Outside zone is the heart and soul of the Shanahan offense. Mike Shanahan got the ball rolling with the Denver Broncos in the 1990s, and various assistant coaches, most notably Gary Kubiak, have since spread the essence of the offense throughout the NFL. While Kubiak and others did a fine job of carrying the torch for a while, Mike's son Kyle has reasserted the Shanahan-style outside zone run game to the forefront of football discussion. He has tweaked and reinvented the offense to fit the modern landscape without losing any of the core essence that makes the concept so strong and versatile.
A few weeks ago, Shanahan had Mike Zimmer's head spinning with outside zone concepts in the divisional round of the playoffs. Even with Kubiak, who is arguably the best Shanahan-style coach who doesn't share the last name, on Minnesota's staff, the Vikings had no answers for the 49ers' outside zone package. Minnesota's issue, in particular, was that there was no right answer for where to position their play-side outside linebacker and their play-side defensive end. There was no right gap to fit to contain the 49ers run game.
On one of San Francisco's first few drives of the game, their offense came out in a 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end, two wide receivers) I-formation look with both receivers set to the right side and the tight end set to the left side. It would be far from the last time the Vikings would see that exact look.
The Vikings defense is in base personnel in the play below, which is not a surprise considering the 49ers only have two wide receivers on the field. Anthony Barr, one of Minnesota's two elite linebackers, is set to the passing strength (bottom), as he typically is. Just before the snap, slot receiver Deebo Samuel (19) motions across the formation to reset the passing strength to the opposite side of the field. Minnesota doesn't have time to switch, so now linebacker Eric Wilson (50) is stuck manning the run strength and the pass strength, almost completely removing Barr from the picture.
As the Vikings shift their defensive alignment toward the new strength, Wilson does not slide beyond the left tackle's midpoint. He is still within the tackle box. When Wilson moves off the snap and begins to flow toward the ball, he immediately takes off to get outside and over the top. As such, left tackle Joe Staley has no issue firing out of his stance to maintain outside leverage on Wilson and pin him back to the inside. With tight end George Kittle (85) also manhandling defensive end Everson Griffen (97) right into the lane the linebacker would need to cross through to get to the ballcarrier, the 49ers were able to effectively create a wall for their running back.
I am in no way qualified to peer inside the mind of Shanahan, but I suspect he saw Minnesota's unwillingness to fan their linebacker out any further than the tackle box and knew he could pick on it. On a later drive, he did just that, turning to the same exact concept twice in a row -- once to the right and once to the left.
This is the same exact concept as we saw in the first clip. Same formation, same personnel grouping, same player going in motion before the snap. Nothing has changed except for how Minnesota tries to fit the play, failing with both attempts. In the first play, the run to the right, Wilson immediately books it toward the outside so as to not allow the running back the same crease he had been finding to that point in the game. However, in doing so, Eric Kendricks (54) is left trying to fit the gap inside the tackle all the way over from his position over the center, so the running back cuts it up into that gap -- the same gap Wilson fit in the first clip from earlier. In the second play here, the run to the left, Wilson goes back to fitting the gap he tried to fit the first time, while Kendricks tries to chase from behind more aggressively. Wilson is again blocked out by Staley and Kendricks ends up getting picked off by fullback Kyle Juszczyk (who in all honesty was looking for Kendricks in the first clip from earlier but Kendricks never pressed him because he was trying to fit over the top).
What's key to point out through these three plays is that quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was not handing the ball off to the running back. Instead, he was pitching it. Dating back to at least his days in Atlanta (as far as I can remember vividly), Shanahan has opted for the toss instead of the handoff on outside zone when he wants the play to hit the outside fast (rather than allow for the cutback). Considering Minnesota kept playing their linebackers so tight to the box, Shanahan saw fit to keep doing it until they made him stop. The problem for Minnesota is that even forcing the 49ers to stop tossing the ball didn't change the end result of the play.
This time, San Francisco comes out a bit heavier with 22 personnel, starting with both tight ends to the left and the single receiver flexed out wide to the right. As in the previous clips, one of the players (Kittle, in this case) from the strong side motions across to the other side to reset the strength. Minnesota makes a clear adjustment this time, sliding Griffen into the C-gap instead of over the tight end like usual and moving Barr directly over the tight end. This means that Barr is going to have more immediate access to the outside than Wilson did in the previous plays. The 49ers are also running away from the 3-technique instead of toward him on this play, which means there is a wider gap between the defensive end and the defensive tackle. All of this together signals that hitting the play straight through the intended gap or cutting it back, though not a certainty, is now more likely and favorable than before. As such, running back Raheem Mostert receives a handoff and starts his path toward the play-side guard (Mike Person, 68). However, as Mostert starts to press up to the line of scrimmage, Barr tries to squeeze inside to get an arm on him, so Mostert cuts to the outside for a solid 8-yard gain.
