Shanahan Schemes

Digging into one of the NFL’s best designed offenses
Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

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The sound of a whistle cuts through the crowd noise at Levi’s Stadium. As the referees peel players off the pile, the San Francisco 49ers prepare for the next snap. Kyle Shanahan, flat brimmed hat on head and sturdy play sheet in hand, knows the next play he wants to call before the ball is spotted for 2nd down.

Shanahan has spent the last week toiling over a gameplan to the point he does not need to look at the handwritten passes by coverage section on what looks like a laminated diner menu in front of him. He holds down a paper blowing in the wind titled “2nd half openers” and speaks his language, football, into the headset.

Kyle Shanahan provides precise answers to a test where the questions are constantly changing. His preparation and creativity produce offenses that garner praise from all corners of the football world. That preparation is informed by generations of coaching, decades of experience, and an ingenuity that frustrates defensive coordinators. It has also created spinoffs, remixes, and cover bands of the league’s offense du jour.

This article will explore only a fraction of what makes Kyle Shanahan’s offensive design special. In it you will find diagrams, descriptions, and clips of the most common variations of outside zone, keeper, and play action plays that lead to points on Sundays.

Philosophy and Personnel

The offense Kyle Shanahan has crafted owes a large debt to Kyle’s father, Mike, legendary coach Alex Gibbs, and the countless individuals who have played in and modified the system that has roared across the league. Kyle Shanahan did not invent running outside zone or calling a keeper after seeing the defensive end crash down against the run. Shanahan has, however, mastered maximizing personnel, formational manipulation, and play sequencing. His offense has also evolved year after year to avoid stagnation.

As the league continues to push towards higher rates of 11 personnel (one running back and one tight end), Shanahan’s offenses have consistently found themselves near the bottom of the league in 11 personnel while leading the way in 21 and 22 personnel.

To deal with modern offenses, defenses have evolved to major in two high safety looks with the goal of limiting explosive plays. They defend the run from depth with lighter initial boxes in order to do a better job defending the pass. By utilizing heavier personnel, Shanahan forces defenses to make a choice: fit the run with a light box against great blockers or bring in the defense’s base personnel and open up room in the passing and play action game.

Shanahan’s push to heavier personnel is force multiplied by formational manipulation. Instead of running a play from a static look, shifts and motions change and rechange the formational strength of the offense. When defenses align to the tight end, a shift forces a response and can change the math in the run game. An additional motion can turn what looked like a leverage disadvantage upon breaking the huddle into a positive for the offense.

Formational manipulation is made easier when the five skill position players available are versatile playmakers. Shanahan seemed to have handpicked his fab five in 2022 with Deebo Samuel, Christian McCaffrey, George Kittle, Kyle Juszczyk, and Brandon Aiyuk. Players help make the scheme possible, and the 2022 49ers were no exception.

The 49ers were able to use the same personnel to line up in not only different formations but the same formation with the pieces of the puzzle swapped; defenses would see Samuel in the backfield while CMC was out wide one snap only to see Samuel take a handoff the next snap with CMC blocking on the perimeter. In a league that is so gameplan and matchup dependent, the luxury of versatility that was at Shanahan’s disposal created fireworks for much of the season.

Play sequencing refers to Shanahan’s ability to use plays and concepts that set up other plays and concepts later in the game or within a drive. It is also knowing when to call a play and when to use a changeup to make the defense uneasy. The long runs we praise are often not possible without an earlier call and the information gathered from how the defense responds to each snap.

In the Zone

Despite the laundry list of concepts Shanahan uses, home base is still the outside zone play (many know this as wide zone) that Mike Shanahan and legend Alex Gibbs are famous for.

The dance-like rhythm of outside zone comes from how the steps of the offensive linemen work in tandem with the steps of the running back. After a drop step, the running back sets their track to the outside hip of the tight end while reading the defense one gap at a time outside in. The exact aiming point of the running back may change based on the team or concept. Some teams will have the running back read defenders instead of gaps all while reaching similar results.

By the running back’s third step, a decision on whether to continue on their track, cut the ball up the field, or bend the ball back should be made. The actual cut should be made on the fifth step to help deliver defensive players to blockers. Running outside zone is a skill for a running back; learning the proper footwork as well as taking the hand off while reading the defense outside in presents its own challenge.

