Kyle Shanahan’s approach to the passing game over his career has been rooted in a multitude of influences and a core west coast philosophy. It is easy to think that his high productions as a coordinator are based in high-flying, deep-threat scoring system but that is not the case.
The base of his offensive system is creating one on one coverage for his top receivers while systematically providing high percentage completions with underneath and mid-range routes for his quarterback out of the play-action and zone-run setups.
You can see from year to year the influences of everyone from Bill Walsh to his father Mike Shanahan or even Gary Kubiak or Jon Gruden. The consistent factor in his gameplans has been taking advantage of defensive players on the second level with multiple responsibilities.
Primarily, Shanahan’s offense picks on the linebackers that bite on the play-action and the safeties creeping up to cover the edge runs and underneath routes, or if they don’t. Forcing these players to second guess their commitments or delay them in the slightest while they analyze what is happening is where his scheme lives and breaths.
Shanahan keeps things balanced with the zone-run and play-action and focuses less on pocket passing and the deep threats all the while throwing verticle periodically to keep the defense from compensating. The QBs frequently throw across their bodies and hit short routes that defenders are trained to pay less attention to.
The reason for the lack of a true power running game is to keep this variable aspect alive on every play. Defenses cannot truly commit situationally when this happens and this is why Shanahan prefers the most versatile of players that can block, receive and run after the catch.
He mixes in speed to stretch out the fastest defenders over the top and prefers athletic offensive lineman that can run and follow the bootleg or general play-action.
This overall gives the versatility to run any play at any time and allows for his signature aggressiveness. This offense frequently runs high percentage pass plays when most teams would run and it pays off for the most part. Shanahan took a lot of scrutiny for his decision to pass in the 2016 Super Bowl at the end of the game instead of running out the clock with runs but, this style paid in spades throughout the year earning his team the 8th most prolific offense in NFL history.
He will learn from this most assuredly going forward.
In order to put a visual on what I am talking about, I will refer to a brilliant breakdown of a 99-yard drive during a game last year between Shanahan’s Atlanta Falcons and the Seattle Seahawks provided by Samuel Gold of FieldGulls.com:
When looking at the base concepts of many of his passing designs you see primarily, clear-out plays, levels plays and stacked receivers pulling coverage out of base formations as highlighted in an article by Matt Bowen of ESPN last year.
His clear-outs consist of play-actions designed to bring defenders up to play the run while the tight ends, fullbacks and running backs all peel off of their blocks or runs and make themselves available in the flats or underneath routes.
His levels routes do the same but with more WRs on the field and always provide for the high-percentage throws. This is why the QBs always seem to do well in his system, regardless of their super-star status.
Most of you would say that these are all concepts that all teams use but there are three factors that make Shanahan’s system dynamic.
First is the fact that he always sticks to this variable philosophy. Second is that his aggressive nature keeps this variable philosophy pertinent, forcing defenses to second guess what most situational coaches would call in a given circumstance.
Third and most impressive is the fact that Shanahan morphs this game plan to his personnel. Regardless of the team or roster that he is coordinating, he puts together a variation of his scheme that takes complete advantage of the players he has and the players and coaches he is competing against.
He has had superstars at some positions that he did not have on a different team, he has had rookies and average players that most would deem bench fodder that he has turned into household names. What he does is find the true strengths of his players and modify his gameplan to take advantage of them and the team he is battling.
The 2017 49ers spent this offseason putting together a roster that Shanahan, for all intents and purposes, had his fingerprints on considering what was available and attainable in the first year. Who are these players and how will this scheme morph to fit them?