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Film room: Is 49ers WR Dante Pettis Struggling?

Aug 26, 2019 at 7:00 AM

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The short answer is no. The longer answer is below.

Second-year wide receiver Dante Pettis is under an enormous amount of pressure to perform up to his potential this year after turning in a decent rookie season, during which he played in 12 games and was the 49ers' best wide receiver overall. Pettis enters the 2019 season at worst the 2nd receiver on the depth chart. He's started every preseason game so far as the Z receiver, and has played some of the X as well as the slot too.

Since training camp began last month, head coach Kyle Shanahan has been vocal in his criticism of Pettis in response to why the receiver was on the field in the 4th quarter of the third preseason game against the Chiefs, "I believe he needed to be. He's still trying to earn a role on this team and show what he's capable of doing, consistently."

Strong words for a guy who tied for the team lead in total receiving touchdowns last season and who averaged over 17 yards per catch. Nonetheless, the overreaction by fans is a double-edged sword, and misplaced. First, fans wanted Shanahan to take a more hardline approach to calling players out and not coddling them. Then when he does, the reaction has been overwhelmingly negative and ranging from "He's overrated!" to "They should just cut him!" because they don't think he's "tough enough" or isn't "willing to take a hit" or "won't go over the middle."

The criticisms are hollow. First, if Pettis is anything like he was last season, as I detailed here and here for 49ersWebzone, then there is no reason to worry. Second, I believe Shanahan is using this as a motivational tactic to get the most out of him. But I also think that it's a futile exercise. Pettis is who he is, and when it comes to his on-field performance, the second-year receiver should've gotten more credit for his play this preseason than he currently has. But don't take my word for it, let the tape show you.


Pettis started this preseason right where he left off last season with his ability to separate. Pettis uses a combination of footwork, upper torso movement, and hand fighting techniques to win separation at the line of scrimmage and that has been on display thus far in preseason.

Pettis is spread out far right as the outside receiver running the outside slant on the all slants concept that Shanahan calls "Lion".

Pettis releases off the line against man coverage by winning with a "4-step" technique that doesn't allow the defender to get his hands on him and jam him. The defender attempts to grab him as Pettis runs by on the quick slant and although the defender recovers, Pettis wins the release with inside leverage in case the ball is thrown to him. He doesn't get the pass but it shows he's still able to win his releases with some nuance.

Pettis also had no trouble getting separation in the slot. Pettis is running a "lookie" option where he has the choice to run a slant or break out depending on the defender's leverage.

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.

Utilizing a "dead leg" release, Pettis extends his first step in the direction of the defender's outside shoulder, but quickly cuts back underneath on the "lookie" slant when the defender steps outside. He's open for what would be a nice gain but the pass is batted down at the line of scrimmage.

A couple of times this preseason, Pettis drew defensive penalties against the opposition because of his ability to confuse defenders and create separation.

Against Dallas in preseason week one, Pettis is running against man coverage here and running a dig across the middle. The defender grabs Pettis and holds him down the length of his stem down the seam before Pettis throws on the brakes and cuts across the field. He uses his forearm to shed the defender as he cuts across and the defender is left stumbling.

Missed opportunities

When the quarterbacks were throwing the ball to Pettis, the majority of them were being batted down or not being thrown at all.

Running a deep cross here, Pettis releases and gets inside the defender on the deep crossing route as Mullens executes the play fake. Mullens' fake was was anything but a fake and the Dallas linebackers hardly bite on the run action. Jaylon Smith turns and locates Pettis on the deep cross and cuts off the throwing lane as Mullens looks for Pettis. Mullens ultimately checks it down to the tight end Levine Toilolo who ultimately drops it.

The 49ers came right back to Pettis on a play-action naked bootleg second quarter against Dallas.

Mullens again barely sells the play-action fake and the linebackers get back into their pass zones. His pass is deflected as he looks to hit Pettis wide open on the deep cross for what would've been a huge gain.

Pettis played late into the game against the Chiefs as mentioned earlier and the offense missed an opportunity again for a big gain.

He quickly eats the cushion of the defender who is playing off coverage. He gets inside leverage and cuts off the defender's feet. The defender wraps him around the waist as he's cutting and Pettis lunges for the pass but it's too far out in front for him to make a play. The defender gets flagged for a pass interference anyway.

Against Denver, Pettis misses another opportunity for a big play when Garoppolo made the wrong read and nearly ended his drive with a pick-six.

Pettis motions into a stack look before the snap and releases down the seam running the flag route in this concept. In this concept, underneath him the receiver is running a stick china where he runs up, cuts out and pivots back inside.

The corner squats on the route and leaves Pettis one-on-one on the flag route with a safety in the middle of the field who would not be able to cover the route. The defender on Pettis is in trail. Garoppolo reads the combo and feels pressure and hurries the throw. Had he shuffled up in the pocket one or two steps he could have hit Pettis near the sideline.

