This was not what San Francisco 49ers head coach Mike Shanahan had intended for his team or his offense.
He had plans to build on his read-option offense, led by starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Prior to the season’s start, the San Francisco head coach was asked if defenses would figure out his read-option, especially after watching Garoppolo’s five starts in the 2017 season.
“There isn’t anything to figure out,” Shanahan said during the July 2018 press conference. “It’s a very sound scheme.”
It is a sound scheme, so long as the offense has a quarterback who can make the passes that open up against defenses trying to stop the read-topn. Not to mention that quarterback also has to be good enough to run with the football.
”It’s tough to find that guy,” Shanahan said. “And if you don’t protect him right, if you don’t do the right stuff, it is tough to stay healthy.”
That guy, being Jimmy Garoppolo, tore his ACL in the third week of the season.
Getting a bite
The 49ers offense doesn’t have the full power of a Garoppolo-led offense. But it’s been able to move the ball with deception.
Take this play against the Bears, for example.
San Francisco lines up in the base 21-personnel while the Bears have seven men in the box. Up until this point, San Francisco had been moving the ball primarily through the running game (Nick Mullens was 4-for-8 with 24 yards leading up to this play).
Off the snap, Mullens drops back for a pass while the fullback and running back fake a run to left, which draws in the linebackers. This allows Dante Pettis space for his slant route. By the time the linebackers realize it’s a pass, Pettis is open for the catch which becomes a 13-yard gain.
This deception also works with play-action passes and the run game.
The play-action pass was one of the more notable options for the offense during Gorroppolo’s first season with San Francisco. The option was still in use when the 49ers played Los Angeles in the first meeting of the year. The play above went for nine yards and a first down.
The 49ers sell the run with a fullback in motion and the offensive line appearing to down-block left. This causes the Rams defense to bite on the run, leaving a tight end on a crossing route unattended. Ebukam Samson does his job by not overcommitting to the run. But he’s helpless against the play-action and San Francisco gets a solid gain.
The 49ers kept the Rams on their heels with another play disguise.
Another man is put in motion, which took a Rams’ defender out of the left side of the field. This allowed the 49ers’ Joe Staley to kick outside and take out a Marcus Peters for the big run, which was a toss left on a fake sweep right.
Eventually, the San Francisco offense gets figured out. Defenses catch their breath, learn what’s going on and adapt to the situation. San Francisco’s offense in Garoppolo’s absence is like a firework — short-lived excitement. It’s why the team is 4-11 at this point in the season and why the scoring offense is near the bottom of the league (red-zone offense is dead-last).
The play above is identical to the very first play shown in this piece, except it’s run on the left side of the field. While the Bears send a linebacker on the blitz, they pick up Mullens’ drop back again. The remaining linebackers stay home and run towards the target. While Marquise Goodwin makes the 7-yard catch, there is no YAC.
This was a similar play-action pass with a man in motion (to remove a defender in the target space). But this time, everyone does their job and doesn’t bite on the misdirection. Take John Johnson, for example (top left). He picks up the tight end on the crossing route immediately off the snap and stays with him for the eventual interception.
This has been a nightmare season for the 49ers. They’ve been plagued with injuries and could do only so much with the guys they had on their roster. Mullens is a great story and he will likely be a good depth quarterback in the future, whether it be in San Francisco or elsewhere.