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Barber: Kyle Shanahan’s play-calling lifts 49ers over Cardinals 36-26

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SANTA CLARA - Five minutes had elapsed in the second quarter of Sunday’s game at Levi’s Stadium, and the 49ers trailed the Arizona Cardinals 16-0.

To that point, the Niners had gained exactly 2 yards (not counting penalties) in three possessions. Their best offensive player, tight end George Kittle, was watching from a luxury suite in street clothes. Their second most dangerous receiver, wideout Emmanuel Sanders, was nursing a rib injury and seemed to be in some pain. The rest of the receiving corps was coming off a game in which it dropped the ball more often than a deadbeat dad. The Cardinals, feeling unthreatened, were stacking the box and shutting down San Francisco’s heralded run game.

In effect, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan had no real playmakers. So he fell back on the most valuable asset in his offensive system: his own play-calling.

“I feel like that’s when he gets most creative, and he finds a way to dial something up that has a chance to be a big play,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk said after the game. “I feel like when things aren’t moving very well, he doesn’t keep it very vanilla. He finds something that he thinks can really spark us.”

Shanahan did just that Sunday. He shook himself out of his own play-sheet doldrums and delivered the turnaround that led to an unnerving but important 36-26 win.

It all started with a screen pass to Richie James Jr. The second-year wide receiver is best known as the 49ers’ punt and kickoff returner. He is an afterthought in the passing attack, with five receptions entering the Arizona game. But when San Francisco got the ball at its 25-yard line with 9:03 left in the second period, Shanahan dialed one up for James. The receiver faked a jet sweep and continued running to the left flat. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo tossed it to him there, and James had clear sailing.

“There’s so much going on in that play,” Juszczyk said. “Your eyes are going everywhere and then all of a sudden there’s a guy sitting with a bunch of offensive linemen in front of him. It’s a pretty good design.”

Guard Mike Person and center Weston Richburg formed a 600-pound convoy for James, leading him miles downfield. Fifty-seven yards later, the 49ers were set up in the red zone.

The next play wasn’t nearly as dramatic, but it kept the momentum going. Garoppolo threw a pass to Juszczyk that picked up 14 tough yards, down to the Arizona 4.

“That’s another example of Kyle — he’s dialed up that specific play multiple times when we’re not really moving,” the fullback said. “It’s one that I’ve caught before, where I’m entering through the line of scrimmage like it’s an inside zone iso(lation) block. And then I try to slip that guy and run up the sideline. He didn’t bite too much on the iso.”

Just enough to give Garoppolo a window into a completion, though. Three plays later, the quarterback found tight end Ross Dwelley at the back of the end zone for a touchdown. That broke the ice. By the 11:07 mark of the third quarter, the 49ers had taken a 17-16 lead.

This was San Francisco’s third consecutive close game, and its second straight nail-biter at Levi’s, and there were a multitude of factors that influenced the final score. The good and bad of Jimmy Garoppolo. A breakout game from rookie wide receiver Deebo Samuel. Huge fourth-quarter defensive plays by ancillary plays Damontre Moore and D.J. Reed Jr.

But Shanahan’s play-calling is what turned the tide.

A lot of it had to do with screen passes. It’s no secret the 49ers’ receiving corps is thin, especially when Kittle doesn’t play. Samuel was fantastic Sunday, and other guys contributed. But without Kittle, the Niners just don’t stretch a defense and force it to abandon its core concepts. So Shanahan has to get inventive.

It wasn’t just the 57-yard screen pass to James. Juszczyk had a big one for 19 yards (once again, Person and Richburg led the way) that set up another scoring pass to Dwelley in the third quarter. The fullback also had a 9-yard gain on another screen early in the fourth quarter, this time to the right side, that helped set the stage for a touchdown pass to Bourne.

This is nothing new for Shanahan. It was play-calling that made him so appealing to the 49ers and other teams when he got his first head coaching opportunity in 2017. Through stints as offensive coordinator at Houston, Washington, Cleveland and Atlanta, he developed a reputation for being prickly (a reputation, I must say, for which we have seen little evidence in Santa Clara). His Xs and Os were never in doubt.

“Most definitely,” said 49ers running back Tevin Coleman, who also played for Shanahan with the Falcons. “Because he’s the type of guy that, he watches a lot of film, he’s detailed. And he knows where guys are supposed to be, and he knows how to get guys the ball.”

I would go so far as to suggest that almost nothing in the world makes Kyle Shanahan as happy as the challenge of calling plays, down after down, in a close game. He’s the son of famed NFL coach and offensive strategist Mike Shanahan, after all. This is what Kyle was bred to do.

And yet with a minute left in Sunday’s game, the 49ers were losing again. Garoppolo tooketh, but he gaveth away, too, with a pair of second-half interceptions. And the Cardinals came through with a 78-yard touchdown drive to go up 26-23 late in the contest.

Shanahan had one more trick up his sleeve. With 37 seconds remaining, the 49ers were perched at the Arizona 25-yard line. They still trailed by a field goal. Into the game came Jeff Wilson Jr., who is normally San Francisco’s fourth-team running back, but on this day, with Matt Breida injured, was elevated to third string. It was Wilson’s first scrimmage play of the game.

The Cardinals should have seen the surprise coming. Wilson came out of the backfield, made a jab step toward the left sideline to confuse a linebacker, then cut and ran toward the goal post. Arizona was in “cover zero,” with no safety help. Garoppolo hit Wilson in stride for what proved to be the game-winning touchdown. “Well, Kyle is a mastermind,” Wilson said later. “I just have to give that all to him.”

I asked Wilson a follow-up question about Shanahan’s scheming, and the running back said, “He’s a wizard. He’s a genie in a bottle. He’s just that guy.”

After the game, that guy acknowledged that it’s no Sunday stroll to match wits with Arizona defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, or any other NFL coach. “It’s exhausting, whether you’re a head coach or a coordinator,” Shanahan said. “There’s not much difference when you’ve got to focus that long. It’s exhausting for me.”

The only thing more draining, one would presume, is to coach against Shanahan.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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