The Xs and Os: Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers rule the run game with motion

In this week’s “Xs and Os with Greg Cosell and Doug Farrar,” the guys pick one play to detail how the 49ers dominate with the motion run game.

With 8:02 left in the wild-card playoff game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks, the 49ers already had a 3-0 lead, and they were looking to gain more momentum at the start of their second drive. They started from their own 15-yard line, but they didn’t stay there very long. The first play of the drive was a 68-yard Christian McCaffrey run that took the ball to the Seattle 17-yard line, set up San Francisco’s first touchdown, and helped to facilitate a 41-23 win.

If you’re familiar with the 49ers’ run game and head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offensive tendencies, the most unsurprising part of this particular play was that it had dimensional aspects of pre-snap movement.

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In this week’s episode of “The Xs and Os with Greg Cosell and Doug Farrar,” Greg (of NFL Films and ESPN’s NFL Matchup) and Doug (of Touchdown Wire) talked about how pre-snap motion has become one of the NFL’s dominant concepts. We talk mostly about how it works in the passing game, but certain teams and coaches have devised ways to put defenses out of sorts in the run game as well, and nobody does it better than Shanahan — especially after the trade last October that brought McCaffrey to the Bay Area.

Per Sports Info Solutions, from Week 7 (his first with the 49ers) through San Francisco’s NFC Championship loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, McCaffrey had 146 rushing attempts with pre-snap motion, gaining 732 yards, 399 yards after contact, five touchdowns, 5.4 yards per carry, and an EPA of 11.40 — the highest such number for any back with at least 120 carries featuring pre-snap motion.

This play in the Seahawks game had both a pre-snap shift and a pre-snap motion. First, fullback Kyle Juszczyk shifted from right to left, and then, tight end George Kittle motioned from right to left before the ball was snapped. Both movements were designed to set up a perfectly-designed run play.

“What they did was, they started off in a 3×1 set,” Greg recalled. “Juszczyk shifted across and made it a 2×2 set. And then, all they did was to run one of their basic zone runs. But they brought Kittle in motion before the snap of the ball, and he became a lead blocker. It was simply a zone lead run, which is in everybody’s playbook, but they got to it a bit differently, and Kittle became the lead blocker. Often, you’ll see a zone lead run in the I-formation; that’s how a lot of teams run it. You’re in the straight I, and you have a fullback in front of the tailback, and the quarterback is under center, and it’s a zone lead. The 49ers got to it differently.

“Now, it turned out that Kittle didn’t need to make a great block, because he was going to get the cornerback [Tariq Woolen,] and the cornerback was going to stay outside. But it set up beautiful blocking angles, because on that particular play, the Seahawks were in a two-deep shell, and the safety [Ryan Neal] stayed deep, and [receiver[ Brandon Aiyuk didn’t have to make a difficult block.

“This was a great example of the 49ers using motion in the run game, which they do exceptionally well.”

Eagles had serious interest in a Russell Wilson trade… but Wilson nixed it

The Philadelphia Eagles wanted to trade for Russell Wilson in 2022, but Wilson nixed it. Sometimes, you win by not getting what you want.

Philadelphia Eagles general manager Howie Roseman is among the best in the business right now, given the deals he’s made and the players he’s selected in the draft to build one of the NFL’s most stacked rosters. That roster made it to Super Bowl LVII and nearly beat the Chiefs.

However, as is the case in all areas of life, there are those times when the things you want, and don’t get, work out the best for you.

Per Sports Illustrated’s Greg Bishop, appearing on Seattle’s ESPN radio affiliate, the Eagles had serious interest in a deal with the Seattle Seahawks for Russell Wilson that Wilson nixed before the deal that eventually sent Wilson to the Denver Broncos for players and a flurry of draft picks.

“I think what I would say is that the Eagles really wanted him – I think they liked his style of play, and I think that makes sense, right, because he’s similar to Jalen Hurts, especially when he was in his prime and a little bit faster than now,” Bishop said. “My understanding is that at that point in time, Russ wanted to stay here [in Seattle].”

Quarterback coach Jake Heaps, who has worked with Wilson for years, brought this up back in 2022 on Denver station KOA, after the Broncos deal happened. Heaps was more definitive about the deal.

“The reason why this [deal] happened so quickly and progressed quickly is because, one, Denver was working on this behind the scenes for a while now,” Heaps said back then. “The other reason is because the Seahawks were limited, guys. There’s not real leverage if there’s only a certain amount of teams that Russell Wilson’s actually interested in or be willing to waive his no-trade clause for.

“He turned down the Washington [Commanders] offer. He turned down an offer from Philly during the Combine. And the Denver situation was the clear-cut, number one choice for him going into all these other teams.”

Meanwhile, the Broncos had been investigating the possibility of getting Aaron Rodgers in a trade, which was a primary reason they hired Nathaniel Hackett, who worked with Rodgers in Green Bay, to be their head coach.

