© Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
The defining theme of the 49ers season, as head coach Kyle Shanahan described it, is the team’s “ability to win in different ways.”
When the offense couldn’t help but discover new ways to turn the ball over in the early going, including a prolific five-turnover outing against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the defense was consistently defiant, with an Arik Armstead sack-fumble late in that game reversing the momentum.
The defense did this while injuries infiltrated the offense, with Joe Staley, Mike McGlinchey, Weston Richburg (IR), Kyle Juszczyk, George Kittle, Matt Breida, Tevin Coleman and Deebo Samuel all missing time.
But that injury glut hit the defense down the stretch, with Jaquiski Tartt, Dee Ford, Kwon Alexander (IR-returned), D.J. Jones (IR), Ronald Blair III (IR) and Damontre Moore (IR) all missing significant time. Even Richard Sherman was forced to sit out against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 16.
And it was those times when the offense marauded. With a combination of a devastating run game and efficient passing, Jimmy Garoppolo was clutch in each shootout or late-game situation that required a pass-heavy diet.
A chameleon-like running game
But for as many ways as this team has won, the past two weeks of the playoffs have felt familiar.
Similar to the 54-13, 232-yard rushing beatdown of the Carolina Panthers in Week 8, and the 20-7 boa constrictor win over the Los Angeles Rams in Week 6. The 49ers trailed only the Baltimore Ravens with 144.1 rushing yards per game, and led the league with 23 rushing touchdowns.
The Minnesota Vikings and Packers have felt the brutality of death by steamroller. Both have been constant, smothering wins led by Raheem Mostert’s career-defining breakout moments and led by a dominant, collective blocking effort.
The Shanahan zone-blocking scheme has proven itself malleable enough to exert dominance in any style of run.
The 49ers employ a multitude of different runs, with the outside zone being the omnipresent style in the past two weeks. As fullback Kyle Juszczyk said, each week sees a different type of run take over, depending on where the defense shows its weaknesses.
“I think that’s one of the many reasons it is so successful because you know certain defensive schemes are designed to take away a gap run. Another one is designed to take away wide zone,” Juszczyk said. “But when you can run the gap scheme, the wide zone, the misdirection, the inside zones, there’s not too many defensive schemes that are built to take away every single one of those.
“I feel like throughout the season, each week one of those schemes has kind of taken over and been the reason we won that game. It really hasn’t been one or the other each week. It’s been a certain one that’s kind of taken off, so we feel like we can do them all.”
That adaptability, in combination with Mostert’s decisiveness in finding holes and hitting them with his breakneck speed, saw Mostert become the first player in NFL history to rush for more than 200 yards and four touchdowns in a playoff game last Sunday against the Packers.
The 49ers are only the 10th team in NFL history to have two-straight games of 186-plus rushing yards (this year’s Tennessee Titans were another). Prior to this season, that feat had not been accomplished since the Los Angeles Raiders did it in three-straight games with Eric Dickerson in 1984.
Robert Saleh said earlier this season that he’d rather be passed on for 500 yards than run on for 250. Why?
“It’s more backbreaking.”
Mostert’s running rampage has been just that: backbreaking. No chance for a comeback, no glimmer of hope, just an unrelenting, physical beatdown.
Blocking out wide
No one who has been following the 49ers is surprised by that trend, though. It’s the result of a concerted blocking effort and synchronicity, not just from the offensive line, which has been excellent, but from the fullback, the tight ends, and crucially, the wide receivers.
As cliché as talking about how a team has “bought in” is, it’s a fact that the 49ers’ wide receiving corps has been sold on their role as blockers. And they’ve learned to enjoy it, too.
In an old training camp install from Mike Shanahan’s 2004 Denver Broncos, there’s a section labeled: “Accountability.” Inside, there are a few instructions for each position group. For the wide receiver group, No. 1 sounds eerily familiar:
“1. Be physical and relentless in the run game blocking scheme. We will be committed to the run game or you won’t be on the field!”
Kendrick Bourne told KNBR that emphasis is nearly identical for these 49ers.
“That was one of the first things they emphasize, the techniques and when we got to go inside to block a DB or going outside, so they definitely emphasize that more than passing when we first do our install,” Bourne told KNBR. “If you don’t block, we all, in our room, we all get on each other the same way as coaches get on us, so if you don’t block man, you’re gonna hear it from everybody in the room. So we’ve all got do our job.”
