1. OPENING DRIVE TOUCHDOWN
That pink thing riddled with holes I call a brain told me San Francisco v. Minnesota was the most interesting game last weekend. Millions, well maybe not millions, numerous, that’s better, components making up this game fascinated me. I had so many questions. Could Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison control the game? They could not. Can Kirk Cousins hit deep? He did once. Can Minnesota’s linebackers dominate like they did in New Orleans? They didn’t. Will Jimmy Garoppolo be able to exploit the deep sideline, the major weakness of Minnesota’s defense? He didn’t need to. Will Kyle Shanahan or Mike Zimmer win the coaching matchup? Stay tuned. Which outside zone offense would have the most success? San Francisco. Is George Kittle going to be limited by the league’s best tight end covering defense? Kind of.
Two teams. Two similar styles. An infinite number of possibilities.
Reality was less interesting than the stories my mind created to fill in the gap from Thursday to Saturday. The 49ers went up 7-0 on the opening drive and didn’t trail for the rest of the game. The drive was quick, efficient, and brutal. 8 plays 61 yards. Four minutes and eleven seconds off the clock. I loved all of it.
Play #1: Ball at SF 39. 1st and 10. Matt Brieda right tackle for 2 yards.
San Francisco runs outside zone left. They motion the wide receiver to shift the linebackers. They stick. Danielle Hunter (#99) sets the edge well and forces the back to bang the run through the right side of the line of scrimmage. Backup center Ben Garland can’t handle Linval Joseph (#97).
Play #2: Ball at SF 41. 2nd and 8. Short middle to Deebo Samuel for 10.
The 49ers lead the league in pre-snap motion. They utilize it on more than 70% of their offensive snaps. They start in a split shotgun set with Juszczyk left and Tevin Coleman (#26) right. Juszczyk motions wide left. Anthony Barr (#55) follows him, and with one safety deep, this signals Cover 1. Coleman moves to the other side of Garoppolo. Kendricks covers him in the flat. The motion cuts the linebackers into pieces, tosses them out of the box, and creates space for the slant run by Samuel. Linebacker Eric Wilson (#50) has his attention on Kittle. A wide open throwing lane is created before the snap.
Play #3: Ball at MIN 49. 1st and 10. Incomplete short left to George Kittle.
The Vikings bring the blitz. Harrison Smith (#22) and his forearm sleeves lurches into the box. They play Cover 3 behind it. The 49ers are prepared for it. Minnesota’s defense shifts right to give Smith a free blitz off the edge. Juszczyk motions into an off-set I formation to pick up the blitz. Clean pocket. No worries. On the left edge Kittle is running an out against Wilson, but an enormous mismatch is ruined by a disappointing drop.
Play #4: Ball at MIN 49. 2nd and 10. Deep left to Emmanuel Sanders for 22.
Play action passing is an offense’s cheat code. The 49ers run play action on 31% of their plays, second behind Baltimore, and pick up 9.7 yards per play, which is 2.9 more yards than plays without playaction. Smith sniffs around the box against a heavy offensive formation. Jimmy fakes the hand off on outside zone left. It’s Cover 3 again. Samuel runs a deep corner clearing out the left third defender. Sanders runs a deep post in the crawl space underneath it. Barr sits on the play fake, recognizes the pass late, and is unable to carry the post.
Play #5: Ball at MIN 27. 1st and 10. Short middle to Emmanuel Sanders for 11.
San Francisco is a master of using pre-snap motion to diagnose the defense. Juszczyk motions from the fullback position to the second left tight end next to Kittle. This creates a stacked wide receiver set on the line of scrimmage and creates another run gap for Minnesota to defend. This also pulls Wilson across from him signaling man coverage. Safety Anthony Harris (#41) is lined up across from Kittle. Coleman running out to the flat pulls Kendricks with him. The Vikings have a 6-1 front. Garroppolo has the short middle squadron of the field. He kills the play and audibles. No pressure. Sanders beats Xavier Rhodes (#29) in man coverage.
Play #6: Ball at MIN 16. 1st and 10. Tevin Coleman middle for 2 yards.
This is one way to run outside zone. The 49ers have one tight end left after Kittle motions to a wing tight end right. Off-set I right. They run outside zone right, but have Kittle and Juszczyk pull to the opposite direction to seal off the backside of the play. This prevents a chase back tackle, but could also create a cutback. It doesn’t matter. Tight end Levine Toilolo (#83) can’t reach Wilson from the backside.
Play #7: Ball at MIN 14. 2nd and 8. Short middle to Kittle for 11.
After an unsuccessful first down run they go back to a spread set in the redzone. Kittle is the slot left receiver. The slot right receiver motions behind the quarterback and pulls Barr along with him. Play action fake, the motion opens up the short middle and Kittle is wide open.
