Shanahan Scheme Analysis: Part 2

If someone builds a brick wall in your path, you have two options: you can go around it, or you can go through it. If you have a fleet of horses at your disposal, you’ll probably go around the wall. If you have a set of dynamite and blasting caps, you’ll probably break it down.

In 2018, Vic Fangio built a (movable) brick wall in the path of the wide zone running game. And where Sean McVay had a fleet of horses at his disposal (3 fast/ strong WRs), Kyle Shanahan had demolition equipment (with his powerful FB/ TE combo of Kyle Juszczyk and George Kittle). This key personnel discrepancy came to fundamentally define how these two coaches responded to the new challenges they faced as imitations of Vic Fangio’s 6-1 defensive alignment started to crop up all over the league

Because Fangio’s 6-1 alignment has one key weakness– if you can somehow get past the 6 defenders at the line of scrimmage, there’s a whole lot of space behind them, with only 1 linebacker and 2 safeties to cover the whole deep/ intermediate areas of the field. Meaning, (much like when you see a defense stack the line of scrimmage on a mid-field 4th and 1) if you can somehow get past the wall of defenders in your face, you’ve got a very good chance of a big play.

Sean McVay had often used Robert Woods on jet sweeps– where the WR runs across the formation against the movement of the offensive line– in 2017-18 as a way to keep defenses honest in defending the backside of the formation. If the defense started lining up too far to the play-side, or if the weakside LB started cheating towards the strongside, Goff could hand the ball to Woods on a jet sweep and pick up a good chunk of yardage as a sort of extra wide counter play.

But in 2019– in order to circumvent the increasingly common wide wall of Fangio-schemed LOS defenders– McVay innovated on the jet sweep. Instead of sweeping the WR against the motion of the OLine/ backs, McVay started sweeping WRs (particularly Woods) *with* the direction of the wide zone offense, offering an even wider option on outside zone plays (the WR would receive the ball either as an immediate toss behind the QB, or as a catch in motion once he reached the boundary). Then, as an added wrinkle, McVay schemed the RB to sometimes start sprinting sideways on these plays, following behind the path of the sweeping WR. This play, called a zone wind-back, gave the RB a head start on beating the 6 lineman to the sidelines, and the sweeping WR would serve as a lead blocker to take out the lone extra boundary defender. Suddenly, all 6 LOS defenders were out of the play, and the offense had the numbers advantage again (this time all the way at the edge of the field).

Kyle Shanahan, however, didn’t have 3 WRs at his disposal (at least not in his base package). Instead, he had the league’s pre-eminent fullback (Kyle Juszczyk) and one of the league’s most powerful two-way TEs (George Kittle). Kyle Shanahan didn’t need to go around the wall. He could go through it. When teams threw heavy wide fronts at the Niners (like Fangio’s 6-1), Shanahan would shift his team blocking to the interior of the defensive line, calling power runs and/ or duo plays to blow a hole right through the middle of the wall. By double teaming the interior members of the 6-1 (and leaving his FB to take out the lone set-back LB), Shanahan marginalized the outside members of the 6-1 alignment, shifting his numbers advantage to the middle of the field. So where McVay re-oriented to the edges of the field when faced with a 6-1 alignment, Shanahan flooded the center.

There was certainly some overlap in approach between these two coaches. Sean McVay also used duo runs to try to regain some running room in the middle– after all, not every run can be to the boundary. But lacking a FB on the roster, McVay again turned to his WRs, sometimes lining Woods or Kupp tight along the edge, sometimes even lining one of them in the backfield. This worked reasonably well as a changeup (both Woods and Kupp are excellent blockers), but even the best blocking WRs can’t hold a candle to Kittle/ Juszczyk in taking on safeties/ LBs.

And in the other direction, Kyle Shanahan began to use Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk as additional running options on the edge, or as screen recipients near the boundary. Both WRs are excellent runners with the ball in their hands, and like McVay, Shanahan saw the value in circumventing heavy fronts wide (and quickly) by using WRs at/ near the boundary. But again, with SF’s base package (and preponderance of talent) lying in 21 personnel, these WR sweeps/ screens were more of a changeup than a staple. Each coach schemed to fit the strengths of their talent/ base packages, and so their responses to the new defensive adaptations diverged according to their personnel.

But if Sean McVay quickly circumvented the wall with a fleet of horses in his trio of highly effective/ versatile WRs, and Kyle Shanahan broke down the wall using his dynamite FB and TE combo, Matt LaFleur had neither horses nor demolition equipment. Instead, LaFleur had an unusually quick-firing and accurate catapult named Aaron Rodgers. LaFleur could go over the wall.

Traditionally, passes out of the wide zone look come either quickly after the snap (via slants, or other quick in-breaking routes), or off of play-action, which generally take longer to develop. As such, Fangio (and imitators) schemed the 6-1 defense to account for either option– one of the two safeties was schemed to lurk as a robber in the middle of the field in case the play was a quick pass to an in-breaking route. And at least two of the 6 LOS defenders were keyed to read whether the QB kept the ball on a play-action, in which case they would drop into coverage. The traditional Shanahan play-action boots/ rollouts gave the defenders plenty of time to identify the play as a pass and get to their cover spots/ targets. As we saw in Denver over the past few years, the base assumption underlying Fangio’s read/ react defense is that his defenders could read the intent of the offense (run or pass) faster than a QB could read and execute a play.

However, Matt LaFleur had the perfect way to punish that assumption. What if, instead of a traditional slow-moving play-action fake handoff out of a wide zone look (with the QB’s head down and back turned– meaning the QB would then need to turn, raise his head, and then finally read the defense/ throw), the QB instead ran a run-pass option (RPO) out of that wide zone look? The QB would have the option of either handing the ball to the RB and running the standard wide zone run, or could keep the ball and, with his head already up and reading the defense before the potential handoff, be ready to throw the ball immediately. Such an approach relies on having a QB who could make quick accurate reads of the defense, and even faster passes. Thankfully for LaFleur, Rodgers ticked exactly those boxes. Suddenly, Fangio’s assumption was turned on its head– instead of the defense having time to read run/ pass while the QB had his back to the play, now the QB had plenty of time to read the defensive look and decide where exactly the ball should go– before the ball was even faked or given to the RB.

With the read/ react advantage of the 6-1 thus nullified, LaFleur then built plays keyed around his top two offensive weapons– Davante Adams and Aaron jones– such that both would attack the same defenders/ area of the field. If, for example, at the snap a strongside OLB engaged a blocker at the LOS (expecting run), Rodgers would keep the ball and immediately throw the ball to Adams who was running an in-breaking route directly behind that LB. Or, if that same LB instead dropped back into coverage (expecting pass), Rodgers would hand the ball to Jones who would attack the newly-vacated gap. In either case, the offense regained the numbers edge. Matt LaFleur had found yet another way to scheme his offensive players to go where the defense wasn’t, this time manufacturing a numbers advantage by using the quick mind and fast/ accurate release of his talented QB in a hybrid wide zone/ RPO attack.

Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan, and Matt LaFleur each regained a Shanahan-esque numbers advantage by tailoring their offense around the strengths of the talent at their disposal. So the question then becomes: what are the strengths of Denver’s offensive talent? How will Nathaniel Hackett respond when defenses gameplan to stop Denver’s soon-to-be-installed wide zone offense?