Shana­han wants play-ac­tion with 49ers

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NFL / MOTOR SPORTS -

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — For all the wrin­kles and for­ma­tions in Kyle Shana­han’s new of­fense as San Fran­cisco 49ers coach, there is one as­pect that might be most im­por­tant.

As one of the league’s big­gest pro­po­nents of play-ac­tion passes out of the same for­ma­tions as his base run plays, Shana­han’s phi­los­o­phy is to make the defense com­mit to stop­ping the run or pass and then beat the de­fend­ers by run­ning the

op­po­site.

By mak­ing run plays look like passes and passes like runs, Shana­han wants to make the defense re­act a step late crash­ing against the run even on a hand­off or drop­ping back in cov­er­age on a pass.

“If it looks the ex­act same and that guy does what he does to make a zero-yard run, but he also has to get un­der a 15-yard route, that puts that guy in a bind,” Shana­han said. “If he’s stop­ping the run, it’s go­ing to help out the re­ceiver and the quar­ter­back. If he’s not stop­ping the run be­cause he’s so wor­ried about the re­ceiver and quar­ter­back, now you’re get­ting 4 yards be­fore that guy shows up. It makes peo­ple hes­i­tate. If you let a defense tee off in this league, they’re usu­ally go­ing to get af­ter you once you be­come one-di­men­sional.”

Teach­ing play-ac­tion has been one of the keys so far this off­sea­son for the 49ers. While much is made of the abil­ity of a quar­ter­back and run­ning back to sell the play fake and make the defense hes­i­tate, most of the de­fend­ers use the of­fen­sive line as their key to what play is be­ing run.

So Shana­han runs a lot of his play-ac­tion out of the same looks that make up the bulk of his run­ning game with the out­side zone runs. The line­men start the play block­ing the same way they do on a run, putting the de­fend­ers in a bind that the quar­ter­back can then ex­ploit as soon as he pulls the ball back from the run­ning back.

“When the of­fen­sive line comes off like it’s the run, you can see times where we watch the film and the lineback­ers are re­act­ing to them,” 49ers quar­ter­back Brian Hoyer said. “They’re not even look­ing at us. They’re look­ing at the of­fen­sive line’s in­ten­tion, the full­back, the tight end. We’ve just got to do the end part of it.”

Den­ver line­backer Bran­don Mar­shall said it takes the en­tire of­fense work­ing in sync to pull off the fake prop­erly, from the run­ning back go­ing full speed as if he’s get­ting the ball to the quar­ter­back hid­ing the ball. Mar­shall said for­mer team­mate Pey­ton Man­ning was the best he’s seen at that.

But the most im­por­tant as­pect is the of­fen­sive line.

“They can’t fire out,” Mar­shall said. “It’s re­ally a pass block. But it’s re­ally the fake. I think that’s what it is. Be­cause in the play-ac­tion, you’re re­ally try­ing to suck up the line­backer or the safety. So, it’s re­ally on the fake, how the line­men fire out, just the man­ner­isms and ev­ery­thing. The quar­ter­back has to re­ally sell it, hold it out there and make the guy be­lieve that it’s a run play.”

San Fran­cisco safety Eric Reid, who has played against Shana­han’s of­fenses in games and now in prac­tice, said de­fend­ers try to key on the hel­mets of the of­fen­sive line­men. If they are high at the snap, that usu­ally means they’re pre­par­ing to drop back and pass pro­tect. If they are lower, it of­ten means they are try­ing to get un­der a de­fender to get drive on a run block.

The key for suc­cess­ful play-ac­tion teams is hid­ing those in­ten­tions, which works es­pe­cially well when paired with a strong run­ning game like Dal­las had last sea­son with Ezekiel El­liott.

“They pair their play-ac­tion with their runs,” Cow­boys line­backer Sean Lee said. “They look very sim­i­lar and they do it re­ally well. That’s what makes our team so ef­fec­tive. You’re wor­ried about stop­ping the run be­cause you know you have to stop a guy like Zeke with this of­fen­sive line and all of a sud­den they get all this play-ac­tion be­hind it. It’s re­ally, re­ally hard. You have to be dis­ci­plined with your keys. You’ve got to get a good feel for it.”

The use of play-ac­tion has dropped around the league from about 21 percent of pass plays from 2012-14 to 18.5 percent last sea­son, ac­cord­ing to game-chart­ing data from Foot­ball Out­siders, as fewer teams re­lied as heav­ily on the zone read the past two sea­sons.

But one play-caller has been a con­sis­tent pro­po­nent of play-ac­tion, with Shana­han’s At­lanta team last year lead­ing the NFL by us­ing play-ac­tion on 27 percent of pass plays, about 50 percent more than the league av­er­age. Since tak­ing his first job as a co­or­di­na­tor in Hous­ton in 2008, Shana­han’s of­fenses have ranked in the top 10 in play-ac­tion use ev­ery sea­son, ac­cord­ing to Foot­ball Out­siders, also ranking first in 2012 and fin­ish­ing sec­ond in 2014 in Cleve­land when Hoyer was also his quar­ter­back.

The strat­egy re­mains suc­cess­ful no mat­ter how of­ten it is uti­lized with teams av­er­ag­ing 7.9 yards per pass play on play-ac­tion to 6.2 yards per play on other pass plays, ac­cord­ing to Foot­ball Out­siders, as play-ac­tion of­ten leads to bet­ter pro­tec­tion and deeper throws.

Shana­han

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