On October 11th, 2021 the Indianapolis Colts will travel to Santa Clara, California to take on the San Francisco 49ers. In this week seven match-up, I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea of how they may attack our Colts.
The last time these two teams met in the regular season DeForest Buckner sacked Jacoby Brissett and Brian Hoyer threw for 353 yards and two touchdowns before Adam Vinatieri kicked a 51 yard game winning field goal with 1:38 left in overtime. That 49ers team would trade for Jimmy Garoppolo in the middle of that season and would change the trajectory of their franchise. The Colts’ trajectory has greatly changed since then also, this week we’ll get to see which team is getting on track and which team might consider switching their focus to the offseason.
Let’s see what we can expect in week seven.
When the San Francisco 49ers hired Kyle Shanahan they did so in no small part due to the prolific offense he installed and coordinated with the Atlanta Falcons. That system is commonly referred to as the Shanahan West Coast offense, named for his two time Super Bowl winning father, Mike Shanahan. The younger Shanahan has made the system his own, but it is rooted in the same basic principles that took the Denver Broncos to back to back championships in the late 90’s.
When Shanahan’s system is at it’s best everything flows through their zone rushing attack. Off of that they want to work play action passes and when the quarterback is able, going play action into bootleg rollouts can create interesting opportunities for an offense to stress defenses at all three levels of the field. That’s what they would like to do, but what is this Shanahan led offense doing in 2021?
Through five games they have passed the ball 54% of the time and their 28.8 rushing attempts per game is 9th highest in the league, even after an early season bye week.
They use 11 personnel more than any other grouping at 44% and they pass more than 75% of the time when using a single back and tight end. They’re also in the gun nearly 90% of the time, but that might not be a surprise. When in this grouping they only use play action 11% of the time.
21 personnel is next on their usage list and they line up with two running backs and one tight end 30% of the time. I’ll talk about this more in the section on running backs but when you invest in a fullback as heavily as the 49ers have in the modern era, you should probably use the guy. Somewhat surprisingly they’re only running the ball 45% of the time from this grouping. They’re in gun 57% of the time and they throw the ball nearly 60% of the time they’re not under center. They use motion on nearly three fourths of their 21 personnel snaps and the run-pass split is still 57% pass, 43% run. One interesting thing to note is that they use zone run concepts about 75% of the time here. Their other groupings are somewhere in the mid to low 60 percent's.
Where these 49ers start to get run heavy is when they bring two tight ends onto the field. They’ve been in 12 or 22 personnel a total of 23% of the time. They have run 64% of the time. They line up under center and use motion a lot more with these groupings than the others as well.
Across all groupings and formations they use a lot of motion, a good amount of play action and use zone run concepts 69% of the time. They’re running a little less than I would expect from a Shanahan offense but they are on a three game losing streak, losing tends to mean you’re passing while trying to catch up. I suspect in a perfect world Shanahan would be leaning more heavily on the ground game.
On 3rd and more than 3 yards to go they’re in gun 95% of the time. Of that 95% all but two plays have been passes. Here’s one of the non passes:
49ers Offense- 3rd and 7 pic.twitter.com/7on9RvKPZ7— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 18, 2021
I absolutely love this play from Shanahan. He caught a lot of slack for his play calling after their loss to the Cardinals and I understand some of the criticism but plays like this are great.
It’s third and seven and the 49ers are outside of field goal range but in a position of the field that makes punting tough to swallow. Playing with rookie backup quarterback Trey Lance, Shanahan realizes this is four down territory if he can gain even a few yards on third down. He also realizes counting on a very inexperienced passer like Trey Lance to go out and convert a 3rd and long, through the air, is asking a lot. Instead Shanahan calls a delayed quarterback power.
At the snap the Cardinals have six men on the line. They immediately drop two, so they can get into their zone for the pass the defense obviously thought was coming. This allows the 49ers offensive line to have numbers on the left side of the offensive line. With better blocking this one would have picked up more than the seven yards they needed. Instead the get five and set up a conversion attempt.
