The Breakdown: A Look at San Francisco 49ers Schematic Philosophy

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MINNEAPOLIS, MN - AUGUST 27: Head Coach Kyle Shanahan of the San Francisco 49ers stands on the sideline during the game against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium on August 27, 2017 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Vikings defeated the 49ers 32-31. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)

As we reach the conclusion of our summer series, “The Breakdown,” we finalize things by taking a look at the San Francisco 49ers schematic philosophy. The hiring of former Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to serve as San Francisco’s head coach was one of the off-season’s most pivotal moves and will unquestionably help them expand on a porous 2016 offense.

Defensively, they fleeced the Chicago Bears in the 2017 NFL Draft by trading back one spot to select defensive end Solomon Thomas with the third overall pick. Maintaining enough ammunition, the Niners were then able trade back into the end of the first round and select linebacker Reuben Foster.

The Breakdown: A Look at San Francisco 49ers Schematic Philosophy

The Shanahan Effect

First and foremost, Shanahan’s staple zone running game is predicated on the utilization of outside zone runs that capitalized the Falcons’ cohesion up-front and running back Devonta Freeman‘s blend of patience and burst through the hole. The Niners can’t match Atlanta’s individual talent along the line and they don’t a back of Freeman’s caliber, but they were the ninth most efficient rushing offense via Football Outsiders in 2016, so working in unison isn’t achievable. Carlos Hyde is listed as the incumbent running back, but undrafted free agent Matt Breida drew attention in training camp for his athleticism and ability to extend runs. Don’t be shocked if the two split carries this season.

Where Shanahan can truly put his fingerprint on this offense is building play-action off these zone looks that made Atlanta’s offense so lethal. Hence, why the franchise added receivers Marquise Goodwin and Pierre Garcon and spent a fifth-rounder on tight end George Kittle this off-season. Kittle is an athletic pass-catcher that fits the Shanahan mold as he will often be sent in motion to draw favorable matchups in the passing game and leverage victories as an accomplished blocker. Goodwin and Garcon will also play a role in the bevy of flood concepts Shanahan loves to utilize in his play-action schemes.

Expect to see a number of boot action, levels concepts and the implementation of RPOs as well. The first two looks often operate from run sets (12/21 personnel), and the use of the fullback in Shanahan’s offense is important in the establishment of zone runs to create effective play-action sells. It should come as no surprise that the Niners made former Ravens fullback Kyle Juszczyk the highest-paid at the position in NFL history. As for the RPOs, they’re becoming increasingly common-place in NFL offenses and are continuous opportunities for the Niners to provide defenses with false run reads to draw them out of position.

Drawing Inspiration

Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh comes from the Gus Bradley, Cover-3 school of defense having spent two seasons together in Seattle and three seasons in Jacksonville. This Cover-3 defense is a single-high look that I recently delved into when examining the Seahawks.

Jimmie Ward has moved to safety and will likely serve as their centerfielder with Eric Reid‘s capabilities as a run defender, but this leaves a subpar corner group that struggled mightily in man coverage last season. Ultimately, this will force the Niners to spend the majority of their time in zone as opposed to intertwining man looks from their corners in that Cover-3 scheme.

From there, it’s reasonable to anticipate a number of five-man zone pressures and sky, cloud and invert looks. Foster has shown he can handle coverage duties in those looks, while pressure packages will be vital to the Niners’ success in getting to the quarterback if their four-man rushes don’t get home. As for the multiple Cover 3 calls, disguising coverage rotations and movements are generally adept at confusing reads for quarterbacks and naturally leads to an longer internal clock. As quarterbacks take additional time to go through their progressions, the blitzes accompanied with these rotations can truly thrive.

There’s no doubt that San Francisco is in rebuild mode right now. They just hired one of the youngest head coaches in the league with the expectation he is the long-term answer who should serve as the main catalyst for offensive growth in 2017. The addition of Thomas and Foster could potentially prove immediate upgrades in this unit, and the addition of Saleh is a quality move. Nevertheless, expect the 49ers to find themselves picking in the top-five of the 2018 NFL Draft.

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