Part 1: Which systems are the most OL-friendly and why?
Examining how some top offensive minds make life easier for the offensive line
Certain offensive systems in the NFL make life much easier on the offensive line — and as a result, more difficult on the defense. This series explores some of the ways that offenses build in those advantages, including anecdotes from players with experience in some of the league’s most sophisticated schemes. Part 1of this study will analyze two coaches who consistently set up their offensive lines for success as well as any two play-callers in the NFL: Vikings offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan.
A common theme for offensive success across the NFL lies in the play-designer’s ability to lean on the foundational concepts that the players are most comfortable executing. That can include using different formations, personnel groupings, pre-snap motion, and shifts that keep offenses unpredictable while also helping the line build confidence in their technique, landmarks, and aiming points.
Presenting multiple pictures for the defense to process both before and after the snap transforms simple concepts into complex puzzles that defenses need to solve in an incredibly quick amount of time. The confusion, uncertainty, and hesitation that these wrinkles create for a defense manufacture advantageous angles and superior leverage for blockers to more easily get their initial fit on a target. Those angles are often the difference between a successful and unsuccessful play for an offensive lineman, and it’s accomplished purely from coaching. And few coaches do a better job of building in those advantages than Gary Kubiak and Kyle Shanahan.
“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” This famous Bruce Lee quote was one that Vikings center Garrett Bradbury mentioned to me as one of the core philosophies of Kubiak’s offense. Some coaches add concepts to the offense in-season after seeing other teams have success with them (McVay being one of them). But in Minnesota, that idea can detract from Kubiak’s pursuit of perfecting the group of core concepts at the center of his offense. To avoid becoming a jack of all trades and master of none, the nuts and bolts of the Vikings’ system really don’t change much.
Bradbury described it to me as a “tight zone offense with wrinkles, with all of the keepers and nakeds (naked bootleg) having the same shifts and motions as the run game.”
Kubiak’s brilliance really comes into play with his ability to run the same concepts in different ways, which enables O-linemen to focus on getting live reps with the same techniques against different fronts and players. By getting his blockers comfortable with the opponent and their fits through multiple reps of similar concepts, the Vikings increase their chances of blocking it just right and getting chunks of yardage later in games as defenses wear down.
Because Kubiak is able to simplify things for his offensive line and personnel, the Vikings running game has flourished this season. Minnesota is averaging 6.4 yards per play (2nd in the NFL), and star RB Dalvin Cook is 2nd in the NFL in rushing yards (1,130) while leading the league in yards before contact (564).
Using shifts and motions to muddy up a defense’s ability to distinguish between run and pass goes a long way toward helping offensive linemen master their blocks and be one step ahead of defenders.
This first example below highlights how a simple TE motion across the formation sets up a massive cut-back lane off of a split-zone concept the Vikings run out of 22 personnel. The motion causes a shift in the Packers defensive front that helps gain leverage for the backside combo block between the opposite tight end and left tackle. Cook reads this and goes untouched to the 3rd level of the defense, where he is able to make the first man miss and rip off a 16-yard gain.
Because the backside tight end on the combo block didn’t really have to engage the defensive end, he had an easy opening to read and climb on the linebacker to seal him off. The success of this run was largely created off the pre-snap motion, which highlights a basic but important way motion can manipulate a defense to make things easier for the offensive line.
Below is a collection of clips highlighting Minnesota’s bread-and-butter concept out of a staple Kubiak formation: tight zone out of the I-formation. These are all run out of 11 personnel, but notice how they manage to get into the same formation three different ways: motioning the fullback into the backfield from the slot (run to the strong-side), motioning the tight end across the formation (weak-side run), and not using any motion at all (weak-side run).
With the success of the second run to the weak-side, Kubiak decided to go back to it later in the game — only this time, he didn’t use any motion. Both of the Packers’ off-ball linebackers wound up in the same gap, and the run hit for a 35-yard gain with Cook barely getting touched.
The next week against Detroit, Kubiak used the same fullback motion into the backfield from the slot, with everything looking like another tight zone run. But this time, QB Kirk Cousins kept the ball on play action and hit a wide open Adam Thielen for a 30-yard gain on 1st-and-10.
Against the Texans earlier this season, Kubiak used this same fullback motion from the slot into the backfield. Initially, everything was blocked like a weak-side tight zone run, but it was actually another play-action pass — and this one went for a touchdown. Notice Bradbury on this play. The run sell he executes is key.
