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Scouting the Niners: San Francisco a unique offensive team

49ers use personnel differently than most other teams

NFL: Oakland Raiders at San Francisco 49ers Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Is it the quarterback, or is it the system?

It is an ages-old debate in the football universe, one that tries to ascertain whether a single quarterback is to account for offensive production or whether quarterback success is more determined by the passer himself. It is a debate that I, a New England Patriots fan, am intimately familiar with. My thoughts on the “system vs. passer” debate are documented, but as the New York Giants look ahead to facing Nick Mullens and the San Francisco 49ers, there is certainly a scheme component that the Giants need to be ready for come Monday night.

Two of the NFL’s more forward-thinking offensive minds, Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan, do a tremendous job with personnel usage when putting together game plans. Consider this from the Los Angeles Rams. According to, the Rams use 11 offensive personnel (three wide receivers, one tight end and one running back) a whopping 94 percent of the time. Out of their 580 offensive plays this season, 547 of them have come with this personnel group. But what truly stands out is that the Rams run the football 45 percent of the time with this package, and are successful on 58 percent of those running plays and average 5.2 yards per carry when running the football out of 11 personnel. Why? Because when a defense sees that 11 personnel group on the field, they lighten the box. Todd Gurley, arguably one of the best running backs in the game, faces light boxes (such as only six defenders in the box) more than any other running back:

By using this personnel group, McVay dictates the defensive personnel, and then takes advantage.

Shanahan is no different, however the 49ers coach takes things in the opposite direction. San Francisco uses 21 offensive personnel more than any other team in the league. Of their 564 offensive plays this year, 41 percent, or 229, have come with 21 offensive personnel on the field. But San Francisco threw the ball on 42 percent of those plays. How have 49ers quarterbacks fared throwing out of 21 personnel this season? They have posted a quarterback rating of 112.7, a TD/INT ratio of 7:2, have posted a yards per attempt of 9.6 and average 8.1 air yards per attempt.

For contrast, the team that uses 21 personnel second-most in the NFL right now is the Patriots, which is no surprise to me. But look at what Tom Brady has done throwing out of 21 personnel this year: A quarterback rating of 62.1 and one touchdown versus three interceptions.

No other team in the league uses 21 offensive personnel more than 13 percent of the time.

The reason for the success in the passing game is the other side of the coin from the Rams’ run success. A defense, seeing 21 offensive personnel in the game, is more likely to play their base package. Which gives an offense more chances to get players matched up against linebackers in the passing game, which tends to be an advantage for the offense.

Look at this play from Thursday night against the Oakland Raiders:

On their opening drive of the game the 49ers face a third-and-2 at the Oakland 24-yard line. They line up with Mullens (under center and with 21 personnel in the game, and align running back Matt Breida (No. 22) behind fullback Kyle Juszczyk (44). As you might expect, the Raiders keep their base defense on the field. But the 49ers run a play-action boot concept, and Pierre Garcon (15) is wide open on the deep crosser, setting up an easy throw for Mullens:

Anytime you see the QB raising his arms shortly after releasing the throw, you can be sure the offense is going to hit on a big play.

Consider a San Francisco drive early in the third quarter. They begin the drive facing a 1st and 10 on their own 32-yard line, and they have their 21 offensive personnel package in the game. On first down Breida attempts a run to the left side, but loses one yard against the base Oakland defense:

You might think an offense would adjust things for 2nd and 11. Instead? The 49ers line up without a huddle. Shanahan has the Oakland base defense on the field and he wants to attack it in the passing game, which he does:

To finish the drive, the 49ers keep this package on the field but put Juszczyk in a bunch to the right. Since the Raiders have their base defense in the game, Shanahan believes he can now run to the edge and use quickness in the run game against this defensive grouping.

He’s right:

This is the challenge facing the Giants on Monday night. Shanahan does such a great job using personnel, especially this 21 personnel grouping, that the Giants’ defense will need to be on their toes against Mullens when two running backs are on the field with him.