SANTA CLARA — For all the wrinkles and formations in Kyle Shanahan’s new offense as 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, how they, 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.