Kyle Shanahan’s Scheme and Play-Calling Kept Packers Off Balance

The 49ers ran for a staggering 285 yards on 42 carries against the Packers in the NFC Championship Game. Much of that success was due to the 49ers being faster and more physical than Green Bay. But a significant reason for that success was the scheme and play-calling of Head Coach Kyle Shanahan.

The core of Shanahan’s game plan was to get the Packers going sideline to sideline with zone runs to the outside. He then mixed in some timely inside runs as well as some gap-scheme (trap/power/counter) to make it difficult for Packer defenders to read the flow of the offensive line and be able to quickly attack.

His first great call came on San Francisco’s initial scoring drive. This was 3rd-and-8, an obvious passing situation. The Packers were playing man coverage and threatening with pressure from Za’Darius Smith (#55) in the A-Gap.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

Shanahan didn’t call a pass here, though. Instead, he called a trap run. This play design is good for handling inside pressure looks because it allows the playside offensive linemen to block down and pin that inside pressure in the middle.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

Focus on Kyler Fackrell (#51) and Preston Smith (#91), who were both itching to rush the quarterback in this “obvious” passing situation. Fackrell got trapped, Smith rushed upfield off the edge and ran past Raheem Mostert as a result.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

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Great call, great execution. And with the Packers playing man coverage, many of their 2nd-level defenders were too late to react to Mostert bursting through the line of scrimmage, which turned a nice run into a 36-yard touchdown. 7-0 49ers.

On the 49ers’ next touchdown, the Packers were again showing pressure inside. Again, Green Bay was playing man coverage. Again, the 49ers ran a gap-scheme. This time it was power.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

Keep your eye on safety Adrian Amos (#31). He had tight end Ross Dwelley (#82) in man coverage and initially went inside with him, which took him out of the play.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

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Kyler Fackrell (#51) squeezed inside to take on the pulling guard and spill Mostert to the outside. Linebacker Blake Martinez (#50) was just a beat too slow to get to Mostert, though. Wide receiver Deebo Samuel (#19) also threw a pretty good block on safety Darnell Savage (#26) to help finish this run and give the 49ers a 17-0 lead.

This next touchdown ensured that this game was all but wrapped up by half time. Here, Jimmy Garoppolo saw that Za’Darius Smith (#55) was aligned wide to take away the outside run and that the Packers were thin inside. He also saw that the Packers were again playing man coverage. After having stretched the Packers horizontally all half, Garoppolo alerted to an inside zone. The result was a gaping hole and a 27-0 lead for the 49ers.

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It looked like Savage (#26) was responsible for this gap. However, he had George Kittle in man coverage and was initially occupied with him. He didn’t react to the run until it was too late.

In addition to the outside-vs-inside and zone-vs-gap games Shanahan was playing with the Packers, he also mixed in a heavy dose of motion and misdirection to keep Green Bay guessing. On the below play, the 49ers used counter-action with a pulling guard to sell this run to the left. Watch fullback Kyle Juszczyk (#44) initially step left to also sell the play before bending it back to the outside. He would become a lead blocker for wide receiver Deebo Samuel on an end-around.

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The Packers Defense couldn’t seem to tell up from down or left from right in this game.

The 49ers continue to get the reputation as a zone running team because of the last name of their head coach. While that is certainly a significant element of their rushing attack, Kyle Shanahan does a great job of mixing in gap-scheme runs and misdirection. As you can see from the snaps highlighted above, this was primarily how the 49ers were able to make their game-changing plays. They are headed to Super Bowl LIV as a result.

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