In the end, it all worked out for the Eagles, as Jalen Hurts became the earthmover they needed in their run-based passing game. It did not work out at all for the Broncos, of course, as Wilson’s historic regression made the trade look like an all-time heist for Seattle.

Now, it’s up to new Broncos head coach Sean Payton to get the most out of Wilson, or… not.

The Xs and Os with Greg Cosell: Why are quarterbacks struggling against two-deep coverage?

In this week’s “Xs and Os,” Greg Cosell and Doug Farrar take a deep dive into why NFL quarterbacks are struggling so much against two-deep coverage.

It’s Scheme Month at Touchdown Wire, and who better to talk about with such things than the great Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN’s NFL Matchup? On this week’s edition of “The Xs and Os with Greg Cosell and Doug Farrar,” Greg and Doug (the editor of Touchdown Wire) get into two of the most dominant schematic systems in the NFL today — split-safety coverage, and the run-pass option. Let’s get into split-safety coverage to start.

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Over the last few years, we’ve seen a decisive change of the single-high coverages of the Legion of Boom days. Per Ben Fennell of CBS Sports and The NFL Network, 2022 marked the first season in the Next Gen Stats era in which there was more two-high than single-high coverage.

There are absolutely reasons for this. Per Sports Info Solutions, quarterbacks are faring far worse against two-high coverage.

Why is this happening? Let’s get into the weeds on it with Mr. Cosell.

Seven schematic trends that define the modern NFL

From five-man fronts, to stunts, to safety switches, press coverage, and pre-snap motion, here are seven trends that define the modern NFL.

The NFL represents a constant battle of schemes and concepts between offenses and defenses. The third receiver predicated the 4-3 defense in the 1950s. The AFL’s vertical multi-receiver sets caused the creation of the 53 defense in the 1960s. The West Coast offense forced the advancement of the zone blitz in the 1980s. The 49 defense killed the old two-back pro set.

Throughout pro football history, there have always been those base, tentpole schemes that defined the game, because they worked so well… at least, until somebody came along with the perfect answers to erase them.

In today’s NFL, here are seven concepts that teams, coaches, and players are adhering themselves to more and more — because they work, until they are checkmated by another scheme.

(All advanced metrics courtesy of Pro Football Focus and Sports Info Solutions unless otherwise indicated). 

2024 Mock Draft: Cardinals, Bucs, Raiders, Packers look for new franchise quarterbacks

In Doug Farrar’s latest 2024 mock draft, the Cardinals, Buccaneers, Raiders, and Packers are in the market for new franchise quarterbacks.

May and June mark the “slow” part of the NFL year (don’t tell that to DeAndre Hopkins’ agent), which means that teams are now engaging in some summer scouting in between all the minicamp preparation and whatnot. This means, of course, that teams are already putting the work in on prospects for the 2024 NFL draft.

We’re doing the same at Touchdown Wire, and based on projected team needs and our own initial tape work, we thought it would be interesting to start up the inevitable 2024 mock drafts! In this case, the order of teams is set by Pro Football Focus’ Mock Draft Simulator, and we go from there.

And in this mock, we have four teams looking for new franchise quarterbacks in the first round. The Arizona Cardinals, who have the first two picks overall, are starting the process of moving on from Kyler Murray, which may or may not be an actual thing by the end of the upcoming season… but it could be. We also have the Tampa Bay Buccaneers looking to accentuate a quarterback room that currently consists of Baker Mayfield, Kyle Trask, and John Wolford, which kinda speaks for itself.

Also, the Las Vegas Raiders may well be tired of the Jimmy Garoppolo Experience after one year of it, and the Green Bay Packers may be in a situation where the Jordan Love succession plan didn’t go quite as everybody hoped.

So, here’s one version of how the first round of the 2024 NFL draft might go.

The All-22: What DeAndre Hopkins has to offer his next NFL team

DeAndre Hopkins is now a free agent after his release from the Arizona Cardinals. What does Hopkins still have to offer the NFL?

Well, so much for Memorial Day weekend being a relaxing one for NFL coaches and executives. On Friday, it was announced that the Arizona Cardinals released receiver DeAndre Hopkins, and that will perk up the ears of the shot-callers in all 31 other NFL stops.

Selected by the Houston Texans with the 27th overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft out of Clemson, Hopkins has been at his best an elite production machine. From 2014 through 2020, Hopkins led all receivers in targets (1,117) and receptions (695), only Julio Jones had more receiving yards (10,159) than Hopkins’ 9,207, and only Antonio Brown, Davante Adams, and Mike Evans had more touchdowns than Hopkins’ 58.

However, Hopkins hasn’t played a full season since 2020. Hamstring and knee injuries limited him to 10 games with the Arizona Cardinals in 2021 — his second in the Valley of the Sun after a major 2020 trade — and he was suspended for the first six games of the 2022 season for violating the NFL’s policies no performance-enhancing substances. His 106 catches on 160 targets for 1,289 yards and 11 touchdowns over those two seasons would have been about one season’s production before.