It was fourth and two
49ers Offense- 4th and short pic.twitter.com/H5gHRs4zFs— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 18, 2021
Again with better blocking this play might have broken for a long run. As it stood it did enough to pick up a much needed first down. Most coaches wouldn’t have dreamed of running the ball on third and seven.
We’ll get to it in the section on their quarterbacks but it’s highly unlikely we’ll see these kinds of plays on Sunday night but I believe it illustrates the way Kyle Shanahan thinks about his offense and situational football.
I had to watch this so many times
49ers Offense- Run design pic.twitter.com/8bo1me3oyG— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 18, 2021
Kyle Shanahan is really good at taking old run concepts and using blockers in unique ways inside those concepts. His offenses do some really interesting things up front and while I’m sure I’m almost completely alone on this one, I really enjoy watching those blocking schemes develop.
If you key in on the left guard you’ll see him slip, fall, get back up and seal off the flowing linebacker. There is a 0% chance Shanahan designed a play where his left guard has to fall down before making a block but his job was to get to the second level even though J.J. Watt was lined up on his outside shoulder. Had he not fallen down the right tackle would have tried to work his hips around to seal off Watt but considering the tackle no longer had help, he had a great angle to down block and the fact that no one on the planet is reaching J.J. Watt on this play, the right tackle made a good adjustment and rode Watt out of the way. The guard got up and made the block he was supposed to make anyway.
Meanwhile the tight end comes across the formation and kicks out the outside linebacker. This is just a split zone but it worked so well it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them work in some sort of a down block from the tackle instead of the more difficult and traditional double team. They could accomplish this by pulling the guard as long as he didn’t impede the path of the tight end. There might be other ways they could accomplish it but I don’t think you’ll see any designed fall-downs anytime soon.
Watch for interesting run blocking on Sunday night.
Shanahan loves a good high low max protect
49ers Offense- Max protect, slow developing concept pic.twitter.com/h4vAAQFgc0— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 18, 2021
Off the play action the 49ers keep seven men in, initially. The tight end that releases to the far side of the field works to keep the backside linebacker honest but he was never really an option on this play.
The Cardinals have a single high safety and what he chooses on this play determines where the ball goes. If he comes up to cover the crossing receiver (a thing he definitely should not do) this ball is going deep. If he stays deep (the thing he should absolutely do) the ball is going underneath.
I believe the Cardinals are in a cover three. The corner at the bottom of the frame is put in an unwinnable situation. He can’t get beat deep in his zone. Once the receiver is even with him he has to turn and run to make sure he isn’t the reason coverage gets blown for six. By the time he realizes the receiver is drifting to the middle of the field and there’s a crosser coming underneath, it’s too late. All three deep defensive backs played this pretty well. Ideally you wouldn’t have to turn and run, you could keep your eyes in the backfield and come up and make a play on the crosser but in practice that’s really hard to do.
The last little bit of this play that’s important is the back who escapes the backfield after the play action. Had he needed to help block I’m sure he would have but ideally he would do exactly what he does on this play. By getting out into his route it works to pull the linebackers up which creates the absolutely massive throwing lane you see on this one.
The Colts run quite a bit of cover three, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the 49ers use a few concepts similar to this one on Sunday.
Run after catch matters
49ers Offense- Quick hitter pic.twitter.com/O5k0auYXiA— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 18, 2021
Regardless of who is playing quarterback this offense is still firmly based in the West Coast Offense. Short, high percentage passes that rely on yards after the catch are always going to be a prominent part of their offense.
Something interesting about this play is the tight end who runs the out and up. If the linebackers both bite up on the underneath receivers and that corner follows the eventual target on this play, that tight end is going to be wide open, deep. He isn’t the first option on this play but it’s an interesting wrinkle to this play that could have just as easily had that tight end running an out route as it accomplishes the same thing for the outside receiver running underneath. That receiver is who they’re trying to open the middle of the field up for, but instead of just running an out, that tight end cuts up which means if the QB gets the right look from the defense, they’re not going to count on YAC after all.