Play #8: Ball at MIN 3. 1st and 3. Short middle to Kendrick Bourne for 3, Touchdown.
Shanahan is getting wild. At the four yard line they go with 11 personnel. A single receiver left. Slot right wide receiver formation after the motion. Man coverage. Kittle is a wing tight end again. He pulls behind the formation to pick up the blitz after the play action fake, the same fake that yanks Kendricks down. Rhodes is never able to get his hands on Bourne and is crusty out his break. Easy and wide open for the quarterback. 7-0.
Every great offense creates easy yards. Baltimore’s gap read rushing attack, Kansas City’s spread offense, and San Francisco’s pre-snap motion outside zone offense all do this. On San Francisco’s opening drive Garoppolo hit easy open throws, and wasn’t required to make a single complicated one across these eight plays. This is how you score 24 points with a quarterback completing 11 passes on 19 attempts for 131 yards. Kevin Stefanski is heart broken he couldn’t repeat the same feat with Kirk Cousins. I know the answer to my last question. Shanahan won the coaching battle this game.
2. TIGHT END ONE
There’s a debate waging across the battlefields of Pro Football Reference player pages, film clips, and ProFartBallFocus Grades: Who is the NFL’s best tight end? In one corner you have Travis Kelce, who caught 10 of his 12 targets for 134 yards and 3 touchdowns. In the other corner is George Kittle, who caught 3 of his 5 targets for 16 yards against the league’s best defense against tight ends.
My pick is Kittle. Easy. Unlike Kelce, Kittle is one of the league’s best blockers, offensive linemen included. Kelce blocking is standing in front of someone with his hands on their chest. He’s a lean too shelter. A slow dance while sticky floors are mopped because he knows the bartender. This is ‘Kelce’ (#87) blocking.
Kittle, on the other hand, is the foundation of the 49ers’ outside zone blocking offense. He creates the running back’s read as the end blocker. Against Minnesota, Kittle made every block a wide edge blocker can make in an outside zone scheme.
He’s on the left side of the line of scrimmage. Everson Griffen (#97) is head up across from him as a ‘6’ technique. Kittle takes a wide slide step. Griffen tries to match it and get to his outside shoulder. It doesn’t happen. The blocker is on the outside shoulder. Left tackle Joe Staley (#74) gives Griffen a shove to the second level, then, from there, Kittle drives Griffen four yards up the field so Coleman can bang this run behind him. Great base. Power and low pad level. Hands inside. This is a devouring block.
This time Raheem Mostert is the running back (#31). The defensive end is a ‘5’ technique in the gap between the right tackle Mike McGlinchey (#69) and Kittle. Based on the alignment, Kittle will drive the outside shoulder up to the SAM linebacker unless the end slants wide. He doesn’t. An extended arm shoves the end to McGlinchey and Kittle swoops up to the linebacker. Hands inside. A monstrous pop. He turns Barr and seals him on the edge.
Kittle motions from left to right. Danielle Hunter (#99) shifts to the ‘B’ gap and is a ‘5’ technique. Kendricks shifts in front of Kittle to play man coverage in case of a pass attempt. At the snap, Hunter is slow to react. Kittle gets wide and even with Hunter’s outside shoulder. Because of his steps, and Hunter’s reaction, he’s able to turn a strong outside zone block into a traditional hip to hip gap scheme double team. Spectacular. Look at this unison.
Hunter is driven all the way to Kendricks. Kittle pops off and picks up the scraping Kendricks once they are even. I can’t get over this.
Second and five. That was an easy seven.
On the rare occasions when Kittle has only five targets he still dominates games. No matter the shade of the defensive lineman, or the linebacker’s placement, he can make his block. He can drive the end wide, he can reach the end and turn him inside, he can offer a hand of help and get to the second level against inside shades, he can turn a typical quick moving block into annihilation. Kittle is the impossible to find tight end who can block defensive ends on his own. He’s the greatest outside zone blocking tight end I’ve ever seen, and one of the best outside zone blockers I’ve ever seen. But what do I know. I’m only fourteen.
3. IMAGINE BLOCKING THIS
Dee Ford returned from a hamstring injury against New Orleans in week 14, only to hurt his hamstring again that same game. He hasn’t played since that day. Because of the one seed and the first round bye, he was able to recover in time to take on Minnesota in their first playoff game. With him, and Kwon Alexander, returning from a torn pectoral the 49ers front is back to its hellacious ways.
