The 49ers offense has gotten off to a scorching start this season. They are averaging 30+ points a game right now and they are near the top of the league in most major statistical categories . They are littered with skill position talents from the dynamic Christian McCaffrey to Deebo Samuel , Brandon Aiyuk, and George Kittle . They have a quarterback in Brock Purdy who is like a point guard who knows how to get the ball to his playmakers . The offensive line finds a way to just open up running lanes and maul opposing defenses. And to top it all off, they have arguably the best play caller in the league in Kyle Shanahan who has an incredibly creative scheme and finds ways to get his players the ball in open space for them to wreak havoc. He has NFL fans stunned looking at their TVs every Sunday, Monday , and Thursday thinking how are these guys so open or how is there such a big hole for running backs and receivers to run through. The Kyle Shanahan Niners offense is the scariest offense in the league today . The major keys to this offense are running the ball especially to the outside, pocket passing QBs that are accurate in the middle of the field and good deep throwers, and getting skill position players and offensive lineman that are athletic , agile, and can move laterally quickly.
How the Niners passing game operates
One of the biggest keys to the Niners offense is that Shanahan relies on pocket passing quarterbacks that can get the ball out quickly, throw with anticipation especially in the middle of the field, and be able to hit the occasional deep ball down the field. Matt Ryan, Jimmy Garoppolo when he was healthy, and Matt Schaub were all pocket QBs that had success in this offense with Shanahan. Ryan won an MVP and got to the Superbowl and Jimmy Garoppolo threw 27 TDs in 2019 and made it to a Superbowl. Matt Schaub even made a Pro Bowl in this system. The players that the Niners have (McCaffrey, Deebo, Aiyuk, Kittle) are dynamic and their strengths are running in the middle of the field to accentuate Purdy’s strengths that fit the system. Looking at film from the 49ers past game against the Cowboys and from their other games , I observed that most of the plays have players running short routes, drags, or routes going towards the middle of the field with the shot plays down the sideline mixed in to keep defenses honest. Or, the Niners throw screens to the outside or the running backs to get the receivers going and Purdy in rhythm. Shannon Sharpe had a very interesting way to describe the Shanahan offense when he said that the Niners make you have to cover every blade of grass, so defenses can’t just key in on certain areas of the field.
Examples of very common 49ers plays
The play on the left from the Cowboys game shows most of the receivers running towards the middle on post or crossing routes at the goal line , which frees up space for Brock Purdy to throw the ball to George Kittle for a touchdown. Purdy threw this ball before Kittle even broke to the inside on his route, which shows the command that Purdy has of the offense and how dangerous Shanahan’s play calls are. The play on the right shows the Niners running a play action pass where Purdy is able to find Kittle open down the sideline on a wheel route for a touchdown. This play points to the versatility of Kyle Shanahan’s offense and to the times where Purdy throws down the field because the defense is either fixated on the run or receivers running across the middle.
Brock Purdy's Improvement and Play this Year
Purdy has definitely improved his game in all areas of the field this year, but the intermediate throws is where he’s really excelling. Brock Purdy likes to get the ball out quickly and throw with anticipation as he took around 2.5 seconds to throw this year (6th best) through the first 4 games, which is an improvement over last year. This allowed him to complete over 90% of his passes on intermediate throws (10-20 yards) this year for 385 yards and 2 TDs before this Cowboys game, which is very impressive . Purdy’s deep ball prowess has also improved significantly this year. Since defenses have to respect the Niners running and their intermediate passing game, Purdy has been able to find and hit open receivers on the boundary . Purdy was 5-10 for 153 yards and 2 TDs on deep throws this season through the first 4 games , which is a big improvement compared to last season (11-27 346 yards 4 TDs 1 INT in 8 games). He has a higher yards per attempt (9.3 to 8.4) this year so far compared to last year. This shows that he is more comfortable pushing the ball downfield this year as opposed to last year, and that’s unlocked another gear in this offense.
All of these factors have led to Purdy taking a massive jump this season so far compared to last year, which shows how the Shanahan offense helps QBs like Brock Purdy progress year to year. Here is a graph comparing his stats from last year(Weeks 13-18) to this year so far(5 games):
The role of skill position players in this Niners Offense and the Niners overall offensive performance this year
Speed, agility, route running, and blocking from the skill position players and offensive lineman are another major factor of the Shanahan offense. Kyle Shanahan loves to have star skill position players that are versatile and dynamic. For San Francisco, Christian McCaffrey gives them a speed element that they were missing in their backfield since Raheem Mostert left for the Dolphins. His fastest run this year is around 21 mph and he is averaging 5.2 yards per carry with over 500 rushing yards in just 5 games . The Niners run a lot to the outside and the Shanahan system implements a lot of outside zone blocking schemes, so he needs running backs who are fast to get to the edge quickly. He also has the luxury of one of the best left tackles in the league, Trent Williams, to implement this outside zone scheme effectively as Williams is fast and physical in the run game. McCaffrey can run in any direction and he is an elite pass catcher which makes him so dangerous because it is hard for defenses to figure out how to stop him. This picture below shows the Niners offensive lineman, Deebo Samuel(Receiver), and their full back block to pave the way for McCaffrey to use his agility and speed to score a touchdown against the Cardinals. It represents an example of the Niners getting McCaffrey out on the edge and blocking on the outside.
Example of the Niners blocking scheme
Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel are great route runners , fast, and they are elite at getting yards after the catch. George Kittle is a reliable tight end who is an elite blocker in the run game and finds ways to make big plays whenever he gets the ball like he did last Sunday against Dallas(3 TDs). The Niners are 4th in the league in yards after catch per reception(5.71), and last year they were first. This shows how dangerous their skill players are with the ball and how defenses have to cover the whole field against the Niners. Deebo was even used as a running back down the stretch of San Francisco’s 2021 campaign and rushed for over 500 yards, which shows his versatility.
These factors have made the Niners offense so dangerous this year. Here is a table listed below for their overall team stats through 5 games this season and how they rank across the NFL . The table clearly indicates that their offense is playing at a top 2 level this year.
Comparison of the Niners Offense to the Texans Offense
I also have a table below comparing the Niners offense this year to the Texans offense, who are around middle of the pack as far as major statistical categories . The table proves the stark difference in terms of numbers and overall talent of the Niners offense compared to a league-average offense with a play caller and head coach that come from the Shanahan coaching tree. This is the case despite the fact that CJ Stroud and Brock Purdy’s numbers are similar to start the year. The Texans have a coach who was the defensive coordinator for the Niners last year in Demeco Ryans, and their current offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik was the Niners pass game coordinator last year. I felt like the Texans were a good comparison here as they have a lot of Shanahan influence in their offensive scheme and they have a solid offense this year led by a rookie CJ Stroud at QB with decent skill position weapons. Stroud is also of the pocket passing QB mold like Purdy as well, so their games are similar with Stroud having more talent overall.
Overall, the Niners offense has revolutionized the NFL over the last 5 years, and there’s a good chance that they’re going to remain elite for the rest of the season as long as all their stars are healthy. Kyle Shanahan has done a brilliant job crafting a scheme which gets the best out of his skill position players, and makes life easier for his quarterback to execute. The Shanahan offense and its concepts are going to be even more prevalent in the modern NFL as the Dolphins led by Mike McDaniel(Shanahan’s apprentice for years) are a perfect example for how the Shanahan offense has wrecked the league in other places.