Unfortunately, Pettis has not had the kind of production you'd want to see in a receiver in his second year and one who figures to feature prominently in the 49ers offense, but largely it was due to circumstances out of his control as seen above.

When he did have the opportunity to make catches, he shows how he can be a significant factor in whether or not this offense moves the ball. On the deep out route here, he gets open and makes a difficult adjustment on a pass that's behind him. He takes the hit (remember people said he doesn't like to get hit?) and holds onto the pass as he goes to the ground out of bounds.

Area of improvement?

One thing Shanahan noted was that Pettis needed to be more aggressive when the ball is in the air.

Per The Athletic's Matt Barrows (subscription required) Shanahan said "You shouldn't throw into triple coverage in that situation. We were fortunate not to have a pick. I'd like Dante to go up and try to make more of an attempt to catch it. But that's a ball that never should leave his hand." The play he's referring to was a pass from Garoppolo to Pettis in the 2nd quarter with the 49ers threatening on an eventual scoring drive.

Garoppolo heaved a pass to the goal line where Pettis was waiting with three defenders lurking in the area. Chiefs defensive back Rashad Fenton goes up and over Pettis to knock the ball away. Could Pettis have made more of an attempt to go up and catch a contested pass? Absolutely. But it's not a pass the quarterback should have thrown anyways and it's not indicative of the type of player Pettis is overall.


I don't think we need to worry about Pettis this season. As far as what to make of Shanahan's comments regarding the receiver, I don't think we should read too much into them. He's likely choosing his words carefully (albeit bluntly) in an attempt to motivate a guy who's already earned the right to take the first-team reps in practice and in preseason games. But the 49ers have an incredibly young receiver room where most guys are either rookies or second-year players.

If Pettis is anything like he was last season, then all this is for nothing and the overreaction is unwarranted. But Pettis isn't going anywhere and fans should not be worried about whether or not he produces this season with Jimmy Garoppolo back as the starting quarterback.
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.


