The Detroit Lions will attempt to bounce back from the Week 1 shellacking they suffered at the hands of the New York Jets by facing off against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. The 49ers have been a team at the bottom of league for years now and even lost to the Minnesota Vikings last week. This iteration of the 49ers is much stronger than those of the past, though, and it is mainly because of the presence of former Falcons offensive coordinator turned head coach Kyle Shanahan.
Shanahan earned his reputation as the Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator when he was the mastermind of the league’s best offense in 2016. He is a creative play caller that uses interesting formations, a lot of pre-snap motion, RPOs, play actions and other elements that keep defenses on their toes. Tight ends, running backs and fullbacks play huge roles within his offenses as they create matchup problems and sometimes can slip through the cracks of a defense’s coverage.
San Francisco opened their season against one of the league’s best defenses last week, but Shanahan still managed to work a bit of magic. Non-wide receivers combined for seven receptions for 151 yards—for comparison’s sake, the wide receivers combined for eight receptions for 110 yards.
Tight end George Kittle was the star of the show Sunday as he accounted for five receptions and 90 yards. Shanahan lined him up everywhere on the field and found creative ways to get him into space.
Minnesota did a great job disguising their coverage on this play, showing zone and playing man, but Kittle still got free and punished them for a decent gain. The variety of motion, play action and RPOs that San Francisco uses do a lot to defenses. First, the motion usually gives a look at whether the defense is playing man or zone coverage. Second, it overloads the defense. With so much for a defense to account for both pre and post snap, even the best players can make the simplest of mistakes. On the above play, the linebacker responsible for Kittle was Eric Kendricks, one of the smartest defenders in all of football. He was frozen for a few seconds with all the charades the 49ers were putting on and just lost track of his man.
The final and most understated effect it has on defenses is the “Shanahan Factor.” Any defense that spent an entire week studying film on the offensive coordinator is aware of his reputation and his amazing use of motion to confuse a defense. This makes dummy motions, like the receiver who shifts one yard to his right at the bottom of the screen pre-snap, live within the mind of the defenders. The motion looks almost useless, and it was useless, but just that quick action is one more thing defenders have to worry about.
Shanahan builds upon his play calling throughout the game and often will just run the same play again with a slightly tweaked formation. On this play later in the game, the 49ers have Kittle run the same route, but this time to the other side of the field. A play-action is used instead of an RPO but it again frees up Kittle for an easy pass into open space.
The offensive coordination also uses a variety of motion and trickery in the red zone as well. With the field so compressed near the goal line, it’s incredibly hard to create space for a receiver, but the 49ers manage to do so anyways.
San Francisco runs a creative slip screen here to get Kittle into space with a lead blocker in front. The pre-snap motion out wide by fullback Kyle Juszczyk not only shows zone coverage but also removes a defender from the area they want to exploit. Kittle’s initial block takes away another defender and the lead block from tackle Joe Staley takes out one more. Just like that three defenders at the second level are taken out of the picture, opening space in the most congested area of the field. Kittle gets a good gain and sets up the 49ers near the goal line.
San Francisco may have won the game had Kittle not dropped a huge pass on a well-schemed play.
The 49ers had ran two similar plays to this one earlier in the game, except they had previously handed the ball off to Matt Breida once and ran a jet sweep on another. Minnesota’s defense probably recognized the play by this point, and they seemed over-eager to sniff out both Breida and Pettis by this point. Kittle yet again came all the way across the offensive line then released out into the large seam they two decoys left behind.
Kittle dropped this pass, but had he caught it San Francisco would have gained at least 50 yards, if not a deep touchdown. Detroit will not be able to count on Kittle dropping a key pass once again.
Shanahan is great at getting running backs and fullbacks involved as well. Juszczyk’s lone catch of the day was a deep reception where he was schemed wide open.
The fullback is split out wide here against the Vikings mixed coverage. The receiver runs one corner out of the play. The safety is distracted and doesn’t seem at all aware of the fullback’s threat. This creates a huge gain for the 49ers on a rare pass to a fullback.
So what does this mean for the Detroit Lions?
The Lions have been awful at covering tight ends and running backs in the passing game for years now. None of their linebackers are great in coverage and it’s hard to see how they plan on making sure Kittle does not have another huge day.
Jarrad Davis in particular has a lot of issues over the past year dealing with motion and play-action. He seems over-eager to bite on anything shown to him post-snap and often will just voluntarily run himself out of plays. It will take a lot of great game planning from Matt Patricia and Paul Pasqualoni to deal with the 49ers this week.
We may be in for another rough day for the Lions defense.