Most people understand how play-action clears the middle of the field by forcing linebackers to either stop their feet or move down closer to the line of scrimmage as they react to the run. But those same people probably don’t realize the added benefits that O-linemen get from those reps. Every live rep practicing a fundamental technique — like a reach block — against a different player is invaluable, especially in today’s NFL, where practice time is severely limited. In the above clip, Bradbury got an opportunity to do just that.
It’s easy to overlook, with hundreds of these reps over the course of a season, O-linemen gain confidence in their technique.
“It all matters, even two-or-three yard gains,” Bradbury told me. “Because it gives us an opportunity to fit up the defense for future success using those same concepts.”
Another way Kubiak’s scheme carves out hidden advantages for the O-line is through extensive use of roll-outs and bootlegs. These prompt D-linemen and linebackers to flow towards the wrong side of a play before having to trace back in the opposite direction, which leaves them vulnerable to blind-side hits from blockers. Over the course of a game, this wears defenders down and can cause frustration.
”Roll-outs are key. Not just because we can practice different run fits off play-action, but if we’re uncovered we get free shots on D-linemen, and it forces them to run out to the numbers then retrace,” Bradbury said.
Below is a good example of how a play-action boot tires out pass-rushers — even elite ones like Bears DT Akiem Hicks.
Even though this was an incompletion, Hicks had to retrace from an initial inside flow back toward the sideline in pursuit of Cousins, tweaking what looks like his hamstring in the process. This play came with the Vikings trailing by 3 points at the end of the third quarter, and it took Hicks off the field for the rest of the game. Minnesota wound up coming back and winning the game while the Bears were without one of their best players.
The Vikings’ goal on the roll-out obviously wasn’t to get anyone injured, but baked into their extensive use of the concept is the understanding that D-linemen will get gassed and are liable to wear down over time.
The sheer distance defenders have to travel on some of these bootlegs — and the shots that play action exposes them to when their pass-rush is slowed down out of respect for the run — can be grueling and have a nice return for the O-lineman.
In these clips, you can see free rib shots on defenders traveling upwards of 30-40 yards on a single play, and defensive tackles dragging their feet.
Bradbury mentioned the 6+ minute drive the team had in the 3rd quarter of their comeback win over the Panthers in Week 12 as further evidence of how Kubiak’s approach chips away at a defense.
Kubiak’s commitment and emphasis on running the ball with only a few simple concepts that work to set up play-action, boots, and roll-outs all make life easier on the guys up front, and they’re all key reasons why the O-line always seems to succeed playing in his system.
The system that both Kubiak and Kyle Shanahan run got their basic blueprint from the same coach - Kyle’s dad, Mike Shanahan. Over time, each coach has added his own flavor and configured the details of the system to their liking. What makes Kyle Shanahan and his system so effective lies in his ability to identify and decode the tendencies of an opponent, incorporate those into his weekly game-plan, and then exploit them with his play-calling.
To get a better understanding of his system and how it helps the offensive line, I spoke with current 49ers left tackle Trent Williams and former longtime 49ers left tackle Joe Staley about some of the big-picture and subtle reasons why it works. ”In Kyle’s scheme, play-action looks exactly like the run, which makes it so hard for defenses to key in on,” Williams told me.
Staley expanded on that: ”The number one thing is the way he (Shanahan) calls plays and pieces it all together. Everything has a purpose, nothing is random, and everything with the passing game is married with the running game. I’ve been in the exact same scheme before without any success because the coordinator didn’t know how to call it. He didn’t know how to piece together everything, how it all fit.”
One example of how Shanahan’s version of the system works so well is how much he assists the offensive line in pass-protection. Similar to the sentiment Bradbury expressed earlier about the benefits of roll-outs and bootlegs in Kubiak’s scheme, Staley emphasized the advantages that Shanahan creates on what he referred to as “keepers.”If you run 5-6 keepers a game, that’s 5-6 less drop-back passes that you’re on an island,” Staley said.
Add in the amount of RPOs and short passes that the 49ers use, and there are less straight drop-back passes with longer developing routes than most other schemes, which eases the burden for the O-line.
Another reason why keepers have been valuable for the 49ers offensive line,, especially early in games, is that they provide opportunities to get a feel for the defense.
”Guys would play completely different against us than they would show on film the whole year,” Staley said. “So you’d have a chance early on with keepers to see how a guy would fit us on the frontside, see if that defensive end would play through the tight end on that frontside combination, come through my outside shoulder, or if he really is going to compress it outside on the tight end.”