  • mkeniner
    This post aged very, very poorly LOL.
    Nov 20, 2019 at 10:00 AM
    Response: Not everyone has the benefit of hindsight like you do. Not sure if you noticed either but he has 2 game winning TDs. And it’s not like any receiver other than Deebo has stepped up. Dropped passes everywhere. But go off dude.
  • mkeniner
    Correction, he's currently the 6th WR and will be 7th when Taylor is back: Awesome footwork though!
    Sep 9, 2019 at 6:48 AM
    NFLGPTV .COM ? ???????? <3 . I can really recommend it. I think it's the best NFL option for this season and preseason. ~!~!~!~!~!~!~!~!~==================== ? NFLGPTV .COM ? <3 ???? >==>> NFLGPTV .COM ???? <3 Y­­­ou­ ­c­a­n­ Wa­t­ch E­v­ery N­F­L Li­ve­ St­r­eam O­n­line By NF­L­G­PT­V .­C­O­M
    Aug 27, 2019 at 12:04 PM
  • Mike Kenney
    I really enjoy Richard Madrid's film clips and analysis. I am also bowled over by Pettis' separation techniques. Those college punt returns were not accidental. He literally can make his upper body appear to be going a different direction than his legs. Quite remarkable and reminiscent of Barry Sanders or "Crazylegs" Hirsch. All that being said, there is a collection of knowledgeable observers who are concerned at his lack of pop at the point of arrival. Welker, Sherman, Shanahan, NinerMike even Kittle all weigh in about urgency. I think they're not wrong in the analysis, but am unsure trying to drive Pettis to alter his style may, given his mindset, not be effectual. It could be ruinous. Let him play. He'll make you proud one day.
    Aug 27, 2019 at 4:24 AM
  • mkeniner
    Hey man, I hope you're completely right about Pettis. But if you're going to throw a very one-sided argument out here and open it up for comments, insulting my intelligence when I dare question the greatness of Dante Pettis is a pretty weak way to go. The amateur scouting is just a football-ese manifestation of your man crush on Pettis masquerading as "context and nuance." I appreciate you putting this together, honestly. It was fun to argue against and I'm happy to help with website traffic. It was grist for a debate. But anyhow, Pettis is going to make a great 4th WR this season, behind Samuel, Goodwin, and Taylor (when he returns).
    Aug 26, 2019 at 7:48 PM
  • Kieth Coster
    Just wanted to jump in and say Madrid you stated your case well and Mikeniner you are obviously a passionate fan but your middle ground is where the truth lies. Mike.. JuJu is the exception to the rule and even he's in his 3 year, Madrid he looks a little scared sometimes and that's not right. We can agree to disagree as long as the goal is Niners for Life.
    Aug 26, 2019 at 6:04 PM
  • mkeniner
    LOL, sorry this is making you so butthurt. I'm rooting for Pettis and am hoping he turns into the game changer he was drafted to be. He still might. But yeah, not seeing it. I'm "smart" enough to see that most of the clips you sat and artfully pieced together for Dante Pettis Fan Boy Part III were actually examples of his inadequacies or otherwise did little or nothing to demonstrate why he's so great. My hope is in the regular season, his play will speak for itself and we won't have to debate how awesome he looked getting a yard of separation before slipping on a play where the ball went elsewhere. Players whose performance requires the sort of tedious defense you're providing usually offer decent offseason debate topics until they're quietly cut and disappear from the NFL. I hope Pettis is an exception.
    Aug 26, 2019 at 4:11 PM
    Response: Butthurt? Nah, I mean, you came here and read something that made you irrationally angry, the thought that someone might interpret some film with a bit more context and nuance than you could ever imagine and proceeded to point to exactly nothing that backs up your claims about Pettis not being good enough. That you've spent this much time on this article is only contributing the clicks it's gets for the website, driving more traffic to it by the hour. Congrats man.
  • Kieth
    Good article and examples, he doesn't have to be the toughest meanest guy on the team. He needs to get open and as a lot of 2nd year receivers I've seen he has work to do in his BRIEF time in the league.
    Aug 26, 2019 at 3:54 PM
  • Mkeniner
    Ok. I "did myself a favor" and read the other pieces that you wrote about Pettis. What I learned is that you're a huge Pettis fan and aren't able to be impartial on this topic. Every clip of him not catching a pass was the QB's fault, not him failing to get to his spot. A bunch of college clips that became irrelevant the day he was drafted. And every good play he had last season. I mean, if the guy was that good, he wouldn't need 3 lengthy pieces from you, filled mostly with college clips and videos of him not catching passes, to make the argument. His play on the field would do that. And yet here we are.
    Aug 26, 2019 at 2:38 PM
    Response: He accounted for 20% of the team's receiving TDs last season, led the team with 17 yards per catch, etc., and you're complaining about on-field production last season while he played with mostly a practice squad quarterback? Lmao ok man. Also, you need to learn how scouts evaluate receivers but it just based on watching them catch a football. They look at everything, even the plays where he doesn't get the ball. If you were smarter, you'd understand this, as I've showed repeatedly in 3 articles now.
  • terence o'leary
    Thanks for this. Every time I go on twitter I'm reminded of how little the average football fan actually knows. Lol. We saw Pettis toast dudes repeatedly in the regular season last year and people want to cut him because of the preseason, it's insanity.
    Aug 26, 2019 at 1:03 PM
  • Mood_Indigo
    Excellent article, Rich. I think Pettis is going to be a 1000 yard receiver IF he can stay healthy this season. He still may not be as consistent as Kyle would like him to be, That may have to wait till his third season. His talent is off the charts. He needs to put some extra effort to be the player he can be,
    Aug 26, 2019 at 10:05 AM
  • MkeNiner
    It says something that almost all of these highlights don't actually involve him catching the ball. 1st highlight: CB gets back into position and it would have been a contested catch had the throw gone his way. He's not good with contested catches. 2nd highlight: He lost his balance out of the break and would have had to make a difficult off balance catch if the ball had gone his way. 3rd highlight: Legitimate 4th highlight: He was covered 5th highlight: Schemed open 6th highlight: Can't take contact and loses his balance 7th highlight: May or may not have been getting open, but the CB stops and focuses on where the ball was actually thrown. 8th highlight: Wide open because #29 doesn't get depth. Actually hangs on to a pass after getting hit. 9th highlight: Weak attempt of making a play on the ball. These are the videos selected to make a case for Dante Pettis. Outside of fancy footwork, he hasn't demonstrated anything yet as a player in the NFL. And fancy football doesn't do much when teams can get physical and scheme. Except for extreme examples like AJ Jenkins, I think WRs really need 3 full years for us to see what they can be. It's still early, but it's looking bad.
    Aug 26, 2019 at 9:35 AM
    Response: I can tell you've never paid adequate attention to anything your talking about so here, do yourself a favor and read these two articles on Pettis.
  • Gale R. Hayashi
    Last year I paid a lot of money for NFL network. NEVER AGAIN ! Now I am watching NFL online via NFLGPTV .COM . Probably you already know but I want to remind you that NFLGPTV .COM has NFL games in their price. It's only $29/yearly so I suggest to go to NFLGPTV .COM and buy subscription there
    Aug 26, 2019 at 8:56 AM
  • Chris fiore
    Tremendous job on the article. I've been saying he has probably the best separation possibly in the nfl that's a huge reason he set the ALL TIME record for punt returns. He also led the league in YAC
    Aug 26, 2019 at 7:30 AM

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