49ers: How Kyle Shanahan revitalized the offense with zone blocking

49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images /

In a league hyper-focused on expanding the pass offense, Kyle Shanahan evolved the San Francisco 49ers’ run offense with zone blocking.

San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan learned at a young age what a powerful run offense can do. Under the tutelage of his father Mike Shanahan, a former head coach in the NFL, coach Shanahan studied the development of a dynamic run offense.

By the time Shanahan was 19-years old, his father had three Super Bowl rings with the Denver Broncos. The cause, an innovative new scheme that utilized blocking in zones to create space for the run offense.

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Five offensive linemen and one tight end run horizontally along the line of scrimmage in unison without crisscrossing.

The zone blocking scheme has two types of runs, inside zone runs and outside zone runs. In both play designs, the offensive line stretches one side of the field and cuts the other side, creating a natural gap for the running back to get through.

This style of run protection requires running backs to be able to move the ball laterally, and aggressively cut downhill the second a gap is created. As a result, running backs in this system must have one cut downhill ability.

After seeing his father’s success, Shanahan spent his entire career implementing and improving the zone blocking scheme. At the start of his tenure in San Francisco, Shanahan made a point to immediately implement zone blocking.

In just three years Shanahan established one of the youngest, most talented running back committees in the NFL. The offensive guru scouted for running backs with one-cut downhill ability to meet his system and found them in some of the most unlikely places.

The first of which is Matt Breida, the 24-year old shined in Shanahan’s system and picked up 607 yards along with one touchdown this season. Breida entered the league in 2017 undrafted out of Georgia Southern University.

The next is Tevin Coleman, who has 533 yards and six touchdowns so far this season. Coleman was an All-American at the University of Indiana and entered the league as a third-round selection by the Atlanta Falcons.

It was in Atlanta that Coleman first started working with Kyle Shanahan. The running back developed under the zone blocking scheme while playing for the Falcons. After the 26-year old’s contract expired last offseason, he decided to reunite with Shanahan in San Francisco.

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The third member of the Niners running back committee is Purdue product Raheem Mostert. Undrafted in 2015, the young running back has already played for seven different teams.

Midway through the 2016 season, Mostert was released by the Chicago Bears and he signed to play on the San Francisco practice squad a few days later. Mostert made his regular-season debut for the team the last week of the 2016 season.

All three played extremely well in Shanahan’s system and helped the 49ers run offense exponentially. In the first year of the Shanahan-era, the Red and Gold finished the season with the 21st ranked run offense in the NFL at 104.0 yards per game.

Last season the team improved to the 13th best run offense in the NFL at 119.2 yards per game. This season the 49ers entered elite territory with 145.1 yards per game, making for the second-best run offense behind only Lamar Jackson and the red hot Baltimore Ravens.

The zone blocking scheme works and Shanahan deserves all the credit in the world for it. The team runs the football as well as anyone else in the league and does it without a true superstar in the core of running backs.

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Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch committed to this system, found the right personnel to play in it and now the team will continue to reap the benefits in the playoffs.