Below are some examples of what Staley is referring to, from Week 2 of last season against the Bengals. Early in the first half, Shanahan called a keeper to the right, giving Staley an opportunity to see how defensive end Carlos Dunlap would play the frontside of an outside zone run. The next clip is from the second half, but this time it’s a run and you can see how great of a fit Staley gets on Dunlap.
Having a practice rep earlier in the game helped Staley get on Dunlap, widen him, and create an alley for this 12-yard gain to happen.
On these keepers and bootlegs there’s a term called “elephants on parade,” which refers to the look of the offensive line. It essentially means that the offensive linemen all turn in the same direction and run towards the sideline. But even if that’s what it looks like on the surface, there are layers of strategy unfolding in Shanahan’s scheme.
“Kyle is huge on the offensive line playing a key role on our keepers, specifically the backside ‘B’ combination,” Staley said. Safeties and linebackers read through the backside guard and tackle combination on the backside, so it was really paramount for us that we gave the same exact look on those keepers as we did on the actual runs.”
Below, you’ll see four backside ‘B’ combination blocks from the 49ers 2019 season between Staley and left guard Laken Tomlinson. Initially, I highlighted only the first couple of steps, followed by all four plays in their entirety at normal speed.
Notice how similar the angles and first couple steps are for both Staley and Tomlinson. As you’re watching the four slowed-down versions, can you guess which are runs and which are passes? Maybe, but it’s difficult. And that’s the point.
”He (Shanahan) always finds a way to change the formations and hide our staple run plays so that we can keep running without defenses being tipped off,” Williams told me. One of the ways that Shanahan hides a run-game staple (outside zone) is by passing to receiver Deebo Samuel behind the line of scrimmage as he comes across the formation in motion. This technically counts as a completion, but it’s really a glorified hand-off.
This addition to the playbook allows the offensive line to use their bread-and-butter outside zone footwork and technique while presenting it in a new way to the defense.
In 2019, Shanahan ran this play to Samuel five times for 30 yards. Through 12 games this season, Shanahan has already doubled that number, running it 10 total times for 126 yards and a touchdown (seven to Samuel, two to receiver Brandon Aiyuk, and one to receiver Richie James).
Here are a few examples of what it’s looked like this season.
A key part of making an offensive line comfortable is to center the scheme around quick passes and the running game. Accomplishing that requires a balance between running core concepts out of different looks while adding some new concepts based on what the defense is presenting.
Shanahan demonstrated the malleability to do that last year when teams started overcompensating for the Niners’ speed to the edge — both on Samuel’s jet motion hand-off and Raheem Mostert’s outside zone runs.
”Some runners are fast, but (Mostert’s) speed is different to the edge, especially last year when he was fresh and healthy,” Staley said. “Linebackers started to overcompensate to get to the edge in time when we ran outside zone. So we started doing counters because it looks like a backside ‘B’ combination from the backside. But the counter coming back would cause that backside linebacker to overplay his gap. That was our way of taking advantage of it.”
Shanahan also added a reverse to Samuel, which featured the 49ers using a puller or series of pullers to lead block for him. By getting blockers out in front and messing with the linebackers’ keys, Samuel was able to pile up 159 rushing yards during the regular season last year plus an additional 102 in the playoffs.
Coming out of their Week 11 bye this season, the 49ers faced the Rams for the second time and knew they needed to add a wrinkle to their outside zone scheme that the Rams wouldn’t expect. This became more important because of the way Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley is keeping Leonard Floyd so far outside of the formation this year, making it difficult for teams to gain access to the edge.
”Last time we played them (in Week 6), we had success with our outside zone so we expected them to sell out to stop it,” Williams said.” So Kyle added a disguise with the fullback and tight end by bringing one in a jet sweep motion so the end would never see the double team coming.”
By keeping their staple running concepts fresh with new wrinkles based on matchups, Shanahan is able to build confidence for his offensive line. Along with limiting the amount of times they have to protect on true drop back passes throughout games, Shanahan’s system is built on the idea that when the offensive line is comfortable, offensive success is much easier to find.
For Part 2 of this series next week, we will be taking a closer look at the schemes that Rams head coach Sean McVay and Chiefs head coach Andy Reid use to set up their offensive lines for success.
2019 both Staley and Mcglinchey missed games. Justin Skule and Daniel Brunskill filled in and for the most part the Offense did not look like it missed a beat. Kyle Shanahan is a master at helping his OL and QB
I never considered how much you can wear out pass rushers with PA and rollouts. Also, pretty smart to limit true drop backs for OL. Fascinating stuff. This will definitely change the way I watch the game.