It looks like the 49ers will be a little short-handed at wide receiver to start 2020, at least until Deebo Samuel and rookie Brandon Aiyuk get healthy. This would be a significant issue for just about any offense in today’s pass-happy NFL. For the 49ers, it won’t be. San Francisco’s offense is based on their ground game, which Kyle Shanahan has built into arguably the most versatile rushing attack in the NFL.
Shanahan has proven himself to be among the best play-designers and play-callers in the league. He utilizes everything in his arsenal to attack defenses via the running game, including his wide receivers. But his use of motion and misdirection is possibly the biggest reason San Francisco’s rushing attack is so difficult to defend.
Often times, the impact is easy to see, as giant holes are created on a regular basis. Other times, the effect is more subtle. The below play against the Vikings in last year’s NFC Divisional Round is a great example, and one of our favorites from 2019. Shanahan was able to use motion and misdirection to dictate how the Vikings would position themselves to defend the run.
Here, wide receiver Kendrick Bourne (#84) initially motioned from left to right across the formation. This created a 3×1 alignment. The Vikings had the safety over Bourne follow him to get more defensive backs to the 3-receiver side. The strong-side linebacker then traded places with the safety.
However, Bourne quickly changed directions and sprinted back in motion to the left behind Jimmy Garoppolo. This time, the safety did not follow Bourne back. Instead, he stayed where he was, and the linebacker to the weak side kicked out to account for Bourne’s motion.
The 49ers often use this type of motion right before the snap, so Minnesota likely wanted to keep their defenders in position to avoid any confusion there might have been if they tried to have their safety and linebacker switch back.
Ultimately, the motion left the Vikings with just 6 men in the box and it forced them to replace a linebacker inside with a smaller safety. The 49ers then ran the ball right at him.
Most linebackers wouldn’t jump out of the hole like that to avoid blockers. Great design by Shanahan.
The 49ers have more than enough in the running game to navigate their early-season receiver issues. In case you forgot, they scored 37 points in last year’s NFC Championship while attempting just 8 passes. The early part of their schedule is also somewhat forgiving, as 4 of their first 5 opponents are the Cardinals, Jets, Giants, and Dolphins. They’ll be just fine.