Also, what a play from the Cardinals defender. Sure wish they weren’t on the Colts schedule this season.
Designed chain movers
49ers offense- 3rd and 4 pic.twitter.com/w63pW7hAkr— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 20, 2021
Here the 49ers use a stacked release to ensure their first option on the play gets a clean release and no defender can knock him off his route, disrupting his timing. Ultimately the only reason this play was even close to the sticks (instead of well past them) is because the Packers safety makes a great play. The play design ensured that neither corner would be able to cover the receiver.
Sometimes guys just have to win a route
49ers offense- 3rd and goal from the 8 pic.twitter.com/HlBLHQoQxJ— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 20, 2021
There aren’t a lot of passing concepts that will guarantee an open receiver 8+ yards down field. If there were the NFL would look a lot different. What makes this especially challenging is needing to keep seven blockers in to account for the blitz the Packers sent. At some point the scheme can’t overcome circumstance and the players on the field have to step up and make a play.
Let’s take a look at who Kyle Shanahan is counting on to make those plays.
Jimmy Garoppolo missed the 49ers week five game due to injury which meant rookie QB Trey Lance made his first start, ready or not. As you might expect 49ers fans are split on who they want to see start for their favorite team and while this isn’t an exhaustive look at both players I’ll show you what I saw from each player as I watched as much as I could from both men this week.
Trey Lance feels pressure and bolts
49ers QB 1 pic.twitter.com/soITBwOaKd— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 18, 2021
The right side of the line is outnumbered and outclassed on this play but Lance is able to make a play that not many quarterbacks can make. It isn’t that he just avoids pressure it’s that he surprises the inside linebacker with his speed, widens out and runs away from him and picks up 15 yards. As an athlete Lance looks special. What is he like as a passer?
Trey Lance throws a pick
49ers QB 2 pic.twitter.com/q8ZiOKi51F— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 18, 2021
This play doesn’t encapsulate everything Lance is as a thrower but it does give you an idea of where he is as a player. It’s second and 10 and his team calls a play action pass that keeps 8 men in to block. The two receivers that release are on slow developing routes.
Trey Lance avoids pressure, steps up into the pocket and sees... well everyone covered. On second down with 15 yards between him and the nearest defender Lance should have just picked up five or six yards on the ground and lived to try again on third and manageable. Instead he throws on the run and tries to fit the ball over the underneath defenders and under the deep defenders. This would have been a tough throw from a clean pocket in practice. Instead of completing the pass, Lance sails it high and it gets intercepted.
Trey Lance is a rookie and this was his first start. There’s a lot to like about his physical ability but so far he’s making decisions like a rookie.
49ers QB 3 pic.twitter.com/zDv6GqrUgI— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 18, 2021
Nothing like running your number three overall QB headfirst into the defense near the goal line.
The kid has guts
49ers QB 4- he can't keep doing this and survive. Also this was a turnover on downs. pic.twitter.com/ZJNmrkTPMp— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 18, 2021
Trey Lance might be the next quarterback that everyone begs to stop taking hits before it’s too late. It’s too early to know if that’s true but I believe he’s going to be fun to watch for as long as he plays.
Jimmy G throws a pick
49ers QB 5 pic.twitter.com/9o670pIeiI— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 18, 2021
Here, established starter Jimmy Garoppolo, has a short concept with multiple options designed to pick up the first down. He threw the ball to a receiver who used to be open. Ultimately the Seahawks made a good play but the QB has to know when to hit the check down. Given the static nature of these routes, they’re going to get covered up really quickly after any initial separation they gain. If he checks it down to his fullback, he gets a completion and gives his team a chance to convert on third and short. Early in the game with the lead, there was no reason to try to force this play.
Not much more he can do here
49ers QB 6 pic.twitter.com/aU9aTI9cSF— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 20, 2021
Here Garoppolo does a good job getting the ball out in the face of pressure. He throws an accurate pass to a well covered receiver. No one was open but he gave his guy a chance to make a play and he protected the ball while doing so. It isn’t the result you want but as far as what you want your quarterback to do, he checked all of the boxes on this one.