The running back’s steps match the choreography of the offensive linemen and other blockers. The three-step decision for the back side of a double team must be made to either knock the first level defender over, take over the block, or climb to the next level. The running back’s read must be made clear for the project to succeed. For more details on double teams, covered/uncovered rules, and pivotal coaching points, check out multiple great clinics.

Despite how some big plays look, outside zone is not a cut back play by design. If the edge is sealed, the running back should continue up the sideline. More often, though, outside zone stretches the front side of the defense and cuts off the back side of the defense. One advantage of having a primarily outside zone based rushing attack is the offensive line has countless repetitions of the blocking scheme to understand core principles, master timing, and handle the all-important double teams.

Within outside zone, numerous tags and adjustments allow for the offensive line to maintain similar rules while dealing with additional players or problematic defenders in specified ways. Multiple tags can look very similar and may only change one person’s responsibility. Other tags are ways to change who blocks one particular defender or deal with post snap rotation. Having a large toolbox of tags allows the offense to play fast, change the presentation of a single concept, and run plays from more advantageous looks.

The tags and descriptions discussed below are meant to establish a baseline understanding and appreciation of the different ways outside zone is run against multiple defensive presentations. Some tags or modifiers are names picked up along the way, and they do not necessarily represent what will be called in the huddle in 2023.

18-19

18 (right) and 19 (left) are the starting point of the entire outside zone structure. They are day one installs and when there is no extra tag from a mirrored formation, the play can be flipped either way without issue.

F Sift

A sift block from the F, sometimes referred to as a split block, is a way to cut the first defender outside of the offensive tackle. It creates a split flow effect as the ball carrier and blocker are running in opposite directions. This gives linebackers an extra stimulus to parse and can help set up play action off a similar design.

Force

Eventually, some defenses decide they need to devote more bodies to stopping the Shanahan run game. One way to deal with this, while allowing the offensive line to keep their double teams largely the same, is with the Force tag.

Force is a strong side (to the tight end) outside zone lead that generally sends the fullback to the support player. The support player, also called the force player from the defensive perspective, is often a safety dropping into the box. Shanahan’s use of a fullback opens up the possibilities for the offense.

Force Cat

Force Cat is a strong side outside zone lead that tells the play side wide receiver to block the safety with a push crack technique. This can look different for different players, but the wide receiver’s outside stem should influence the cornerback just a bit and create a nice angle for the receiver to crack block an aggressive safety. The fullback will block the cornerback.

Mike

Mike is a strong side outside zone lead that places the fullback on the middle linebacker. This tag is particularly useful against base 4-3 teams and is the first of this list to change where the center is targeting.

Weak

Weak is a weak side outside zone lead that places the fullback on the weak side linebacker. As defenses may set their three technique to the strong side, running Weak can take advantage of a bubble in the B gap.

Edge

Edge is a strong side outside zone lead that sends the fullback to the strong side linebacker. This linebacker is often on the ball like an edge player in a 3-4.

One way to deal with the 3-4 defense that clogs interior gaps within outside zone is to account for the edge linebacker with some combination of the tight end and fullback while allowing the inside five linemen to deal with the inside five defenders (three down linemen and two inside linebackers). The back side pursuit would have to be accounted for by the threat of the play fake, motion, or be forced to run down the line and make the tackle.

Zorro

Zorro has increased in popularity over the last few years as it is another way to deal with the edge linebacker in a 3-4 while keeping the rest of the blocking scheme intact. Zorro lets the tight end play aggressively against the edge defender because the fullback will be protecting their inside hip. It is essentially a double team; if the tight end’s assignment spikes inside, the tight end can leave them quickly and move to the next level. This helps avoid the issue of a star defensive end going up against a tight end one on one.

Zorro Cat

Zorro Cat is the same as Zorro, but the fullback and tight end’s double team works to the cornerback while the wide receiver blocks the safety.

Zorro, or Zelda when the center targets the weak side linebacker, can also be run with a fast motion from the F that crosses the center close to the snap. The use of this motion has become more notable for the 49ers as they force the defense to communicate and adjust multiple times in rapid succession. The momentum helps the motion player knock the edge defender off their spot opening up a larger crease for the running back.

Support

Support is strong side outside zone to a two wide receiver side. This can be an effective run against teams that are in nickel to the offense’s personnel grouping or if the defense removes a linebacker from the box.

Zap

Zap is strong side outside zone to a double tight end side. It is a heavier version of outside zone and adds a gap the defense must account for.

