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Film From the Field House: The 49ers Playbook Explodes

Bret Rumbeck
Dec 14, 2019 at 6:45 PM


The 2019 NFL season will have a variety of storylines, but one will be the revival of the San Francisco 49ers' offense. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and the ten men in the huddle deserve a hat tip for execution, but head coach Kyle Shanahan should be in the running for coach of the year.

Shanahan has shown not only a mastery of any game situation but an ability to adapt his calls and strategy as the game progresses.

When a game called for a ground attack, he grabbed running plays from a distant sandlot and put up 275 yards on the turf.

When Garoppolo was heating up, and the 49ers' defense struggled, Shanahan leaned on the pass and let Garoppolo destroy teams through the air.

Against the New Orleans Saints, Shanahan got to flex and use his explosive plays to fight for points and valuable in-game momentum. That allowed his offense to keep throwing punches and maintain drives.

Here are a few plays I found interesting from last Sunday.

1st Quarter – 1st and 10 at the SF 25 (11:34)


A diehard, and slightly aging, 49er faithful may remember the NFL Films recap of Super Bowl XVI, and the breakdown of 'Sweep Pass Right Z Comeback.'

As narrator John Facenda said in the film, "All day long the 49ers had consistently made the little plays, now they needed a big one."

Shanahan opened the game with 'Fake 19 Force Keep Right,' a play eerily similar to 'Sweep Pass Right Z Comeback.' Like Z Comeback, Shanahan called for Sanders to run 23 yards downfield and break toward the sideline, while Garoppolo executed a fake handoff and then sprinted to his right.

You can see from the screenshot the Saints' defensive back must have thought Sanders was the clearing route because his hips were turned downfield. This small subtlety allowed Sanders to create an immediate separation from the defender once he broke toward the edge of the field.

2nd Quarter – 1st and 10 at the SF 25 (14:57)


Shanahan was able to accomplish three things with the play above.

First, he continued to stomp his heavy leaden foot on the gas pedal, opening the quarter with a route that exposed the weaknesses in the Saints' secondary. It also helped the play went for six points.

Second, he fed Garoppolo's confidence with a high-octane additive, calling a movement play to the right.

Quarterbacks probably have a favorite set of plays that give them immediate confidence, but nothing beats a movement play. It allows a quarterback to have a clear view of the field, or even cut the field in half, to read a live coverage.

Third, Shanahan was able to show the NFL the 49ers can grab momentum at any point in a game. That skill had been non-existent in previous years, but plays like Sanders' 75-yard touchdown catch have become the new normal.

You may recognize the corner-post route as what Kittle ran for a long score in the Week 12 blow out against Green Bay.

Sanders sealed the play with a nasty move back to the post. He sold the corner route so well, that once he broke to post, the defensive back hit the artificial surface with an embarrassing thud.

2nd Quarter – 1st and 10 at the SF 25 (7:29)


The Saints' offense set the tone immediately last week, scoring on its first four possessions of the game. It was midway through the second quarter, and the 49ers were down by two scores.

Rather than open the 49ers' fourth offense with a run, Shanahan called 'P14 Weak X Dagger', an effective play he's had in his playbook for years.


Drawn up, 'Dagger' looks like a simple play, But, again, they are the little things the 49ers' offense do well this year that made it successful.

First, the speed of both receivers coming off the ball forced the defensive back to flip his hips downfield. Once this occurs, a receiver can easily separate himself from the defender when he decides to break inside, outside, or back to the quarterback.


Second, 'Dagger' is an excellent Cover 2 beating play. Cover 2 is vulnerable to in-breaking routes, as the middle of the field is often left open. With 'Dagger,' both in-breaking routes force one safety to make a choice – the deeper route or, the shorter route.

Either choice is wrong.

As you can see from this shot, the safety keyed on Sanders' route, which left Samuel open in the middle of the field.

2nd Quarter – 1st and Goal at the NO 10 (:45)


In the middle of the air attack was a bread-and-butter power run that gave the 49ers the lead at the end of the first half.

One of my favorite parts about professional football is how some plays remain the same. A coordinator can draw up a power run any way he deems fit.

What if we move the tight end into the backfield? Have at it.

Can I run power from a single-back set and pull the guard as the lead block? We can build that. We have the technology.

How about adding a ghost motion for fun? I love fun. Add the ghost motion in and see what happens.


The 49ers' offensive line shoved everyone aside and left a clear path for left guard Laken Tomlinson to remove the defensive end from the play.

Running back Raheem Mostert had a clear gap to run right, with help from Saints linebacker Craig Robertson overshooting the hole.

One note on the play: Tomlinson made it clear he was going to pull right from the start. He was a foot or so back from the line of scrimmage, which Saints' defensive tackle Shy Tuttle noted before the snap.

3rd Quarter – 1st and 10 at the SF 21 (14:55)


The 49ers got the ball back to start the second half, and Shanahan wasted no time in picking up where he left off.

During the Week 3 win over Pittsburgh, the 49ers ran a similar play at the 14:29 mark of the first quarter. A Twitter debate started on Monday or Tuesday, with some noting that the deep route was Garoppolo's first read, and he should not have thrown it to Kittle for a 12-yard gain.

The crowd loves the deep pass, and teams thrive on that energy. We all saw how a 75-yard touchdown pass could quiet a home crowd. 'X Blazer' does have the deep route as the first read. However, the Saints' defense gifted 15-yards to Sanders and Garoppolo. Anyone who doesn't take a free 15 yards in a high scoring game is insane.

4th Quarter – 3rd and 5 at the NO 32 (11:01)


The 49ers started their 10th offense at their 45-yard late in the third quarter. Slowly, Garoppolo and the ten men with him pieced together a 14-play, 55-yard drive to score and take a nine-point lead.

Midway through the possession, the 49ers needed five yards to keep the drive alive. Rather than call a play like 'Thunder' or 'Lion,' Shanahan opted to send two receivers on intermediate routes and keep two underneath.

From the shot above, it appears as if the Saints' safety was more concerned about Sanders running a deep clearing route. That coverage error opened up a vulnerable area of the secondary for Samuel to gain 16 yards.

The 49ers' offensive line had to adjust to halt a TEX exchange from the Saints' defensive line. Tomlinson was supposed to slide right with the other men, but moved left to make a key block. Center Ben Garland, who took over for an injured Weston Richburg in the 3rd quarter, was lucky he was not flagged for a trip on the play.

Shanahan's aggressive strategy may carry over against the Atlanta Falcons, considering the injuries to cornerback Richard Sherman, defensive end Dee Ford and Garland starting at center. I would not play it safe against a frustrated four-win team with nothing to lose.

All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference.
All images courtesy of NFL.com.
  • 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.
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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