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San Francisco 49ers

What you need to know about 49ers heading into camp

San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, left, watches as players warm up with general manager John Lynch, right, and Stanford head football coach David Shaw during the 49ers organized team activity at its NFL football training facility in Santa Clara, Calif., Thursday, June 8, 2017. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

Head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch realize what a big job they have in front of them as they work to revive the San Francisco 49ers. The once-proud franchise has been in a free fall for the last three seasons after being a playoff contender every year in the Jim Harbaugh era.

This is a bad roster, with little explosiveness or big-play capabilities, and this new regime is in the midst of major personnel changes. All the new players at training camp may not get recognized. But that is what happens when a team is this bad. This will be a slow rebuild and the patience of the 49ers faithful will really be tested.

Offense

They will make the transition from Chip Kelly’s spread offense to a more physical approach, and that means using a fullback and blocking tight ends. Shanahan wants a strong run game to set up play action and he will run or pass out of all of his varied personnel groupings.

With such a poor group of players, he will be forced to be very creative with his schemes and try to “out-coach” his opponents, because he won’t win games by simply outplaying his opponent. This will be a matchup-oriented offense and these coaches may get their players to play better than their skill sets indicate.

Find the right matchup

This is an Atlanta play that Shanahan is expected to run. The offense shows two wide receivers right and one tight end left with an I-formation backfield (fullback and running back), and the quarterback under center. On the snap, the outside right receiver, Julio Jones, motions left and that gets everybody’s attention. He fakes a reverse as the defense drifts that way, including the cornerback covering him, and is followed all the way across the formation. The inside right wide receiver runs a vertical route to take his coverage deep and now there’s a lot of room to work.

They show a play action run off tackle right to freeze the linebackers, but as they get through the line of scrimmage, the running back breaks inside and the fullback releases outside the slot. The defense is caught flat-footed, with nobody close to him, as the safety recovers late, and it results in a huge play. It is the perfect example of Shanahan not being afraid to find his secondary weapons to bring them the best matchup, and he will use his fullback a lot.

Defense

Under new coordinator Robert Saleh, there will be a much sounder 43 scheme with a lot of cover 3 schemes. This is a good fit for a defense that lacks playmakers, and they need to play in a simple assignment-oriented attack.

Their 2016 stats are awful in almost all areas and they are a terrible matchup group, but the first thing they need to fix is their run defense. They don’t make early down stops and that makes them vulnerable on third down, keeping a bad group of players on the field for too many snaps.  They won’t be helped by an offense that will have a lot of 3-and-outs. Until the 49ers get better players, they will have to play it safe with a “bend but don’t break” philosophy. They will be a less impressive version of Seattle’s defense.

Smart pass defense

They rush four and drop seven into zones, and although this is a cover 2 on the back end, the 49ers will try to play cover 1 with free safety Jimmie Ward as the deep centerfielder (Earl Thomas role) and strong safety Eric Reid closer to the line of scrimmage (Kam Chancellor role). They also love to play their cornerbacks up before the snap in a tight/press look, but on the snap they often drop off into coverage ( cover 1 or cover 3), and sometimes will display man under/two-deep looks.

The quarterback targets the wide receiver right, who is running a deep out route. He wants to throw the ball over the cornerback and underneath/outside the safety, which is where you attack the cover 2. However, the safety  they try to exploit is Ward, and he gets a great break on the ball, reads the route, and makes a great sideline interception. These guys will try to “bait” QBs into mistakes.

5 additional summer film evaluations

  1. Can Shanahan be creative enough to overcome bad talent? — He has no choice because this roster has very few playmakers on both sides of the ball. He will constantly keep changing his personnel packages to get the right matchup and will roll out some gimmicks/exotic plays to cover up his players’ deficiencies. He will adapt his schemes to fit his players, but his biggest challenge will be his ability to get into a really good play-calling flow on game day to confuse opposing defenses.
  2. Their run defense must show improvement — The 49ers were last in the league a year ago but a new scheme and some help in the draft should make them a little better. Switching from a 34/two gap read and react front to a 43/one gap attacking mindset should help. If middle linebacker NaVarro Bowman can stay healthy and Reid can step up and play the Chancellor role seen in Seattle, that should translate into improvement. But until they get better players, they will not be elite.
  3. What will we see from the QB position? — Shanahan knows how to develop QBs but has his work really cut out for him in San Francisco. Veteran Brian Hoyer will be his QB and one positive is that he knows this scheme and the coaches will even adapt to fit his skill set. He will use a lot of spread sets, there will be no huddle plays and a QB who works out of the pocket. He has excellent short/intermediate accuracy, which is a huge requirement in Shanahan’s system, and they want a strong play-action package if they can produce a decent run game.
  4. This defense will look similar to what’s in Seattle — They have been a 34 front for several years, but now they will switch to a 43 scheme. These coaches inherit a bad overall defense and they have a few difference-makers. Saleh comes from the Pete Carroll coaching tree and that means a rush 4, drop 7 scheme, with limited blitzes and concentration on winning 1-on-1 battles. They may show man looks pre-snap, but they will often drop into a cover 3 zone on the snap. Because they don’t have elite players, they will adopt a “bend but don’t break” philosophy that tries to eliminate giving up big plays.
  5. Can this mixture of players at OL gel quickly? — The offensive line includes some so-so veterans and young developing players. Despite being really bad in 2016, the coaches think that they have made significant upgrades. These are not the players that Shanahan had in Atlanta and this group must adjust to the 49ers’ new zone blocking run game, with more quick passes and a lot of screens. These linemen will not be forced to hold their blocks as long because of those three- and five-step drops, and they will be led by their only elite player, left tackle Joe Staley.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Alex Ware

    Jul 17, 2017 at 7:14 am

    Umm – first diagram has 12 defenders. Yes – playing with 12 is much “sounder”

  2. MosesZD

    Jul 17, 2017 at 4:55 am

    I would disagree on ‘few difference makers’ on defense.

    1. PFF tells us that only JJ Watt is a better 5-technique DE in the NFL when it comes to pass rushing. He needs to work on his run defense, but considering he played both years with a partially-torn labrum, he did pretty well.
    2. Buckner was amazing last year and really progressed during the year.
    3. Foster projects to be Willis Rev. 2.0 and was even a better prospect!
    4. Bowman, while a liability in pass coverage now, is still an elite run stopper.
    5. Robinson is an outstanding young cornerback.
    6. Thomas’ pSPARQ was in the 97th percentile of all NFL DEs. And he’s a stud run-defender and good power-rusher.
    7. Witherspoon was the best cover-corner in the draft. If they guy would have tackled in college, he’d have been a Top-10 pick.

    It make take time for the unit to gell. And there are still many weak, or average-at-best, positions (nose tackle, elite pass rusher, at least one OLB and FS & SS) but the cupboard is not as bare as people think.

    The biggest problem, last year, was O’Neil’s defense plus a lack of depth with a run of injuries leaving a weak and poorly coached team in dire straights. In 2015, under Mangini, a substantially weaker unit than this one finished 18th in points. So I expect a rebound to mid-pack and continued growth in the future.

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