Shanahan's run of dominance didn't end against Minnesota. The Green Bay Packers felt the wrath of Shanahan's outside zone (and plenty of other concepts, truthfully), allowing nearly 300 yards on the ground while forcing Garoppolo to throw just eight passes. Like the Vikings, the Packers had no answers.
That being said, it's not as though the Packers didn't try something -- even if it failed miserably. For whatever reason, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine had his linebackers stand at about 5.5 to 7 yards from the line of scrimmage before the snap. Standard linebacker depth is about 4 to 4.5 yards, as demonstrated in all the Vikings clips.
Green Bay were really playing their linebackers on Mars against San Francisco lmao pic.twitter.com/r9yjMvjzzs
— Derrik Klassen (@QBKlass) January 30, 2020
It's tough to say whether Pettine wanted his players to have extra depth to defend against play-action or to get better angles over the top to stop the outside zone from fulfilling the "outside" part of its name, but they stuck with it for a majority of the game despite its constant failure.
In this instance, Green Bay's linebackers are playing about 7 yards off the line of scrimmage. They also have a 0-technique, a 3-technique, and a standard edge defender to the play side. Given where their front defenders are, it seems Green Bay's plan was to immediately force the play wide and hope their linebackers could flow over the top to win on the outside. However, the 49ers backfield is a track team and all of their blockers excel in space, while Blake Martinez (50) and B.J. Goodson (93) are average athletes, at best, for the linebacker position. Kittle, who had shifted over to the right before the snap, has no issue finding Goodson out wide, and right tackle Mike McGlinchey is able to climb to cut off Martinez even after getting hung up on his initial combo block. The Packers' linebackers had too much ground to cover because of their alignment and the 49ers were more than welcome to force them to try to cover it.
Now, even if the Chiefs don't try this same deep-alignment strategy with their linebackers, it's still relevant. As mentioned, Green Bay's linebackers are not impressive athletes. Martinez and Goodson ran 4.71- and 4.69-second 40-yard dashes, respectively, hovering right around average for linebackers. Though Martinez posted a solid three-cone drill time, but he also posted horrid broad jump and vertical jump numbers, including a vertical jump that ranks in the fourth percentile among all off-ball linebackers at the NFL combine since 1999.
Kansas City has even slower linebackers roaming (a generous term here) the middle of the field. All of them struggled in the 40-yard dash, among other drills. At the NFL combine in their respective draft years, Anthony Hitchens ran a 4.74, Damien Wilson ran a 4.77, and Reggie Ragland ran a 4.72, all of which rank in the 45th percentile or worse among off-ball linebackers. Ben Niemann, a 2018 undrafted free agent, ran a 4.75-second 40-yard dash at his pro day, which suggests he's probably tick slower than that since pro day numbers are often slightly boosted.
The only great athlete the Chiefs have at linebacker is Dorian O'Daniel, who played the beta test version of Isaiah Simmons' position at Clemson. O'Daniel ran a 4.61-second 40-yard dash and scored above the 90th percentile in the three-cone drill and the 20-yard short shuttle. However, he weighs 225 pounds on a good day, so he'd better be able to move the way he does.
It's also not in the Chiefs' general defensive philosophy to load the box to shut down the run. They weren't 29th in run defense DVOA, 31st in second-level yards, and 25th in open-field yards just by accident -- it's part of a trade they are willing to make to have success elsewhere. They have gotten to this point by keying on the offense's pass game and shutting that down in hopes that it leads to a less effective, or at least less impactful, run game. It worked against the Titans, who seemed incapable of functioning once their play-action passing over the middle of the field was taken away.
That being said, Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith isn't Kyle Shanahan, and that Titans offense isn't anywhere near as fast at every position as the 49ers are. The 49ers are a different, better, faster beast that the Chiefs may not have the talent to slow down, at least on the ground. Space between the painted numbers and within 10 yards, the area in which all runs will be decided, becomes even more of a premium for the Chiefs to control than it was before. One small crease as a result of not being gap-sound or not being able to flow over the top in time could easily be six points for San Francisco's speed-demon backfield.