Niner in Focus: Kyle Shanahan is deep into his bag of tricks

The San Francisco 49ers face a key divisional matchup with the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday surely brimming with confidence after they moved back to 4-3 with a blowout victory over the New England Patriots that was the product of a masterful gameplan from head coach Kyle Shanahan.


San Francisco powered to a 33-6 win against the Patriots in Foxborough and can now move within a half-game of the NFC West-leading Seahawks by emerging victorious at CenturyLink Field.


Shanahan's offense finished with 467 total yards against the Patriots, their highest number of the season so far, the Niners amassing such impressive yardage through reliance on an efficient running game that thrived despite the absence of Raheem Mostert and an aerial approach that made life simple for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.


Garoppolo had 277 yards passing while averaging 3.7 completed air yards per attempt. His receivers, meanwhile, added 9.2 yards after the catch per completion, with San Francisco's emphasis on getting the ball out quickly to pass-catchers who excel at making plays in space again paying dividends.

The various ways in which Shanahan got the ball to those players was illustrative of a play-caller who has realized the best way to come through the toughest part of the schedules is to enter his deep bag of tricks and stress defenses with an array of different looks that go beyond what opponents are used to seeing from the league's top offensive mind.


After wins over the Los Angeles Rams and the Patriots, the 49ers are unbeaten through the first two games of a pre-bye week five-game gauntlet in which Seattle, the Green Bay Packers and the New Orleans Saints follow.


This week's edition of Niner in Focus looks back at Shanahan's coaching performance in Week 6 as he prepares to try to take advantage of a Seahawks defense that ranks 28th in Football Outsiders DVOA.


At-snap Motion


Motion has long since been a critical feature of Shanahan's offense and it is no surprise the Niners are near the top of the league in usage of motion at the snap this season.


Per ESPN, the Niners have used at-the-snap motion on 22.6 percent of offensive plays in 2020. Only the Rams (29.9%) and Baltimore Ravens (37.7%) utilize it more frequently.


And it quickly became a prevalent part of Shanahan's attack against New England.


On their opening drive at the Patriots' 17-yard line, the Niners split running back Jeff Wilson outside before motioning him back to the middle, revealing man coverage. Deebo Samuel motioned at the snap, with the defender assigned to cover him affected by George Kittle's route up the seam. Wilson's wheel route out of the backfield accounted for the play-side outside linebacker, leaving Samuel with open space to gain 14 yards.

What makes the Niners' motion game so difficult to defend is its diversity. San Francisco uses motion as a key part of the run game as well as the passing attack, turning receivers and running backs alike into position-less players in the process.


Indeed, Samuel and fellow receiver Brandon Aiyuk were each pivotal to the rushing attack. Successive second-quarter drives saw Aiyuk pick up 20 yards on a pop pass after motioning at the snap and Samuel used on a red-zone carry after motioning behind Garoppolo.

The threat of Aiyuk and Samuel as runners allowed Shanahan to set up this play where running back JaMycal Hasty became the primary receiving threat. The 49ers threw a screen to Hasty that went for 16 yards, with the Patriots' defense manipulated by a play-action fake to Samuel.

For all the complexities of the motion attack used by Shanahan, the 49ers also excel when they keep things relatively simple, as evidenced by a third-quarter Aiyuk reception on which a significant throwing lane was opened through the use of play-action and motion involving Kittle.

Defenses cannot afford not to account for Kittle because of his devastating ability in the open field and his frequent usage on tight end screens, and the all-round skill sets of the 49ers' star tight end and fullback Kyle Juszczyk were crucial to the implementation of another wrinkle added to the motion game.


Throwing in the fake block


The first drive of the game set the tone for what the Patriots could expect from the 49ers, who got into the red zone on a play that featured George Kittle successfully tricking an outside linebacker into believing he was set to block for on a screen for Aiyuk after the rookie had orbit motioned behind the tight end. Kittle instead cut infield and picked up 15 yards on a short pass from Garoppolo.

Between Kittle's monstrous blocking and the danger Aiyuk poses on screens, it is easy to understand why the Patriots were undone by that piece of deception. New England was put in a bind throughout the contest by similar plays, with Shanahan keeping the Patriots guessing as to whether the screen pass was going to be thrown.


Juszczyk was lined up as a receiver as Samuel moved the chains on such a play late in the second quarter. Samuel motioned across as the Niners executed a play-action fake to the right, catching the ball and finding blocking from Juszczyk that enabled him to get down to the 29-yard line.

Having delivered positive yardage on a play with Juszczyk used as an outside blocker, Shanahan flipped the script in the third quarter. Juszczyk once more lined up as a receiver before Samuel motioned across to give the impression of a screen, putting the defensive back in two minds and allowing the fullback to fake a block and break into a pass pattern on which he picked up 18 yards with a diving catch.

Over the course of what was the largest Patriots home loss in the Bill Belichick era, Shanahan tormented the New England defense by leaning on play-action, at-the-snap motion and the extra wrinkle of the fake block to get his versatile offensive skill-position players in space to rack up yardage after the catch.


As is the way with the Shanahan attack, so often the plays looked the same, but a key alteration meant the Patriots were left with no answer to an offense operating at its highest level since the NFC Championship game last season.


Whether the 49ers have the personnel to operate at the same level against the Seahawks without Samuel, who is set to miss the next two games with a hamstring strain, is open for debate.


However, Shanahan found means with which to exploit the New England defense and did so relentlessly. Given the porous nature of the Seahawks defense, especially against the pass, it is fair to assume he will have identified weaknesses on which he can ruthlessly capitalize to help the 49ers stay in the game regardless of Samuel's absence.


The Niners' playoff hopes appeared extremely slim just a few weeks ago. Now, it seems clear their head coach is ready to use every page of the playbook to ensure a return to the postseason and, over the last two games, the results could hardly have been more impressive. Shanahan is in his bag, and the makeup of the NFC playoffs may hinge on whether defenses have the schematic arsenals and the personnel to compete.


Media courtesy Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

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