Wanda

Wanda is outside zone weak. When running to the weak side, some teams are more inclined to bump the running back’s path and read in for a quicker downhill play (sometimes referred to as mid zone) while the tackle works to aggressively push the edge player out instead of sealing them.

Having the ability to run outside zone both strong and weak, alongside the plethora of tags shown above, gives the offense the ability to answer the defensive front presented. Running outside zone to the weak side is popular because defenses like to find ways to clog the B gap to the run strength. The open B gap to the weak side can give the offensive linemen an angles advantage in their double teams.

Wizz

Wizz works off Wanda and is outside zone with a tight end sift unless there is strong side safety rotation. This plays with the linebackers’ eyes and is another way the outside zone run game can make different concepts look similar.

Weezy

Weezy is a way to protect Zorro. It is set up like Zorro, gives the defense the feel of the fast motion, and then is run away from where the defense is expecting the ball. The tight end will not sift against strong side rotation from the secondary.

Filling in the Gap

While the Mike Shanahan/Alex Gibbs System was seen as almost solely a zone blocking scheme in the past, Kyle Shanahan and others have used gap scheme runs in both effective and interesting ways. Gap scheme runs can take advantage of certain fronts, provide an aggressive changeup, and be an attacking way to gain yards. Defenses that are sitting on outside zone may be surprised to find vertical double teams or a puller coming at them. These plays can be run out of different looks but marrying them to outside zone creates even more hesitation in the defense.

Power

Mike McDaniel, who notably overlapped with Kyle Shanahan in Houston, Washington, Cleveland, Atlanta, and San Francisco, burst onto the national scene calling plays for the Dolphins last season. Here is the Dolphins using a fast motion to get to Power:

Counter Solid

Counter Solid is another way the 49ers have adapted to deal with teams that want to clog up interior gaps while setting the edge with an outside linebacker. Counter usually involves the guard and tackle or a guard and a tight end pulling. Counter Solid takes advantage of the tackle washing the defense down while using the tight end and F as what amount to pullers.

The 49ers ran this by starting in a 3×1 formation to one side before flipping it to 3×1 the other way after the snap. This quick change stresses the defense’s communication and assignment integrity. The fake block the wide receiver gives the edge defender here causes an extra hesitation while the fast motion player is coming to create a crease for the running back:

To add another layer, the 49ers ran zone off a similar set up last year:

Wham

One of my favorite offensive plays last season was the 49ers long touchdown on Wham against the Rams. Broadly, a Wham block uses a tight end or fullback to block one of the interior defensive linemen while an offensive lineman releases to another responsibility. It takes advantage of overaggressive defensive linemen that run up the field and can be thought of in a similar category as Trap.

The Rams liked to shade their nose tackle to muddy up the 49ers double teams and Shanahan decided to Wham the nose while sending the center to the edge. This was off a look that was similar to Zorro, used a toss instead of a handoff, and led to six points:

Keep it Moving

One way to protect outside zone is through the keeper/movement pass game. After seeing run after run, linebackers may be anxious to get to their downhill responsibility quicker. Edge players may also want to chase down the play from the back side as they can find themselves unblocked after a jet motion comes their way. An appropriately timed fake can leave defenders hesitant, create big plays, and unlock the defense.

As these runs and fakes layer onto each other, the defensive end’s dilemma can create back side creases in the run game and still let the offense hit the flat quickly. The details of the keeper series embody the punch, counter punch, counter counter punch that Shanahan employs.

Keep

The base keeper play offenses use has a few foundational elements. It starts with an outside zone fake and a quarterback getting depth in a full roll. Next, the offense has three levels (high, middle, low) of routes to flood the defense to one side. A deep middle of the field alert is common as well.

The permutation of players that fill each of these roles can vary and invites creativity. The play usually involves someone from the back side of the formation gaining a full head of steam on a crossing route.

Slide

Slide works off the sift block mentioned earlier. The defensive end may feel they are about to get blocked before the offense slips someone past them for a quick throw into the flat. While the Slide player is often an off the ball tight end, offenses have used other players to avoid tipping off the defense:

Leak

Leak has become a beloved big play concept for outside zone teams. Leak has all the ingredients of a regular boot play, but the leaker (usually a tight end) continues what looks like a block into a route up the field.

