My original plan going into this column was to not write about the 49ers’ run game. I figured that all anyone has talked about for San Francisco’s offense is their dominating run game against Green Bay. So I figured, I’d zig where everyone zagged and focus on the eight passing plays.
Then I watched the game and realized that would be the dumbest thing possible. Did you see the 49ers’ run game in the NFC Championship Game? It was art, and not weird art that no one understands. It was undeniable in its raw beauty and the emotion it caused in all who gazed upon it.
Everything San Francisco ran worked, so I do have the luxury of omitting one play that literally every single film piece I’ve seen has written about: the first touchdown of the game on the third-down trap play. It was a great call and well executed, but I’m going to assume that if you’re a reader of this column, you probably have seen that play broken down in at least two other places and probably more.
So instead I’m going to start with my favorite play. Regular readers will know that my favorite play is outside zone, but the 49ers ran my favorite version of it. For the sake of the column we’ll call this version release.
On release, you always have to have a tight end come in motion. When George Kittle (85) comes across the formation in motion, he’s trying to get an unusually wide split from the tackle to widen the edge defender (Za’Darius Smith, 55) as much as possible. Then it’s all about aiming point. Kittle wants to step wide and aim outside the defender’s play-side shoulder-pad. If the defender widens to keep contain then he’s Kittle’s man, and the tight end has to try to widen him as much as possible. If the defender plays the C-gap, like he does here, then Kittle arc-releases around him and climbs to the second level … where he just whips the dog out of the linebacker (B.J. Goodson, 93) and drives him off the screen. That leaves the edge defender for the fullback and the back is up on the safety. This easily could’ve been a touchdown.
By handling the edge guy and play-side linebacker with the tight end and fullback, the 49ers get great angles on every other block. Right tackle Mike McGlinchey can really help out his guard with the 3-technique (Tyler Lancaster, 95) before climbing up to middle linebacker (Blake Martinez, 50, who had a really rough day). McGlinchey almost helps too much here — there’s no need to get that play-side hand involved; it doesn’t add much and just makes it a lot harder to climb up when you turn your shoulders like that. But because he’s going up to a guy that starts in the back-side A-gap, he makes a mistake and still has time to get to the block.
The 49ers’ angles are so good here, the left guard (Laken Tomlinson, 75) doesn’t have anyone to block. He chases Martinez, mainly to make sure he doesn’t run through the back side while McGlinchey is waiting to pick him up at the point of attack. Center Ben Garland and left tackle Joe Staley (74) are great on the back side. Look at the hole they create between them; if the back would’ve had to cut back, there’s 10 yards there too.
This is the release again, but this time the edge player widens with Kittle, so the tight end takes him. And Kittle does a great job on him. The edge starts on the hash and gets widened or stretched to a few yards inside the numbers. I’ve seen a lot of talk about the Super Bowl tight ends, and with good reason: both are big parts of their teams’ success. I just want to say that Travis Kelce is a great player, but he ain’t blocking like that. Without a tight end that’s as smart and capable a blocker as Kittle is, the 49ers wouldn’t be able to run release as often or as successfully as they do.
Because Kittle widens the edge so far, and once again McGlinchey and right guard Mike Person have such a great angle on their combination, the hole is huge. The Packers have no shot at stopping this play with how they were lined up. That was an issue throughout for Green Bay, where they put their guys in really bad shape before the snap with alignment.
The 49ers are really good at creating extra gaps for you to defend with their motions and formations. This is a basic balanced slot formation, but they’ve brought the wide receiver (Kendrick Bourne) down to just outside the tight end. By doing that, they’ve created five gaps to the left of the center that the Packers have to defend. The Packers aren’t misaligned, and you can see that they have five guys on that side of the ball to defend those gaps. The problem is that two of those defenders are defensive backs, and because of how they are aligned, neither of them get to be the wide force player (the only gap that most defensive backs are consistently comfortable playing).
The 49ers run inside zone, and it’s immediately clear that Darnell Savage (26) has no clue where to fit this run. Kittle is actually looking at him at first, but when he sees Savage fly wide, he wheels outside to try to pick up the edge guy assuming he must be crashing if the safety is filling outside. But he isn’t crashing. The Packers don’t have anyone trying to fill the C-gap. That is an impossibly large hole for inside zone.
What’s crazy is that not only are the Packers beating themselves, but the 49ers are beating them too. Look at the back-side combination between Staley and Tomlinson. They’re blocking the hell out of the 3-technique (Dean Lowry, 94) and linebacker. The right guard and center are shoving the other defensive tackle (Kenny Clark, 97) around. Even if the Packers fit this play correctly, it’s another 8-plus-yard gain just because San Francisco is blocking them so well.
I promised I wouldn’t show the trap that has been in every article, but I didn’t say I wouldn’t show any trap plays. The 49ers ran two of them, both on third downs, and both were successful. I love Tomlinson’s route to the defender here as he pulls: get depth initially and get downhill to the point of attack. The goal is to hit the defender’s upfield shoulder with your backfield shoulder. The defender kind of hops around the block, which is fine — if the back hits the hole hard enough the defender shouldn’t be able to make a tackle if he runs behind your block.
Kittle is great again here. He sugars the guy they’re going to trap to slow him down before climbing and earholing the linebacker. McGlinchey is proof that the 49ers run game wasn’t perfect on Sunday. He gets whipped here, but it didn’t matter, and it didn’t happen enough to be an issue.
This may be the last Word of Muth column for the 2019 season, and what a way to go out. This was as much fun as I’ve had watching an offensive line in a long time. Watching the Chiefs last week was great too, but all offensive linemen like running the ball more, and it’s more fun to watch from an offensive lineman’s perspective too. Just an incredible combination of scheme and performance.