This season Ford (#55), Nick Bosa (#97), Arik Armstead (#91), and Deforest Buckner (#99) combined for 33 sacks, 63 quarterback hits, and 134 pressures. They’ve done things like dismantle the Rams and Packers entirely on their own, permitting the offense to control the ball, hang out, and take advantage of short fields. The Rams went from scoring 40 points to going 0 for 13 on third and fourth down in the span of a week because of this front.
The best version of the 49ers’ defense is back and at it again. Against the Vikings their front four combined for 11 tackles, 5 sacks, 8 quarterback hits, and 6 tackles for a loss. Their dime defense is horrifying. Each member of their front can play on the interior or exterior, and all 24 possible combinations are legitimate options for Robert Saleh to tinker with.
The Vikings are in the redzone after a Kendricks interception. Ford is lined up on the interior against Pat Elflein (#65) on 3rd and 11. Elflein punches too soon, and punches without being square with Ford. It’s a quick punch-rip-bend combo and then one armed take down. Minnesota kicks the field goal. Game over. They wouldn’t score again.
This is rude. This time its Buckner (#99) against Elflein. Ford and Bosa are the wide rushers. He swims and bends to sack Cousins from the interior.
It’s a quarterback driven league. It’s all about your quarterback. These statements have been massaged like a dry rub into the folds of our brains, ooooo, look at that bark right there. The 49ers are the antithesis to this. Garroppolo is fine. He can pick and pop and gets the ball out quickly. His throws are open. Windows are retractable roofs. The outside zone blocking is absurd. The pass defense probably would have been an all-time great one if Ford and Alexander weren’t injured. In a game against a team with similar skills and strengths, the 49ers were the best version, and what the Vikings have always wanted to be. It’s not all about the quarterback. Teams can win in a variety of ways. It’s what makes football so great. San Francisco is the definition of this.
4. RELEASE ME FROM THE LINE OF SCRIMMAGE
I have a nail stuck in skull. My pituitary is all screwed up. Clowns join together in a great baptismal chorus of giggles when I walk into the shoe store. I know nothing about how to stutter and step to get around someone. This is a foreign language, a different civilization, an obscure arctic culture, an alien species.
Wide receiver releases are my kink. They have cool names like cradle release, three step jab release, four step square cut, I barely know what anyone of them mean, but dammit I love it.
Stefon Diggs had a despicable release to haul in the Vikings’ only touchdown. This is a hop-step jab release. Despite the free running, he had to come back down from this cloud to play the ball. Great throw Kirk! It’s not your fault Minnesota only put up 10.
This was one from Tyler Lockett was special. He stutters in place before releasing outside. He draws the holding penalty, and still makes the catch. The Russell Wilson touch fade is the best throw in the game.
5. THAT FIRST QUARTER
Unbelievable. The Chiefs forfeited down 24-0 against the Texans. Afraid of future consequences, the crushing weight of more and more and more points, they called the game off. I still can’t believe the Texans are going to the AFC Championship game. An All-AFC South Championship. His will is done. I want to spend the rest of my life, and then after I die in the desert, I want to spend my afterlife, not with friends and families and dead dogs, but within that first quarter.
6. INTELLIGENT DESIGN
Over the course of these six years I’ve seen the Texans throw hundreds of ineffective screen passes. The left tackle, whether it’s Duane Brown, Laremy Tunsil, or Juli’en Davenport, can never get to the alley defender. The wide receiver misses his block. The pass is batted at the line of scrimmage. The receiver doesn’t make the unblocked defender miss. It’s a constant storm of misery. The pains of existence.
Bill O’Brien has been waiting six years for this play. We’ve been waiting six years for this play. After starting off the Kansas City game with wide receiver screen that gained one yard, he went back to it on third and one, except this time, the formation was tighter to the line of scrimmage, the safety rolled over, and Kenny Stills took off down the field. They have never run this play before. New life. New experiences. I’m so glad they won this game.
Bill O'Brien waited six years to run this play— Matt Weston (@Mbw987) January 15, 2020
I'm so happy for him pic.twitter.com/Gnvj4Zib3G
7. THE RED BOOK
The greatest run in the NFL right now isn’t Derrick Henry running the ball 254 times for 1,501 yards, scoring 13 touchdowns, and averaging 5.91 yards a carry with Ryan Tannehill in the lineup, including 64 carries for 377 yards (5.89 yards a carry ) during the postseason. It isn’t Ryan Tannehill’s 9.2 yards an attempt. It isn’t the Titans going on the road to take down the #3 seed New England Patriots and the #1 Baltimore Ravens. No. It’s the Titans’ redzone touchdown rate.
Since taking over for Marcus Mariota, sheesh, he’s really let himself go, the Titans have a redzone touchdown rate of 88.6%. To put this in comparison, the Titans had a redzone touchdown rate of 61.5% with Mariota. They’ve scored 31 touchdowns, kicked 1 field goal, and have 3 turnovers. No one has ever seen anything like this and no one ever will.
