Blame Kyle Shanahan All You Want, but it was the Lack of Execution that Doomed the 49ers Offense

For much of Super Bowl LIV, the 49ers were in control on offense. Through the first 3 quarters, they gained 292 yards on 37 plays for an average of 7.89 yards per play. That’ll win you most games in the NFL. They even teetered on the brink of running away with it. If not for a disastrous 4th quarter, some missed opportunities, and a few too many mistakes along the way, San Francisco would be celebrating their 6th Lombardi Trophy.

Outside Runs and Play-Action:
Kyle Shanahan’s approach in Super Bowl LIV clearly was to stretch the Chiefs from sideline to sideline. He did this with an assortment of outside runs, incorporating both his running backs and wide receiver Deebo Samuel.

The 49ers’ first touchdown drive was a thing of beauty, culminating in 5-straight plays that gained more than 11 yards.

The first play in that string was a shovel pass to Samuel (a run for all intents and purposes) for 16 yards.

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That was followed up with a sweep to the right by Raheem Mostert for 11 yards.

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Shanahan then came back with an outside zone run to the left with Tevin Coleman for 17 yards. Look at the split flow run action from tight ends George Kittle (aligned in the backfield) and Ross Dwelley (#82). They brought Kansas City’s 2nd-level defenders with them, opening up a huge lane for Coleman.

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Building off of their sideline-to-sideline offense, Shanahan came back two plays later with a play-action boot pass for a touchdown. Watch how safety Daniel Sorensen (#49) on the right side of the screen took just enough false steps inside to give Jimmy Garoppolo an opening. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk did the rest.

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Things continued that way for the 49ers. Shanahan kept the Chiefs off balance with his motion and misdirection, as we anticipated. That was complemented with a steady dose of play-action. Through the first 3 quarters, Garoppolo was 11-13 for 111 yds off of play action.

Garoppolo also did make a couple of good timely throws, including this 3rd-and-8 that set up the 49ers’ second touchdown. The Chiefs double-teamed Kittle on this play (in red) and accounted for Emmanuel Sanders‘ route over the middle with two defenders (in yellow).

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Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

This left the middle wide open for Kendrick Bourne‘s route, and Garoppolo put the ball on the money for a 26-yard gain.

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2 Plays later, the 49ers were in the end zone with a 10-point lead.

49ers Made Mistakes, and the Chiefs Defense Made Plays:
The 49ers didn’t give away the Super Bowl. They lost for a combination of reasons. Patrick Mahomes was phenomenal down the stretch. The 49ers Offense made enough mistakes along the way and then didn’t execute in the 4th quarter. The Chiefs Defense also deserves credit, because they kept the pressure on Garoppolo and impacted his ability to execute.

The only time the 49ers were stopped in the first half was when they stopped themselves. Garoppolo’s interception in the 2nd quarter was inexcusable. He was under pressure and looked to be throwing the ball away but had it sail on him as he took a punishing hit.

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That’s a mistake that can’t happen in Week 3, let alone the Super Bowl. Take the sack. Live to play another down.

To the Chiefs credit, this play was initially caused by immediate inside pressure from defensive tackle Chris Jones (#95), who beat right guard Mike Person (#68) at the snap.

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In the 2nd half, the 49ers had several missed opportunities that could have altered the game. Many of them were small, but they added up.

On this 3rd-and-5 in the 3rd quarter, Garoppolo didn’t throw to a wide-open George Kittle in the middle of the field for what would have been a first down (#85 on the right side).

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I’m not sure why he didn’t throw this. He appeared to look down the middle of the field initially, which means he should have seen the two linebackers who were showing blitz drop out. The drive still resulted in 3 points for the Niners, but maybe they put 7 on the board with a conversion there.

Leading 20-10 in the 4th quarter, Garoppolo missed high off of play-action on this 2nd-and-9 throw to Deebo Samuel.

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The ball sailed on Garoppolo because it was difficult for him to finish his follow through with a defender in his face. Steve Spagnuolo sent a blitz to apply more pressure with the Chiefs in desperation mode. Just about every time the 49ers missed or made a mistake, it was partially due to what the Kansas City was doing on defense.

On their next drive, leading 20-17, the 49ers faced a 3rd-and-5. Garoppolo had Kittle wide open over the middle again. He didn’t look in his direction, though, and instead appeared to lock on to Kendrick Bourne on the outside.

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Again, this wasn’t just on Garoppolo. Steve Spagnuolo did a great job of mixing up coverages throughout the game and bringing pressure. Garoppolo didn’t quite trust what he saw at various times. The blitz pressure also didn’t give him a ton of time to move from receiver to receiver, especially on this play.

Of course, the play everyone was talking about was the missed touchdown on 3rd-and-10 with just under 2 minutes remaining. Yes, Garoppolo missed this pass. Emmanuel Sanders was open.