This has to come out sooner
49ers QB 7- a great play design on 3rd and 1 wasted pic.twitter.com/2IyZowIatx— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 20, 2021
This is another play that the ball needs to come out sooner and he has to throw an accurate pass. Too often when the pocket gets tight, Garoppolo starts to get happy feet which results in a lot of poorly thrown balls. When he sets his feet and throws, things tend to go well.
Good decision, bad throw
49ers QB 8 pic.twitter.com/1Ds58bDbiG— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 20, 2021
Here the Packers line up with two high safeties. They drop into quarters coverage, with four defensive backs playing a deep quarter zone. This is a high-low read for Garoppolo and when both safeties bite up on the underneath crossing route, he makes the right decision and goes deep to the post he had on his left.
It almost seems like the Packers set him up to make this throw with the way the far corner plays the in breaking route. He backpedals until he sees the underneath receiver cut in, then he turns his hips and runs deep, reading the quarterbacks eyes the entire time.
Even though it sure feels like the Packers baited him into this pick, you want your quarterback to be able to see that DB not playing the route like you expect and lead his receiver away from the middle of the field, away from help. It’s then up to the receiver to adjust to the ball in the air and go make a play. Jimmy never saw that corner turn and run deep.
The Packers knew he wouldn’t.
No matter what you just don’t want to lose your team the game
49ers QB 9 pic.twitter.com/CHp36uUGgX— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 20, 2021
This was a designed screen that the offensive line didn’t execute. The Packers defensive line played it well but this is another example of a 49ers quarterback not protecting the ball when he should have just lived to play another down.
When it’s good, it’s pretty good
49ers QB 10- this is why Jimmy G gives them the best chance to beat the Colts in week seven pic.twitter.com/MgzXAK3cM9— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 20, 2021
No, this isn’t apples to apples with the Trey Lance interception above but it does show why Garoppolo gives them the best chance to win on Sunday. This is effectively another two man passing concept. The Packers bite up on the play action and the man in motion, Garoppolo hits his back foot, takes a beat and delivers. Honestly this ball came out later than it needed to, Jimmy G doesn’t throw with great (or even good) anticipation but when he sets his feet and delivers, he usually makes good decisions and throws an accurate ball.
Jimmy Garoppolo isn’t anyone’s long term answer at quarterback. If I had to start a franchise today and was given the choice between Garoppolo or Davis Mills, the Texans third round rookie we saw last week, I’m taking Mills.
Every time I watch a Kyle Shanahan offense, I love it. The presnap motion, the play action, the run concepts, all of it. I believe he is a good coach. After watching every Trey Lance snap so far this season, I believe Lance is as talented of a rookie quarterback as there was in the 2021 class. I think that Lance and Shanahan will grow the offense around him and when the Colts play these 49ers again, four years from now, I’ll be talking about how hard it’s going to be for the Colts defense to plan for everything Trey Lance is capable of doing.
But as for this season, Trey Lance just isn’t ready to play this Colts defense. If he was the starter all the Colts would need to do is play the game the exact same way they played Lamar Jackson. The Colts bottled Jackson up and dared him to throw. Matt Eberflus decided if Jackson was going to beat his defense he was going to have to do it through the air. It turns out Lamar Jackson has become a pretty good passer, Trey Lance just isn’t there yet. The Colts would win this game and it wouldn’t have been that close if Lance was starting.
Unfortunately for the Colts Jimmy Garoppolo seems healthy and ready to roll this Sunday. Jimmy G isn’t someone who can take over a game, he isn’t someone who won’t make mistakes but he is someone who can stand and deliver against zone coverage as long as he has a clean pocket.
The Colts defense is built to play zone coverage and they haven’t consistently generated anything that resembles a pass rush. For these reasons, Jimmy Garoppolo might have a good day on Sunday night.