Teams may use other players to run Leak, run it out of traditional play action instead of off a full roll, or run it to the front side instead of the back side. Here are the Lions using a wide receiver to run Leak:

Hiccup

Hiccup is another shot play the offense wants to sell as a regular keeper. The difference is the player running what is usually a Corner route sets up the route before breaking to the Post for what is hopefully a big play.

Throwback

 

Throwback is a less commonly used play off a keeper that, like Hiccup, involves a player selling their usual route before breaking in the opposite direction. Over eager defenders that want to cut off a crossing route find themselves in a bind here.

Play Action Professionals

Another way the Shanahan System loves to attack defenses is through play action. Though the keeper passes above could be considered play action, this group of plays uses half rolls instead of the full roll quarterbacks take in the keeper game. Shanahan’s play action percentage may be dropping as defenses play more pass first, but these plays are still an effective way to cause defensive strife.

Drift

An extremely common play action play in the NFL is Drift (Strike under McVay). This is usually run from a condensed heavier 12 or 21 personnel set. The condensed wide receivers encourage the cornerbacks to have outside leverage as they do not want to be beaten into the large open space the reduced split creates.

On a Drift route, a condensed receiver will get a bit outside of their initial alignment before breaking inside and finding the hole in the defense. Drift is sometimes paired with a vertical run through from the other side or a Swirl (Corner Stop) route.

The Drift concept is so effective because the second level is fed a fake to encourage stepping up. The receiver then breaks right behind the vacated space for a quick pass. Defenses that move to single high looks because of a desire to devote more resources to stop the run game will be given a healthy dose of Drift.

High Cross Series

A common element in Kyle Shanahan’s play action game is the crossing route. The High Cross stresses the defense by forcing a choice: chase the route with a single player, have it cut off by another player, or communicate through multiple players to figure out how to deal with it. Some teams may even send an opposite field linebacker to go meet the High Cross at its peak. The High Cross series benefits from a team being in a single high look as it is meant to conflict the middle of the field safety while stressing the cornerbacks.

Burner

Burner pairs a Pylon route with a High Cross. The Pylon route is functionally similar to a Corner route, but the initial stem will look like some other routes that are common in the play action pass game. Route stems in the Shanahan offense are extremely important because the cornerback may be set up by a stem over and over only for the route to end up different. The offense creates three levels to one third of the field between the High Cross, the Pylon route, and a check down.

Rage

Using the same initial stem and first break as Burner, Rage is a double move shot play. After selling Burner to the defense, the Rage route is a home run when the safeties are more concerned with cutting off the High Cross route thus leaving the cornerback on a difficult island.

Rider

Rider uses the same initial stem as both Burner and Rage but is an inside stemming vertical route paired with a High Cross. It may be used against Cover 2 looks because the timing of the vertical clear is more important than pushing the corner’s leverage to the outside as in Blazer (discussed below).

Blazer

Blazer, more commonly used than Rider, combines an outside stemming vertical route with a High Cross. The initial stem of the Blazer route will look the same as Drift before the receiver takes off. It can sometimes look like a skinny Post and is often used as a runoff.

A well-run Blazer route pushes the cornerback to protect deep and outside before getting inside of the defender. Creating open space by alignment and route stem can lead to big plays in the right situation.

Heat

Heat is a play action pass that uses the defense’s rules against it. First, the Miami route is meant to sell a High Cross before either settling down or working back to the sideline. If a safety cuts off the Miami route, the receiver will work out. If there is no safety there to hinder the route’s progress, the receiver will sit down in open space.

This opens up the big Post coming from the opposite side of the field. An out leveraged cornerback would have to either chase a speedy deep threat across the field or hope the communication somehow did not leave an open opponent.

Conclusion

Each snap, Kyle Shanahan expresses a part of himself to the world. His play sheet is the product of experience, hard work, and innovation. Shanahan’s offenses are a joy to watch and rewatch because they embody the chess match of modern football. Players are put in positions to succeed, the smallest of details are emphasized, and the whole structure builds on itself.

Shanahan’s tags and adjustments on outside zone give the offense a way to deal with nearly any defensive front. When the look is right, Shanahan will turn to his keeper and play action game to get defenders’ heads spinning.

And still, Kyle Shanahan must face the test every snap of every game. The unrelenting pursuit of offensive success is difficult because defenses are problem solving and troubleshooting at an increasing rate.

Just when a defense thinks they have a play taken care of, Shanahan knows when to call a counter to it. By the time that play is caught up to on the larger scale, Shanahan pushes even further ahead of his counterparts to reset the standard once again.

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