wide open just by the coverage and the quarterback, then Kittle did a hell of a job making it into a touchdown."

As Kittle is running the stick-nod route, Beathard is looking off safety Jahleel Addae. As Addae gets his hips turned toward the go-route on the boundary side of the field, Beathard turns and throws to Kittle running up the seam. Kittle catches it in the triangle of defenders and it's off to the races for the speedy tight end as he out-runs the safety and cornerback chasing him for an 82-yard touchdown score, the longest by a tight end in 49ers history.

Deep passing can also cause confusion as a continued assault can cause a defense to blow its coverage or overplay an area of the field, disrupting a sound gameplan.

Late in the first half of the Broncos game, Kittle's 85-yard touchdown catch is the perfect combination of Kyle Shanahan's brilliant scheming and what Kittle can do in the open field with the ball and why he's so dangerous and the kind of confusion that a deep pass can cause.

The 49ers are running a variant of what Shanahan calls "rider" or what the rest of us know generally as the "Yankee" concept. On this passing concept, there is a deeper go-route (on other variations this a deep post ("Heat") or a deep angle or corner route ("Burner"), and a deep "sit" route (or a "Miami" route that looks like a deep cross until the receiver sits in the middle of the field).

The Broncos confirm they are most likely in a cover-1 man coverage shell with the motion from receiver Marquise Goodwin, who was lined up outside tight ends Garrett Celek and Kittle in a bunch formation to the left. Before the snap, Mullens sends Goodwin in a jet motion across the formation as the corner follows. At this point, the jet motion also pulls the free safety down into the box but no one replaces him in the middle of the field either by design or by miscommunication.

With the defense confirmed to be in man coverage, Kittle steps down the line like he's going to block as Mullens executes a hard play fake. Kittle's man, linebacker Todd Davis (No. 51), bites on the hard play fake as Kittle releases up and across the field on the crossing route. The coverage looks confused as Kittle crosses the field and everyone runs with the motion and deeper post by Pettis, but no one covers Kittle, who catches the pass and streaks down the sideline for an 85-yard score.

Types of attack

There are four types of offensive operations: movement to contact, attack, exploitation, and pursuit. The main one we'll be focusing on for purposes of game planning here will on the "attack" portion and the ways in which commanders (or head coaches!) utilize different types of attacks to defeat the opposing force and shatter their will.

So how does head coach Kyle Shanahan achieve this on a game to game basis? By utilizing some of the terms and concepts employed in offensive operations, we can easily begin to see and understand how the game plan seeks to attack those weaknesses, disrupt opposing defenses' abilities to properly defend against certain concepts and formations, exploit every advantage, and have an answer for every possible scenario Shanahan's offense could face. And there are certain plays and sequences of events that bear this out.


A feint is a "limited-objective, supporting attack away from the main effort to distract the enemy's attention. A feint involves contact with the enemy and must be of sufficient strength to confuse the enemy about the location of the main attack." Staying with the Lions game, after a kickoff return for a touchdown by returner DJ Reed was negated by a face-mask penalty on the return man himself, the 49ers began the drive deep in Lions territory.

The 49ers are in 13 personnel (one running back, three tight ends) and are running a simple outside zone to the right with Alfred Morris. The feint itself is the outside zone run to the right. MCDP 1-0 states that "ideally, a feint causes the enemy to commit forces to the diversion."

The 49ers are looking for two things specifically on this play: what do the backside defensive end and the backside linebacker do? Are they going to commit to the run and fast flow or are they going to stay home and protect their run fits? They're looking to see how each defender reacts to the run action on the backside of the play and how the defense aligns itself.

The backside defensive end is in the 6-technique defensive line spot so he'll be looking to two-gap anything that comes his way. Since the run goes the opposite way, he crashes the C-gap in between the tight end and left tackle. The outside linebacker in the B-gap off the ball will be looking to fill any gap that opens in the middle of the offensive line that the running back could potentially cut back into. The tight end on the backside, Kittle, does not go out on a route.

The run goes to the right and Morris hits the "bang" read of the outside zone between the #1 and #2 end men on the line of scrimmage. The defenders on the backside however, give the 49ers another key: they are going to fast flow on the run on the backside to contain the line and prevent a cutback.

On the next play, the 49ers attack the same structure based on the information extracted from the previous play.

The 49ers come right back to the same exact formation except that to Kittle's left is third tight end on the depth chart, Cole Wick (no. 89). The flip in personnel along the offensive formation causes the Lions to shift the 6-technique lineman from the play above to the 3-technique spot between the guard and tackle and dropping an outside edge defender outside tight end Garrett Celek (no. 88) for backside contain. The box count read suggests that the 49ers should pass the ball since they have only five blockers to the strong side to account for six defenders.

Garoppolo makes the right read. As Celek releases down field, Garoppolo does the quick run fake and turns right way and fires a pass to Celek, who's route caught the defender flat-footed at the snap. Garoppolo plants the ball right at the numbers and Celek makes the catch and drags two defenders with him into the end zone for a touchdown.


In a similar attack method to the feint, a demonstration seeks to reveal tendencies by the amassing of forces to reveal the enemies hand.

A demonstration

"is an attack or a show of force on a front where a decision is not sought. Its aim is to deceive the enemy. A demonstration, like a feint, is a supporting attack, but, unlike a feint, does not make contact with the enemy. The commander executes a demonstration by an actual or simulated massing of combat power, troop movements, or other activities designed to indicate the preparations for or beginning of an attack at a point other than the main effort."

Kyle Shanahan is an expert at just such an attack. His use of motions and misdirection away from the actual point of attack are among the league's best play designers. As he seeks to draw the defense into a spot away from the main effort, the main effort force is put in sort of a flanking position attacking the weaker spots in the defense. In the next series of plays, the main effort is the ball carrier and his lead blockers downfield.

In week five against the Arizona Cardinals, the first drive of the game went about as well as any opening game plan script could have gone and showed how versatile Shanahan's offense is. The drive lasted 5:11 and went 75 yards on eight plays. Two of the plays were virtually identical and the Cardinals never caught on due to the way Shanahan drew up the concepts.

The 49ers are running a fake counter G-lead (or counter GL) with a back side fullback screen. The counter GL action is the "demonstration" portion of the attack. A key component of demonstration operations is "to draw enemy forces away from the actual landing beaches or to fix them in place." The counter GL action draws the Cardinals defense to the run and traps them behind a wall of 49ers offensive linemen when they realize the screen is unfolding.

Fullback Kyle Juszczyk catches the screen and rumbles down the field for 18 yards.

The 49ers come right back to a similar play several plays later on the same drive after a couple of penalties and negative yardage plays. This time, instead of using the tight end on a return motion, Shanahan sends receiver Richie James (No. 13) on a jet motion across the formation again, with the demonstration portion of the attack remaining the counter GL run action.

As Beathard executes a hard play fake to Matt Breida (No. 22), James' motion pushes the linebackers toward the wide side of the field in the direction of both James and Breida. On the opposite side of the field, tight end George Kittle is running free with a safety in trail. The resulting void leaves Juszczyk alone on an island where he takes the pass and rumbles down the sideline for 25 yards down to the Cardinals' two yard line.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this series to see what happens on this drive against the Cardinals. In part 2 of this series, will cover "exploitation" and "reconnaissance in force" attacks as well as different types of tactics.
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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