Names to know:
Elijah Mitchell, Trey Sermon, Jamycal Hasty and fullback Kyle Juszczyk
Mitchell and Sermon are both rookies. Mitchell was taken in the sixth round out of Louisiana and Sermon in the third out of Ohio State. Mitchell leads the team with 189 yards on 45 attempts. Each man has scored a touchdown on the ground. Jamycal Hasty has missed some time with a high ankle sprain but looks to be back this week.
All season long the 49ers running back room has dealt with injuries. Their day one starter Raheem Mostert ran the ball twice for 20 yards before injuring his knee, he will miss the rest of the year.
The only 49ers running back to not miss time this season is fullback Kyle Juszczyk- whose nickname is “Juice” and that’s how I’ll be referring to him because, while I love Polish folks, that name is ridiculous.
What Mitchell gives you
49ers RB- Speed around the edge pic.twitter.com/5UFSB2ocoX— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 18, 2021
Mitchell is a smaller back at 5’10” 200 pounds and his quickness matches his stature. So far he has played well and seems to have earned his starting role.
Juice moving the chains
49ers RB 2 pic.twitter.com/hhIxMtTc1x— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 20, 2021
When you have the highest paid fullback in NFL history you intend to use him. Juice has 14 catches for 135 yards and a touchdown on the season. He will be used as a lone back, as a fullback, he might lineup at tight end and you can expect to see him in the slot. He’s like a faster, smaller Jack Doyle if Jack Doyle played running back.
Trey Sermon’s longest rush
49ers RB 3 pic.twitter.com/ZuPJcKyN70— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 20, 2021
Sermon hasn’t been given that many opportunities when Mitchell has been healthy. In week four he rushed 18 times for 89 yards with Mitchell out but the next week against the Cardinals he received only one carry that went for seven yards. I’m not sure why he isn’t being used more, but so far Shanahan is heavily favoring Mitchell.
The Juice is loose
49ers RB 4 pic.twitter.com/JPRiIFHOpU— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 20, 2021
You can’t give an Aaron Rodgers led team 37 seconds when all they need is a field goal, but that wasn’t Juice’s fault. Juice just produce.
This isn’t the most talented running back room the Colts will face this year but it does have a few backs who are capable of rotating and producing yards and points. The Colts have looked good against the run the past three weeks giving up 245 yards on 70 attempts, just 3.5 yards per carry and Houston had most of those yards with 124 on 29 carries in a Colts blow out victory.
The 49ers want to run the ball, the Colts want to be good at stopping the run. Sunday we’ll see who wins the battle in the trenches.
Names to know:
Deebo Samuel, Mohammad Sanu, Brandon Aiyuk, Travis Benjamin, Trent Sherfeild and tight end Ross Dwelley
49ers fans are perplexed with the 49ers usage of second year receiver Brandon Aiyuk. The team has made some interesting statements about his lack of... something, but the statements don’t really add up when you consider everything. Aiyuk is a physically talented receiver with long arms and good speed. Given the fact that he’s a second year player you would think the 49ers would want to get the ball in his hands, instead he has just 15 targets and 8 catches on the season. Meanwhile 32 year old Mohammad Sanu has 16 targets and 10 catches. Travis Benjamin and Trent Sherfeild, while I’m sure are very good at football and are probably great guys, are just kind of there. It’s possible they do something on Sunday because they’re on the team but I wouldn’t place any bets.
Ross Dwelley has taken over for all-pro tight end George Kittle who was placed on injured reserve with a calf injury. Dwelley has three catches for 46 yards and one touchdown.
The 2021 San Francisco 49ers passing game runs through one man:
That’s Deebo Samuel.
On the season he has 31 catches for 548 yards (fifth in the NFL) and three touchdowns. His 17.7 yards per catch is third in the league when you take out everyone with fewer than 20 receptions. In fact he leads every player with 30 or more receptions in YPC, Marquise Brown of the Ravens is second with a 15.2 YPC average. The 49ers are going to try to feed him the ball.