Asked about his receivers buying into the run game, Kyle Shanahan sounded much like his father’s 2004 install reads.
“I think it’s just holding people accountable from the beginning. Then you just set a standard as it is and every time you watch tape you point it out,” Shanahan said. “Some people don’t point it out very much and don’t think you can get that out of wideouts, but that’s what we do from the first play that we’re with someone until the last play…
“They’re as big of a part of it as anyone on the field and the more you point that out I think the more they enjoy it. I think guys don’t always get that pointed out all the time and once they realize how big of a deal that it is for them I think guys take pride in it.”
That enjoyment and pride isn’t a gimmick. Emmanuel Sanders told KNBR that blocking doesn’t need to be stressed because “it’s expected,” and that he might enjoy sealing a block for a touchdown more than a receiving touchdown.
“Man, that’s the best feeling. That’s the best feeling,” Sanders said. “I think sometimes that’s better than catching a touchdown pass, when you can go in and block and be the reason why he goes into the end zone. That’s just an incredible feeling.”
Deebo Samuel, who had two touchdown-sealing blocks for Mostert in the NFC Championship game, said the same thing.
“I just think it’s fun,” Samuel told KNBR. “Really, DBs don’t like a lot of contact so when they see a receiver that’s able take it to them, they really don’t like it. As you can see, as the game went on, you can start to see that little demeanor change.”
Samuel credited wide receivers coach Wes Welker and offensive quality control Miles Austin for how they’ve helped the group know their responsibility in the run game. The mentality is clear:
“Just go out there and be a dog.”
The soul-taking tight ends
That’s not quite as severe a maxim as the one that defines the George Kittle-led tight end room.
Ross Dwelley told KNBR – when asked about sealing a block for a touchdown – what the mentality of those tight ends is. It’s almost medieval in its prescription.
“It’s all just ‘want to’ and trying to take the other person’s soul,” Dwelley said. “That’s our mentality as a team. We just try to take the other team’s soul. It starts with the run game and it follows with the pass game.”
You can look back at the film of just about any game this season and find Kittle driving a defensive player downfield. The most maniacal example was in Week 15, when he rolled over Atlanta Falcons defender Ricardo Allen on a touchdown run while laughing.
George Kittle was laughing at the end of his pancake block 😂🤣 pic.twitter.com/hE8dsuCm4P
— Footballism™ (@FootbaIIism) January 18, 2020
It’s unsurprising for a group that goes back in film study and counts the number of finishes (any time a block takes a defender to the ground) it has each game.
But it also stems back to Kittle’s days at the run-heavy University of Iowa, who can’t seem to stop breeding NFL-caliber tight ends (Noah Fan, T.J. Hockenson among others.
Kittle’s tight end coach at Iowa, LeVar Woods, had spent his previous years as linebackers coach. In doing so, he came from the perspective of understanding what is necessary to take a linebacker out of the play in the run game.
And in Santa Clara, tight ends coach Jon Embree changed Kittle’s life in telling him that people want to move out of his way, and that if Kittle literally just ran through people, they would either move or be moved.
“I don’t know how much he knew about tight ends, but he did everything he could to be the best coach he could be,” Kittle said of Woods. “He helped me a lot. He was the first coach that really helped me get on the field as a tight end. I still keep in contact with him. He came to the game in Seattle. He was at the NFC Championship game. When you have a guy like that, a relationship with him, it means the world to me.”
Levine Toilolo told KNBR Embree strikes a balance between coaching with intensity and being laid back.
“He always keeps things fun and light, but same time, if he needs to, he can definitely turn up the intensity and kind of get us going and make sure that if he has to he can really get on us to really try to raise our level of play and and just make sure we have the right mentality,” Toilolo said.
Embree, who was the tight ends coach with the Washington Redskins in 2010 and Cleveland Browns in 2014 when Shanahan was offensive coordinator in both places, was brought back by Shanahan as his tight ends (and assistant coach) in 2017.
Sometimes that brutal old school nature can clash with Shanahan’s desire to put player health at a premium. But the results are evident:
“An hour before practice every day you can always hear the sleds outside because [tight ends/assistant coach] Jon Embree takes those tight ends out every single day and they hit sleds every day to where eventually I’m like, ‘Hey dude you don’t need to do it anymore.’ But, he does. That’s what he believes in and I’ve seen the results. I mean, those guys only get better, they don’t get worse in anything.
