The Shanahan Offensive Scheme

  • 49ers
  • George Kittle
  • Jerrick Mckinnon
  • Kyle Shanahan
  • Matt Breida
By AlexB44 February 28, 2020 0 Comment
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By: Miriam Byrne

Lots of NFL offensive schemes have success; very few have sustained success. The Shanahan offensive scheme, first developed by Mike Shanahan, which has now been adapted to the current NFL environment, by his son Kyle, has been one of the few that has stood the test of time. One of the main reasons why very few offensive schemes last is because defenses adapt. An example of this was, the Ravens at the end of last season when Lamar Jackson took over and the run game put up historic numbers, however, the Chargers understood how to stop their run game as there were multiple weeks of tape to analyze, and unsurprisingly the Ravens had to adjust as the Chargers had given a blueprint to the rest of the NFL on how to stop the Ravens offense.

When defenses go into game day against the 49ers(or any Shanahan led offense) they know for the most part what is going to be coming at them, however, few defenses effectively slow them down. This is the true benchmark for a successful offensive scheme.

Why the Shanahan scheme is successful

The overarching philosophy that guides play design and game planning within the system is that if you allow defenses to make mistakes, they will then be in a position to take advantage of those mistakes and take advantage of defenses overreactions.

The effectiveness of the offense is dependent upon the effectiveness of the zone running game. An obvious key factor to the success of the run game is the quality of the running back. This is why the 49ers spend over $20 million a year on the position. The signing of McKinnon is a bust in hindsight, but the signing of Breida, an undrafted free agent, and Raheem Mostert were unbelievable. This is because Breida and Mostert are a perfect fit for a zone-blocking scheme; he has great vision, elusiveness, and footwork. They both take full advantage of big holes in the defense as they’re two of the fastest running backs in the league.

One thing that differentiates Shanahan from pretty much the rest of the NFL is the emphasis he places on the full-back position. Bringing in Kyle Jusyck from the Ravens has certainly paid dividends. Another thing that Shanahan emphasizes is versatility. Most fullbacks act solely as blockers in the run game, and thus if you put your fullback on the field and they don’t have the same versatility as Juscyk, the defense will know that you’re running the ball. However, there were multiple occasions this season where the 49ers have run play action with Juscyk on the field, and because defenses expect him to stay in and block, he gets open- such as his touchdown in the super bowl.

A common theme in any Shanahan offense is that the running backs have lots of opportunities to make catches and get yards after the catch. This is likely the main reason why Shanahan brought in Tevin Coleman from his former team.

Given a solid O-line, great play design, great FB, and a HB who’s a perfect fit for the system, it’s likely that the 49ers will be able to run effectively against most teams. Once defenses come to expect zone runs, Shanahan stays one step ahead of them as he usually switches to gap scheme runs, especially counters, but I’ve also seen him use ISO, power and DUO, so his run game is very diverse. Once the 49ers have established their dominance in the run game, they are able to land more substantive blows- i.e the execution of the run game can be effective, but the threat of the run game can be even more effective.

Like running backs, tight ends have a much bigger influence in the Shanahan scheme than for most other teams. Due to the effectiveness of the play design, TE’s consistently get open and thus have the opportunity to add yards after the catch. So, the key facet for a TE in the Shanahan scheme is to be able to add yards after the catch. I believe Kittle has a similar running style to Derrick Henry, one of the best runners in the game. They’re also nearly identical in terms of speed- Kittle ran a 4.52 and Henry ran a 4.54. This combination of physicality and speed is why Kittle had the most yards after the catch in 2018 among all players, which was higher than players such as Christian McCafferey.

When the defense gets used to these crossing routes from play action or bootleg, the 49ers have sometimes used bootleg throwbacks. Bootleg throwbacks are when the QB scrambles to the backside off a fake to the RB and subsequently throws to the play side, sometimes in the form of a screen.

Another common theme of the Shanahan scheme is to make the defense think you’re running one play and then pivot to another. When the 49ers run the ball, it’s generally from either the I formation or from split back. Both of these formations generally have 2 running backs on the field, and offenses are less likely to pass with two RB’s on the field. However, the 49ers have many plays designed to pass out of these formations- a key reason why pass catching ability is a key facet for RB’s in the system. Another formation that the 49ers use relatively frequently is what’s called wing slot right. Like pretty much every formation that the 49ers use, there is the option to make slight adjustments based on whether you want to run or the pass the ball. The tightness of the split of the X receiver is a good indicator of whether it will be a pass or run; if it’s a pass he will be split out wider and vice versa.

Another theme of the scheme, which is similar to the previous one, is to use motions to make it appear you’re running a different play to the one you actually are- i.e run variations of the same play. This is what most coaches refer to as ‘window dressing’. This is something that Sean McVay, who spent time with Shanahan in Washington and who the Shanahan scheme has a had lot of influence on his play design and philosophies, uses a lot. This theme adheres to the overarching philosophy of the system as it gives the defense more opportunities to make mental errors.

After the league saw what his offense is capable of it will be interesting to see how Shanahan stays one step ahead of defensive coordinators as he will undoubtedly continue to adapt and diversify his offense.


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