Film Study: How the San Francisco 49ers use a zone-run offense to dominate the NFL

The 49ers have had a dream season, and they will surely look to cap it off with a championship as they get ready for Super Bowl LIV.

Particularly, San Francisco does a really nice job on the zone-run. They were averaging 145.0 yards a game on the ground at one point in the 2019 season. They have a stout o-line that has a lot of athleticism and a TE named George Kittle who not only can block, but he was also the highest rated play in the NFL this season by Pro Football Focus.

Let’s start this film session with a play from the NFC Championship game. Mostert finds a hole and nearly takes it to the endzone.

This rep was won by the 49ers before the ball was even snapped. Kittle moves in motion to confuse the Defense. The 49ers run a lot of play action out of I-form (QB under center in front of fullback and running back for those who don’t know), so you can’t cheat. You have to be disciplined in the run game to have a shot at beating them.

Every offensive lineman defeats their man and gets to the second level. Kittle makes his block on the outside and Mostert can choose his lane.

One thing I love about the zone-scheme is the lanes it forms. On one-dimensional plays like the HB Dive, where the HB has a predetermined hole to run through, it makes for a lot of blown up and predictable plays. With the Zone-Run plays, however, two or three lanes can form and it allows elusive HB’s, like Mostert here, to find space.

Another play I’ve been studying is from the 49ers Week 14 thriller against the Saints.

This play was all thanks to incredible play design by HC Kyle Shanahan and the rest of the offensive staff. As soon as the ball was snapped, you could already see the lane the offensive line provided.

Naturally, LB’s fill gaps and read the QB as soon as he turns to hand the ball off. This time, the LB’s correctly flowed right, but left a huge zone on the other side of the field for Mostert to read. He just needs to wait a second for it to open and…

This scheme is predicated on staying on blocks and getting to the second level. How about #17 Emmanuel Sanders blocking downfield? That’s part of the culture that Kyle Shanahan has brought to the 49ers and it’s clearly paid off.

The zone-run scheme puts a lot of responsibility on every player on the offensive line. In order for it to work, every player must find their guy. The 49ers GM John Lynch has put together a formidable offensive line that can move in space and it allows Mostert and Coleman to choose their holes.

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