Against the Ravens they had three redzone drives, and guess what, ahhh, who cares, you’re intelligent enough to fill in the rest.
Not even 3rd and 12 can stop the Titans. Tannehill hit Jonnu Smith in the corner of the endzone. One cheek is worth more than one foot. A buttock skidded along the turf makes this one count.
On 3rd and 3 the Titans put Tannehill into motion and turned Henry into a shotgun quarterback. My teeth are blue. My gums are bleeding. I feel so sexy. This is some wonderful exotic methmouth discovered from a gold tablet buried deep in a mine located on an island in the middle of an Arkansas Lake. Henry throws a jump pass touchdown. Somewhere Tim Tebow screams. Somewhere Mike Mularkey is freed.
The third touchdown puts Henry in motion behind Tannehill as the ball is snapped. An option play, Earl Thomas (#29) plays Henry instead of the quarterback. Nate Davis (#64) takes an uncommon path to the second level to carry Tannehill through perdition.
Look, the Titans’ redzone offense makes zero sense. It’s unsustainable. It shouldn’t be happening. Nothing they’ve done makes sense. No one has played football like this before. It’s the little things magnified to a broiling sun. It’s going to end this week, or next week, or next season, but really, who cares, the view from the backseat is too sublime to care about when the car finally comes to a stop. But really, this has to end someday. Right? Right? Right?
8. ONE MORE YARD
The other incredible thing that happened in the Titans’ upset is they stopped the Ravens on fourth and short. No one had done this. The Ravens had gone for it on 4th and 1 six times and each time they converted. They had punted in this situation only four times. On 3rd and 1 they converted 73.9% of the time and had a run pass ratio of 2:21. Of course, the Titans stopped each one of their fourth and one rushing attempts, and then proceeded to score touchdowns immediately afterwards.
Running the option on 4th and 1, linebacker David Long (#51) slips through the ‘A’ gap to make contact behind the line of scrimmage.
There isn’t space for Lamar Jackson to fall forward because Wesley Woodyard (#59) of all people is in the gap.
Additionally, the Ravens were 15-21 on fourth down this season not including their 0-4 results against the Titans. A run pass ratio of 16:9 they were almost unstopptable. Then they met the Titans, who have turned the entire postseason into nonsense, and have melted all reality into a puddle, proving what a great big lie it all really is.
The other thing the Titans have done especially well is win the field position battle. Their opponent’s average drive starts at their own 21 yard line. New England typically started on their own 23 and Baltimore on their own 20 yard. A Patriots drive that started at Tennessee’s 47 is the shortest drive they’ve had to defend. And, on top of all of that, each team was down by an average of 7.4 points when they had the ball. This is some dark magic. Warlocks are drinking margaritas at the Logan’s Roadhouse and it’s not even happy hour yet.
9. THE FINAL BOSS
Derrick Henry is in the middle of a run not seen since John Riggins ran the Redskins to a Superbowl victory. New England’s six one front. The Ravens filling every gap. None of it mattered. The Titans are running the basic outside zone with a few variations here and there, and they’re obliterating teams with it. It’s about talent. It’s not about scheme. And the Titans’ have the final boss of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sidescrolling fighter as their singular force carrying them up the mountain.
My favorite part of the Henry experience are those drives where he picks up every single yard. After Jackson was stopped on Baltimore’s second 4th and 1 failure the Titans had the ball at their own 19 yard line. Henry had carries for 5 yards, 4 yards, 66 yards, and 3 yards, until Tannehill threw an incompletion at the 3 yard line, and then Henry completed a touchdown pass to Corey Davis to make the game 21-6 that pretty much ended it, until a Jurrell Casey strip sack grew legs into a Tannehill rushing touchdown that absolutely ended it.
Here’s every play from that drive in sequential order.
10. DON’T EVER GIVE UP
There’s a cartoon all of us has seen on shirts and motivational posters. There’s a large water bird, a crane of some type, with his mouth wide open, eyes bulged, and on the precipice of regurgitation. Coming out of his throat, through his mouth, and around his neck, is the almighty and all powerful hand of a legendary frog forged from Armageddon and forged for war. Above this the font reads NEVER GIVE UP and probably the year and name of some high school wrestling team. If it’s a shirt, the back shows the frog hopping away continuing his pursuit of living a purposeful life, which, in this case, an insatiable thirst for blood and gore.
These sacks are that. Beat Laremy Tunsil with an inside-out move but miss the sack? Never Give Up. Lose Russell Wilson after an interior bend? Never Give Up. Let this be a lesson to all you Tik Tockers and Facetimers. Never Give Up.