It was too much for the Cardinals, who had tried unsuccessfully to find a willing trade partner for the veteran receiver. The primary issue was not performance, but salary. Hopkins signed a two-year contract extension in 2020 that gave him $54.5 million in new money with $42.75 million guaranteed at signing. By releasing him now, Arizona saves $8,911,114 of his cap hit this season, and they still take on $21,077,776 in dead cap in 2023.

That’s the bad news. The good news for the Cardinals is that they’re obviously rebuilding at all levels, and getting Hopkins’ entire contract off the books in 2023 makes the most sense of all available solutions — unless we’re talking about the one solution of seeing what Hopkins has left in the tank at age 30.

That’s now for the rest of the NFL to decide. So, for those interested and interesting teams, what does DeAndre Hopkins have left to offer?

2023 NFL Draft: Consensus grades from best to worst for all 32 teams

The wisdom of crowds isn’t always the ideal, but here’s how 29 different analysts rated every NFL team’s draft, from best to worst.

Finding oneself beholden to the wisdom of crowds isn’t always the wisest move, but there is some tangential value in looking at how multiple analysts view the drafts of NFL teams. Worst-case, you get a sense of how we’re all wrong at the same time. Best case, there’s an aggregate response that can be accurate and telling.

Recently, football analyst René Bugner did us all the favor of compiling the post-draft grades for 2023 from 29 different sources (including yours truly, for better or worse), and did the math for each team from a grade-point perspective.

So, with those roll-offs and curves, we have a general sense of how those who analyze these things for a living (again, for better or worse) have put each NFL team in its respective place.

Here, then, are the post-draft GPAs for all 32 NFL teams. I’m including analysis for every team from my original grades at Touchdown Wire.

2023 NFL Draft: Final grades for all 32 NFL teams

The worst owners in pro football history, from George Preston Marshall to Dan Snyder

From George Preston Marshall to Harry Wismer to Bill Bidwill to Dan Snyder, here are the worst owners in the history of professional football.

Now that soon-to-be-former Washington Commanders owner has agreed in principle to sell the team to a group led by Josh Harris and includes basketball legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson, the NFL will have to look around for a new worst owner. Snyder, who experienced more team names (three) than playoff wins (two) in a tenure that started in 1999, was absolutely horrible, and you’ll see all the reasons why in a minute.

Not that Snyder is the only horrible owner in the history of professional football. It stands to reason that for every great owner over time, there have been those individuals who were in no way qualified to be in control of any franchise. Whether it was due to financial issues, the ego to believe that personnel decisions should be theirs and theirs alone, or just general incompetence and personality issues, there are those people who have controlled pro football teams when they had no qualifications to do so.

Here, for your consideration, are the worst owners in the history of professional football.

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The Xs and Os with Greg Cosell: Five NFL offenses that will be radically different in 2023

In this week’s Xs and Os, Greg Cosell and Doug Farrar discuss five NFL offenses that will be very different in 2023.

You can listen all you want to coaches telling you how they want things to do on the field, but if you really want to know what it all means, take a sharp look at what teams do, as opposed to what they say. Teams will tell you everything you need to know about their desires to change things about their schemed based on differences in personnel and coaching as the offseason progresses. When new coaches are hired as the previous season comes down, and then new players are added through free agency and the draft, that’s where all the puzzle pieces begin to assemble.

In this week’s edition of “The Xs and Os with Greg Cosell and Doug Farrar,” Greg (of NFL Films and ESPN’s NFL Matchup), and Doug (of Touchdown Wire), get into five offenses that, based on changes in coaching and personnel, will look radically different in 2023 than they did in 2022.

You can watch “The Xs and Os” right here:

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You can also listen and subscribe to the Xs and Os podcast on Spotify:

And Apple Podcasts.

The Xs and Os with Greg Cosell: How Jaxon Smith-Njigba changes Seattle’s passing game

The Seattle Seahawks made a first-round commitment to receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba. Greg Cosell and Doug Farrar discuss what that means for their offense.

The Seahawks ran a lot of two-tight end sets last season, so they weren’t running a ton of three-receiver sets in context of the modern NFL. 447 dropbacks with three receivers last season, which ranked 21st in the league,, and in those dropbacks, Geno Smith completed 260 of 387 passes for 2,790 yards, 1,866 air yards, 20 touchdowns, seven interceptions, and a passer rating of 97.8, which was the fourth-best in the league behind the efforts of the Lions, Dolphins, and Bengals. 

So given that, and given the fact that the 20th overall selection of Ohio State receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, what does this tell us about the progression of Seattle’s passing game, and how does Smith-Njigba fit into that with his specific attributes, and those of D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett? 

Here, in this week’s episode of “The Xs and Os,” Greg Cosell (of NFL Films and ESPN’s NFL Matchup) and Doug (of Touchdown Wire) get into how the Seahawks could totally redefine their passing game with their new top receiver.

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