Let’s go all the way back to 1995, when Mike Shanahan became head coach of the Denver Broncos with offensive line coach Alex Gibbs and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak.

Back then the only way teams really ran the ball was you had an offensive lineman with a dude in front of him and you blocked your guy and you pushed him out of the way and created a gap for the running back to go through. This is known as a power or gap scheme, and is still successfully used in the NFL.

Mike Shanahan/Gibbs had a different approach: Instead of each lineman blocking a specific defender, they blocked whichever defender came into their zone and built the run game off that. This created several offensive efficiencies:

  1. Teams were doing a lot more blitzing and showing disguises and it was tough for offensive linemen to figure out who was coming and who wasn’t. This allowed them to not care who is blitzing and who isn’t.
  2. The offensive line is optimizing not for power, but for creating advantageous blocking angles at the point of attack. By moving the defense laterally, the offensive line maximizes for quickness and athleticism instead of power.
  3. Smaller, more athletic linemen were in low demand and were able to be acquired cheaply.
  4. It punished overaggressive defenses by using cutback lanes to occupy the space the overaggressive defenders have vacated.
  5. The outside zone creates a numbers advantage by leaving the backside defender unblocked, as the play is going away from him, effectively changing the box count.

Here’s an example of point #4. Focus on the defense #50 lined up against the left side of the offense. If you run the play away from him, even a good run defender can be taken out of the play entirely and this one of the fundamental advantages a wide zone run gives you.

The philosophy of the outside zone is to get the defense moving one way. There is no predetermined hole for the running back to go through before the snap; as the play moves towards the sideline, the back identifies the correct gap to go through. Since the defense is moving one way, it’s hard for them to come back to move the other way to close the gaps.

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The other component to this scheme is the play-action. Play-action is weird because it doesn’t actually require a team to establish the run, as the linebackers key off what the offensive linemen are doing and the way they’re blocking (or appear to block).

Good play-action under center looks exactly like a run if the quarterback is consistent with his motion. Let’s play the game of “who has the football?”

A key staple of this offense is play-action making the defense go one way, then bootlegging the other way where the defense was.

However, there is ostensibly a problem with this: it involves running on early downs. A lot. This is generally bad, because running is much less efficient than passing, which I think makes sense on an intuitive level. And unlike in 1997, teams know a lot better how to defend against wide zone runs. Just from a very macro, broad level, you need to have a good reason to run the ball so much, or else you are spewing offensive efficiency.

But there IS a way out!

Most coaches have two columns of plays. Pass plays and run plays. They call their pass plays for 3rd and 4, then when they feel it’s a good time/situation to run, they pick from their run play menu, and that’s how they call the game.

Some coaches connect their run plays to their pass plays. It’s like in a game of chess or Magic: The Gathering doing something on turn 2 thinking of how it’s going to affect things on turn 10.

So someone like Kyle Shanahan understands this. The 49ers run a ton on first down which is not efficient, yet they are one of the most efficient offenses. Kyle Shanahan understands that if they’re going to run a lot of first down runs, they are going to lose a lot of offensive efficiency if they just run for the sake of running. Instead, Kyle Shanahan said “I have to run all these run plays but in doing so, what if we ramped up the deception and we make every play look the same presnap, but we can run 5 different plays from each formation based on what the defense does. And if the defense makes a mistake, the goal is for a play to go 50 yards, not 5.”

It is a system designed to get dudes wide open by putting the defense in these difficult situations over and over again. Last year:

So how does Kyle Shanahan do this? Let’s take this play with Kittle motioning to the slot. The Broncos keep their second safety back, an advantageous defensive front to run into. The run goes for 10 yards.

Later that game, it’s the same formation (mirrored). Kittle as before motions to the slot, but this time Denver is like aha, we saw this before and it went for 10 yards. We’ll bring a safety down. If they do that, then the pass is available, and this play goes for 35 yards. The run set up the pass, but not in the way that phrase is usually used.

This is a nightmare for defenses to figure out. And mistakes get severely punished by Kyle Shanahan. Motion, play-action, pass plays tied to run plays, run plays tied to pass plays, same plays out of one formation, and it’s so much for a defense to handle.

Here’s an example of how play-action can just wreck a defense. Denver makes a mental error, they bite on the play-action, and Shanahan’s philosophy of “get the fastest guys I can in open space with the ball in their hands” is executed perfectly.

Against the Saints, the 49ers run a player across the formation to block the defensive end for a modest gain. Later in the same game, player moves across the formation and it looks the same, but instead of the player blocking the end, he’s the recipient of the pass. Here are the plays back to back:

The scheme has adapted to use a lot more jet motion than what we saw in the 90s and 00s. Jet motion is another way to stress defenses by creating uncertainty before the snap and putting them in disadvantageous blocking angles. It also occupies a defender to move him away from the play if it is a run.

