MIAMI — The San Francisco 49ers relied on the N.F.L.’s best tight end, its highest-paid fullback and a cadre of productive receivers to reach the Super Bowl. But while other teams might strive to get those players into the end zone by any means possible, San Francisco has adopted the opposite strategy.
The 49ers rarely let them touch the ball.
Across their playoff victories against Minnesota and Green Bay, the 49ers deployed their quartet of catalysts — tight end George Kittle, fullback Kyle Juszczyk and receivers Deebo Samuel and Emmanuel Sanders — as decoys in a two-pronged attack to manipulate the defense.
Before the snap, they engage in what amounts to an elaborate game of hide-and-seek, darting around in an attempt to confuse defenders and foster miscommunication. Afterward, they block (and block, and block) so San Francisco’s fleet of swift backs can run (and run, and run).
Those four players have touched the ball a total of 14 times — eight by Samuel — in San Francisco’s 126 offensive snaps this postseason, according to Pro Football Reference. The 49ers averaged 5.3 yards per carry in their two games — with Jimmy Garoppolo throwing all of 14 passes over the final six quarters — and won each by 17 points.
The 49ers’ unconventional dominance reflects both an organizational ethos and a schematic triumph. Ever since Coach Kyle Shanahan and General Manager John Lynch took over three years ago, they have prioritized a specific type of player to make it work.
Just as essential as Kittle’s ability to block defensive ends and outside linebackers is his embrace of that role: telling coaches he didn’t want any passes thrown his way, that they should just keep running behind him.
As more and more teams shunned fullbacks, the 49ers coveted Juszczyk, both for his relevance in the two-back sets Shanahan favors for their unpredictability and for his versatility. Juszczyk might line up out wide, near the sideline, then suddenly end up behind the quarterback at halfback or along the line at tight end, deceiving defenses before clearing space for backs to run.
The former N.F.L. offensive lineman Brian Baldinger called him the most valuable player in the league without the ball, the football equivalent of another Bay Area maestro: Draymond Green, who facilitated Golden State’s dynasty with his rebounding, energy and defense.
“How many players in the N.B.A. have a huge role but don’t score?” Baldinger said. “In the framework of how they play the game, they’re as valuable as the leading scorer. With Kyle, it’s not about stats. It’s how he affects the game.”
The defining characteristic of Shanahan’s offense is how running and passing plays look exactly alike, but the most recognizable aspect is its pre-snap movement. It is subterfuge loaded with exotic nomenclature, like “orbit” and “jet” and “ghost.” No team came close to shifting or motioning as often as San Francisco (79 percent of its plays), according to the analytics website Pro Football Focus.
“The only time we don’t motion is when we coach the Senior Bowl,” the run-game coordinator Mike McDaniel said, referring to the annual college all-star game that borrows N.F.L. coaches, “because it’s against the rules.”
When the five-time most valuable player Peyton Manning played, he didn’t want any of his players to motion, because the defense would reposition. But the 49ers welcome that chaos across the line. Behind every movement, there is a very precise reason.
“We don’t just do it since it looks cool,” Juszczyk said.
But generally, realigning can aid the 49ers in identifying a defense’s intentions, from the nature of its pass coverage to its vulnerabilities in run support. It can help them outnumber defenders with blockers. It can make opponents hesitate or doubt their instincts. Tyrann Mathieu, the Chiefs’ star safety, characterized all that motion as “extremely stressful.”
“It’s all meant to basically to take your eyes off what’s really going on,” Baldinger said. “They throw a lot of cheese at you and anticipate that the defense is going to be looking in the wrong place. It’s a Fifth Avenue game of Three-Card Monte. Where’s the card?”
Kittle said he loves being that card. Also, he hates it. Let him explain.
On some plays, he might start outside of the field numbers on one side of the field, run to the opposite numbers, then slide all the way back. Sometimes, he said, he complains about how much he runs before the snap — “My Fitbit goes off the charts,” Kittle said — but he is rewarded when defenders grumble about the same thing. Also, and perhaps especially, when he flattens them.
Only two players gained more yards after the catch this season than Kittle, but he believes there is no greater feeling than moving a player against his will.
“You take a guy, you drive him backwards, you put him on his back and you feel the exhale of his breath and he loses his wind,” Kittle said. “It’s kind of snatching his soul.”
Shanahan likes saying that a team’s physical identity is defined not by its offensive line or tight ends, since they bulldoze anyway, but by its receivers. The receivers coach Wes Welker tells his charges that blocking is more important than catching, that their willingness to crack safeties and impede cornerbacks on the edge can turn short gains into long ones.
“It’s the only way they’ll play, honestly. That’s one of the reasons why he’s had offensive success everywhere he’s gone,” Welker said of Shanahan. “A lot of people have the same plays in the N.F.L., but when the boss of all bosses is showing in front of the team the standard and what’s acceptable and not, guys either do it, or they don’t want to play and then they’re not there.”
Every Friday, the 49ers hold run meetings where they discuss that week’s plan and review highlights from the previous week. By the end, Kittle said, he feels invincible. But as a rookie in 2017, receiver Kendrick Bourne never enjoyed going, he said, because he would wonder why they didn’t just pass the ball more. As the 49ers’ offense has evolved, so has he.
“We don’t mind catching the ball,” Bourne said, “but ain’t no reason to put the ball in the air and ask for those risks when we can just hand it off and get the same amount of yards.”
Shanahan acknowledged as much the other day, noting that against Green Bay in the N.F.C. championship game, the 49ers had a better chance running for 30 yards than throwing. In a pass-oriented league, that might seem counterintuitive.
But remember this about the 49ers: They lured their general manager from the broadcast booth.
They signed a 30-year-old cornerback, Richard Sherman, recovering from Achilles’ tendon injuries in not one but both legs.
And they invested nearly $75 million guaranteed in Garoppolo, who had started seven games in his four N.F.L. seasons.
Those risky moves helped power their stampede to Super Bowl LIV. Even bolder is the offensive approach that might help them win it.