They play through injuries, they’re extremely reliable and very talented. Kittle, everyone knows what he’s done in the pass game, but he has never once in three years came up to me during a game and said hey I need this route or hey we’ve got to do this. He’s never once came up to me about a pass play, but he comes up to me about every seven plays about what type of run play we need to do, who we need to allow him to hit, things like that. It makes it very fun to call plays for him.”
It’s all about the details
Of course, it’s not all mentality and pinpointed aggression. The payoff is a result of film study and repetition, nailing the “details” that the 49ers stress to an almost bothersome degree.
There’s the 16-inch splits between the linemen, the hand placement, the leg-loading, the timing with get-off, snap count, when to move off double-team blocks, when to move to the second level. It’s a meticulous procedure of repetition.
While the defensive line has the “raccoon on meth” that is the ever-energetic Kris Kocurek, John Benton’s style is much more reserved. He watches reps intently, making corrections or providing advice when the opportunity presents itself.
“He’s not the same personality as Kocurek by any means. But no, JB is great. I’ve loved my two years with JB,” said Mike McGlinchey. “He’s helped me continue to grow each and every day as a player. His personality is very player-friendly. JB, he’s not a yeller, he’s not a screamer, but he will get on you when you’re not doing the right thing, but he’s such a good communicator and able to keep the culture of our room the way it is.”
There’s a general rule of blocking, as Ben Garland described to KNBR.
“Inside hands always,” Garland said. “Control the chest, control the inside and you’ll be a good spot.”
The “unsung hero”
Former 49ers tight end Charle Young, a member of the 1981 Super Bowl-winning team, described Juszcyk as the “unsung hero” of the team. Earl Cooper, who was the fullback that year, told KNBR he saw nostalgia in Juszczyk.
“Oh yeah. I can tell people, ‘Hey, that’s what I did.’ That’s how they used me when I was in San Francisco,” Cooper said. “I’d run a corner route, I’d run a hook over the middle. I’d run a five-yard out from the split position, they call it the red formation, because you’re out on the back and running an option route; depends on how the linebacker’s shading you, inside or out.”
While Juszczyk is always a threat to surprise in the pass game, his value is his blocking. There are constant examples of him sealing a second-level block on a linebacker that springs a half-dozen-yard gain into an open field footrace between a running back and defensive back.
#49ers’ Mike McGlinchey and Kyle Juszczyk lead the way on a crack toss to Matt Breida.
Having blockers that can move in space is vital to Kyle Shanahan’s zone-run blocking schemes. pic.twitter.com/0mjLA7CbpQ
— Fourth and Nine (@fourth_nine) July 18, 2019
Shanahan’s use of the fullback might buck the NFL’s pass-heavy trend, but it’s a reminder of why the fullback was so important for so long. It provides an extra blocker in the run game, and one who often moves upfield to clear space for the feature back.
“I like having a fullback because I feel like that’s the only way you can dictate your terms. When you have a fullback in the game, if you really want to run the ball, you can run the ball regardless of what the defense is doing,” Shanahan said.
The beneficiary of all of this are those speedy backs, of course, with Mostert having earned his place at the top of that pecking order.
His years as one of the NFL’s best special teams gunners secured him a spot in San Francisco, and eventually, as general manager John Lynch said, the 49ers realized he was “pretty good” running with the ball, too.
Mostert has been abundantly appreciative his opportunity, which has transformed him from a supporting cast member to one of the stories of the Super Bowl. His humility is a constant as he displayed when asked about the multiple times this season he’s run untouched into the end zone.
“It’s pretty cool man,” Mostert said. “None of that would happen if it wasn’t for the guys that are down there in the nitty gritty man, and are grinding it out in order to allow me, and all the other running backs or receivers to get those big plays so they do a great job, and like I said I can’t give enough credit to them.”
That appreciation between Mostert and his blockers is mutual.
“He’s just he’s an absolute warrior out there,” McGlinchey said. “He plays so hard, runs so hard. And on top of just his physical ability is he’s a very, very selfless player. He’s made made his living as a special teams standout and you know when his number was called upon he always knew that he was capable of more than that. His numbers have been called upon this year to become our leading rusher and the job that he’s done over the last five years, five or six games. It’s been dominant. I don’t think there’s anybody better in the NFL.”