Who has the ball? Defenses have so much to think about.

“I just won’t bite on play-action,” said the linebacker. That doesn’t go well either.

Questions for Nate:

  1. Why haven’t we come together as a society and come up with a name for this offense? “Shanahan offense” is ambiguous between Mike and Kyle; the “Kubiak offense” doesn’t seem to fit because I don’t think Gary Kubiak is very good at calling the offense. What about the Alex Gibbs offense? How do we make this happen?

I think the term “Shanahan offense” is sticking because 

1) it’s whoever is in charge they’re going to name it after (for better or worse), and it’s also who had the most success with it. I think it’s going to be too hard to name it anything other than the Shanahan offense, even though it was more a hybrid of ideas combined with the outside zone and Naked Bootleg stuff that is paired with it. I think Kubiak was very good (and still think he’s a decent playcaller), but some aspects he didn’t evolve with. The thing is, usually the smart guys will adapt and figure it out, but you’d hope he’d be more proactive than reactive and realizing old stuff isn’t working.

  1. In the pair of Saints plays above, if the scheme is to create a numbers edge by leaving the backside defender unblocked, why is the end blocked by design here?

So the first run play is a Split Zone. Offenses want to change-up how they attack defenses and vary up the looks by either formation, motion, concept, or pace of play (cadence, hurry-up, etc.). The Jet motion on that play is to effect the eyes of the 2nd level defenders (you can see them bumping with the motion) to soften or create easier angles for the OL. Split Zone with the slicing TE is a way to change-up the angle of attack and also play on your own tendency. The Jet motion softens the DE so he doesn’t just crash down the line and ruin the angle of the run, but then here comes the slicing TE to hopefully kick out that DE and the RB plants his foot and gets directly north. It’s essentially a designed cut-back play made up front to look like an outside zone play but they’re really planning on sealing defenders.

  1. Is the set of assumptions correct regarding the efficiency of the offense? i.e. running is not efficient, but the efficiency is regained via play-action and creating run/pass ambiguity for the defense.

That’s an interesting thought and I see what you’re saying. I think running the ball is more a different way to attack a defense and to change things like pace and where you’re attacking. NFL defensive coaches are (for the most part) really fricken good, they’re going to figure it out, it just might take them a few weeks. That’s where running comes in. A boxer isn’t always going to try for headshots (or most of them anyways), a pitcher isn’t always going to throw a fastball every time. And just like a basketball team, yes 3s and FTs are most efficient, but if you’re able to efficiently attack via 15-18 footers (which are basically the football equivalent of running the ball), then it’s fine. But it has to be cause it makes sense, not “just cause”. It’s all about *efficiency* with that stuff. Also it’s easier for OL to run block than it is to pass block, just like a human being is able to push more weight than they are able to catch and set it.

  1. I know inside zone is a zone play with the running back going to the A gap, but when would you want to run inside zone? What are the situations where you would prefer one over the other?

Run plays really come down to finding the best numbers and angles for your blockers. Every single concept comes down to this. Inside zone is best run at a 1-technique DT (aka Nose tackle) but it all comes down to how much cloth of defenders the OL can get their double-teams and angles working. Another great time for IZ is vs. mugged up pressure looks, since you can get a quick “hat on a hat” and the RB can pop through. Defensive fronts and techniques will really dictate when you want to run which run concept. 

  1. I also know that Kyle Shanahan is using gap runs. Is it even true anymore like it was in 1995 that “smaller linemen = zone blocking primarily and bigger linemen = gap blocking” or is that outdated?

There’s still a tiny bit of truth to that, but I think it’s a bit outdated, OL (and just athletes in general) are getting so big and athletic across the board. OL coaches will have some preferences for what types of players they have, but most will try to run schemes based on what they have in front of them. For instance: we would almost exclusively only use Gabe Jackson as a puller on Power because he was so good at it and that was what his best traits were.

  1. How does this offense take advantage of teams with a weak pass rush? Seattle, for example, with their four games against the Rams/49ers brings this question to mind. Is the way to exploit this simply by just having more time in the pocket for longer developing routes (off play-action or otherwise), or is there something specific the scheme affords that creates an extra advantage?

Being able to attack down the field is the biggest advantage vs. lack of pass rush. If you’re a dropback-heavy team, it also helps because you won’t have to utilize a RB or TE to help in protection (either staying in or chipping) and can overall run more 5 man concepts that are deeper since your OL (in theory) should hold up.

Thanks for taking the time. I appreciate you helping me understand this.


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