Aiyuk with the grab
49ers- WR 1 pic.twitter.com/wLSlihb5zQ— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 18, 2021
I didn’t see anything on tape that would lead me to believe that Brandon Aiyuk is undeserving of more opportunity. Here he makes a tough, contested catch away from his body and moves the chains on third down.
Sorry, I clipped this one off a little early
49ers WR- 2 pic.twitter.com/RyNYCg7isw— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 20, 2021
That’s Deebo Samuel going up and bringing down the tough catch. Samuel is bigger than he looks on tape. He’s listed at 6’ and 215 and the 215 isn’t surprising as he does look more like a running back than a receiver.
Game on the line, they’re going to Deebo
49ers WR 3 pic.twitter.com/tS5w7dTLLx— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 20, 2021
It’s third and 10 in the fourth quarter with less than two minutes to go. Unless there’s blown coverage somewhere on the field, Garoppolo wants to get the ball to Samuel.
Something worth mentioning are the number of dropped passes (12) this 49ers team has through five games. Their 2.4 drops per game is fourth worst in the NFL behind the Dolphins, Panthers and Giants. Deebo Samuel has been responsible for six drops of his own.
If I’m Matt Eberflus, I’m taking Deebo Samuel away from this offense and I’m going to make them throw to someone else. I don’t know if that will work, but I know they want to get Samuel involved (drops and all) and I don’t want to allow my opponent to do what they want to do. If they beat me with Aiyuk and Sanu, so be it, but they’re going to have to prove they can do it.
From left to right:
Trent Williams, Laken Tomlinson, Alex Mack, Daniel Brunskill and Mike McGlinchey
Coming in to watching this offensive line I expected them to be bad based on what I had heard and read from 49ers fans. What I saw was what looked like an average offensive line. I suppose I should give the disclaimer that this wasn’t an exhaustive study of the offensive line and while there were some blown blocks (lookin’ at you McGlinchey) overall this is a decent unit.
Something to note, Alex Mack came over from the Falcons to rejoin Kyle Shanahan and Mack looks like a shell of himself. It seems like yesterday Colts fans were hoping he would be someone the team would target in free agency when he walked away from the Browns. Instead he chose the Falcons and in his 13th NFL season at nearly 36 years old, if you told me Mack was 40, I would believe you.
This unit is better on the ground than protecting the passer but given the Colts inability to win any pass rush reps, they shouldn’t have a problem blocking for Garoppolo on Sunday night.
49ers OL- Not the first time Mack has struggled pic.twitter.com/xcrXbyN3Zi— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 20, 2021
Here Alex Mack is destroyed by (hang on I have to google this one) Tyler Lancaster. Lancaster has 1.5 sacks in four seasons. Mostly because as this clip shows, he’s not a very good athlete. Still that didn’t keep him from beating Alex Mack like he just insulted his mothers cooking- from the size of Lancaster, I have to believe his mother is a very good cook.
On the left side of the line 33 year old Trent Williams still looks good, we probably won’t see Kwity Paye’s first professional sack this week, either. Laken Tomlinson was consistently good on the plays I focused on him.
Mike McGlinchey might lose a rep or two in pass pro but I’m not sure anyone the Colts rush against him will be able to convert those losses into sack production. If the Colts hope to generate a pass rush on Sunday night they need to work to get favorable matchups, one on one, against Alex Mack and Daniel Brunskill.
This offense has been hurt by poor quarterback play and a lack of playmakers. Samuel is a good player capable of stretching the field and making big plays but that ability has been limited by a quarterback who just isn’t that guy.
If Jimmy Garoppolo can come in, be decisive, make good decisions, take easy completions and check downs, the 49ers will have a chance. If Jimmy Garoppolo does all of that it will be the first time he’s done it in 2021.
That said, these 49ers are coming off of their bye after losing three straight and they’re doing it on Sunday Night Football. This game is their Super Bowl and Garoppolo is very much playing for his job. If ever there was a time for Jimmy G to play like a superstar, this game is that time.
We’ll see if he can get it done.