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There is no question that Garoppolo regrets missing that touchdown. However, it’s not as easy of a throw as you might think. We see NFL quarterbacks fire incomplete on posts all the time because they put the ball on top of their receiver instead of leading him across the field. When you throw the ball on top of your receiver, you reduce margin for error. It has to be more of a perfect ball. Leading the receiver across the field can help avoid overthrows, and it also lets the receiver still run away from his defender.

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Put that ball between the hash marks with a little less velocity and Garoppolo has himself a touchdown. Again, we see many quarterbacks, even the great ones, miss this throw all the time.

Shanahan’s play-calling:
Kyle Shanahan deserves scrutiny for some of the decision he made in this game. His poor management of the clock at the end of the first half was a missed opportunity, especially considering how effective the 49ers had been at moving the ball to that point. Never pass up the opportunity to put points on the board when Patrick Mahomes is the quarterback on the other side of the field.

On the other hand, questioning Shanahan’s decision-making in the 4th quarter is after-the-fact thinking. It’s scrutiny based on having access to the results.

For starters, the 49ers got the ball back with 12 minutes remaining and only a 10-point lead. Is it really anyone’s expectation that they should have just run the ball the rest of the way? There was no chance the Chiefs weren’t going to get at least 2 more possessions. The 49ers didn’t need to run the clock for the sake of running it. They needed first downs.

Given that the Chiefs were playing close to the line of scrimmage at that point and crowding the box, the 49ers had to throw the ball at some point. Not to mention, the 49ers had carved them up with play-action all game. Kyle Shanahan didn’t get away from his bread-and-butter offense in a key moment, like many have suggested. The core elements of the 49ers Offense are running the ball and utilizing play-action, and that’s exactly what they did. The execution just wasn’t there.

But let’s go through the play-by-play and see where it takes us anyway.

49ers lead 20-10 with 11:57 remaining:
1st-and-10: Run for 6 yards.

2nd-and-4: Play-action pass for 12 yards (1st down). Interesting how no one has a problem with this playcall…

1st-and-10: Run for 1 yard.

2nd-and-9: Play-action pass (just like the previous 2nd down) incomplete. I guess this is the one that critics can second-guess the most. However, this was an alert by Garoppolo at the line. That means the run they had called against the look the Chiefs were giving was not a good one, so Garoppolo alerted to a play-action pass. And you know what? It was the correct alert. The play-design worked. As we highlighted earlier, though, the execution failed because the ball sailed on Garoppolo due to the pressure from Kansas City.

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3rd-and-14: After a false start, the 49ers were forced to throw. Garoppolo scrambled for 3 yards and the 49ers punted.

Next Possession, 49ers lead 20-17 with 6:06 remaining:
1st-and-10: Run for 5 yards.

2nd-and-5: Play-action pass incomplete. Watch George Kittle below on this play. He was aligned in the slot to the right and was wide open. Again, the play-call and design yielded what should have been a completion. This time, though, the pass was batted down at the line by Chris Jones.

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3rd-and-5: Pass incomplete.

What play-calls should Shanahan have changed on these two possessions? Maybe you could make the argument that the 2nd-and-9 play-call, where Garoppolo had the ability to alert to a pass, should have been a run. However, the Chiefs were crowding the line of scrimmage. With it 2nd-and-9, why not try to throw, especially into a favorable look? A run against a bad look, which likely results in a minimal gain and sets up a 3rd-and-long, wouldn’t have helped the 49ers seal the victory. There were still 10 minutes left. First downs were needed at that point, not clock-winding at the expense of yards.

On San Fran’s next drive, there were 6 minutes remaining. The 49ers were up by 3. Running the clock doesn’t do anything at that point if they don’t get first downs. The entire offense needed to be at Shanahan’s disposal there.

It seems that all of the second-guessing of Kyle Shanahan has more to do with his role in the Falcons Super Bowl LI collapse against the Patriots while he was the offensive coordinator. That game and those situations were completely different, though.

The Falcons led by 16 with 8:30 remaining and faced a 3rd-and-1. The only thing they couldn’t do was turn the ball over. Yet Shanahan put his offense in position to do just that by calling a play designed to hit 40 yards downfield. This was a play that required the quarterback to hold the ball. It required time, yet Shanahan relied on just his 5 offensive linemen and a 5’8” running back to provide that time when the Patriots were desperate and likely to be aggressive. That play-call deserves scrutiny.

Not running the ball 3 straight times from the Patriots 22-yard line when all you need is a field goal to ice the game, only to lose 23 yards and punt instead…That decision should be 2nd guessed.

Shanahan’s decisions in the 4th quarter of Super Bowl LIV should not be, though. The 49ers didn’t blow this lead because they failed to run the ball enough with 11 minutes remaining. They lost because they didn’t execute when they needed to.

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