When the San Francisco 49ers hired Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan as their head coach in January, it was a shot aimed straight at the heart of the Seattle Seahawks defense. Shanahan was the Hot Coaching Commodity entering Super Bowl LI, sure, but John Edward “Jedediah” York nabbed the 37 year old away from former Seahawks assistant Dan Quinn’s staff knowing the Falcons had just beaten Seattle (something the 49ers have not managed since 2013) and Shanahan’s offensive schemes carved up its defense for 780 yards in two meetings in 2016, including about 630 combined passing yards.
In its two games against the Seahawks that same year San Francisco had only produced 507 total yards, and just 310 yards through the air.
To lead the 49ers’ aspirations back toward the excellence of the early Jim Harbaugh years or the 1980s and ’90s, Shanahan will have to use his formula to solve Seattle’s dominant pass defense. Nobody’s expecting it to happen right away, but step one is Sunday. Unfortunately for Bay Area fans, Shanahan doesn’t get to bring Atlanta’s explosive personnel with him.
With a premier receiver in Julio Jones, Shanahan was able to do what few other coordinators were willing to try: Go right at Richard Sherman. Here is a play from the Falcons’ first drive in the playoff game in January, when Sherman has to react to Jones’s drive off the line of scrimmage because of the threat Jones represents deep—and can’t protect the first down marker:
(.gif by the Falcoholic’s Allen Strk)
But Shanahan also got to utilize a crafty veteran red zone receiver in Mohamed Sanu, who scored a touchdown against one on one coverage later in the game, and the dynamic route-running of Taylor Gabriel, who zipped by DeShawn Shead and then spun around Steven Terrell for a nifty 37-yard catch and run. Together Jones, Sanu and Gabriel put together 14 catches for 182 yards.
Sanu and Gabriel were quieter in the matchup in October that the Seahawks won, but Jones exploded for 139 yards by himself and Shanahan also exploited the threat of these multiple weapons and plays designed to place receivers in different levels of the defense to break Levine Toilolo on this tricky tight end “throwback” that you probably remember for Sherman’s exasperated frustration afterward.
Shanahan loves to deploy these stratified pattern concepts, mixing in a shallow cross with a combination of go routes, say, or sending a tailback following behind a pair of receivers runner deeper behind the second level, or a drag crossed with a deep post, or other simple high-low arrangements to split coverage responsibilities and establish throwing lanes for his quarterback.
The problem is that no longer is the quarterback picking among Shanahan’s routes the NFL MVP, and how San Francisco’s receivers tasked with executing those precise pattern depths or drawing defenders’ attentions don’t belong in the same class as the Falcons weapons last year.
The 49ers in 2016 possessed one of the weakest receiving units maybe of all time, starting the season with a two-years-too-late Torrey Smith as the deep threat, Quinton Patton in the slot and acquiring former New York Jets receiver Jeremy Kerley from the Detroit Lions after emerging wideout Bruce Ellington went on injured reserve right before week 1. For Kerley the opportunity was something of a career renaissance as he posted his highest completion total and his best volume of yards since 2012. But Kerley still only caught a withering 55 percent of his targets and he mainly stood out because midway through the year Smith and Patton both joined Ellington on IR. By the time San Francisco faced the Seahawks in week 17 they were trotting out the likes of Rod Streater and Aaron Burbridge next to Kerley and even bringing Chris Harper off the practice squad.
Okay okay, it wasn’t that Chris Harper, but still.
Shanahan got rid of all these receivers, bringing in Pierre Garçon, Marquise Goodwin and Aldrick Robinson, and drafting Trent Taylor to play in the slot. Robinson and Garçon are ostensibly “Shanahan’s guys”, having both played for him when Shanahan was the offensive coordinator of the Washington Redskins in 2012 and 2013. Robinson was even a member of the 2016 Atlanta Falcons receiving corps I praised above.
But Robinson joined the Falcons last season after a year out of football and was largely irrelevant to the offense—averaging barely more than one catch per game, and only having an impact in a week 15 outing against the 49ers when he cobbled together four receptions for 111 yards while Julio Jones was out hurt. On San Francisco, Robinson only participated in 10 downs against the Carolina Panthers last week.
Marquise Goodwin is the former track star who long jumped for the United States at the 2012 Summer Olympics. Having four years of NFL experiences puts him ahead of part-time Seattle practice squadder Cyril “Evanescent Mode” Grayson, and he matched Garçon with 88 percent of snaps in the first game. But Goodwin only put up four catches for 43 yards playing for the Buffalo Bills on the Monday-nighter against the Seahawks a year ago, and caught just three for 21 yards on six targets against Carolina even though the 49ers were trailing big. Not much for a speedy home run threat, and Goodwin also dropped an easy touchdown.
The 31 year old Garçon is no doubt the best of the bunch, but he’s hardly Julio Jones. Indeed, according to Richard Sherman, Garçon didn’t “matter in this league” as long ago as 2014. Breaking 1,000 yards for the second time ever, Garçon had sort of a comeback in 2016, and our Alistair Corp suggests he’s so far ahead of the rest of this group that Kris Richard might consider sending Sherman to whichever side Garçon lines up on Sunday, but I’ll be surprised if Sherman agrees Garçon merits that kind of respect.
If there’s one area of encouragement for San Francisco, it’s second round tight end prospect George Kittle whose development during training camp prompted Shanahan to part ways with Vance McDonald. Shanahan’s creative use of tight ends was critical to the leveled passing concepts that made Atlanta so successful as mentioned above. But Kittle by himself won’t be able to reproduce the versatility to the passing game Shanahan got from Toilolo, Jacob Tamme and Austin Hooper in 2016. For that reason it’s curious he was so quick to discard McDonald.
Either way the 49ers may have the coach they think will scheme them to victory over Seattle in the future, but even if that’s true Shanahan’s talent available—the key to taking advantage of those game plans—has a long way to catch up to his playbook’s reputation in the intermedium.