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Niners' success begins with pre-snap deception

MIAMI -- Flip on a San Francisco 49ers game from 2019 and cue up a play, any play. It's likely you'll see pre-snap motion, and it might not be limited to one player before the snap.

It's been referred to as window dressing. Chiefs defensive end Frank Clark called it "eye candy" this week. And it might just be the secret to San Francisco's success.

Kyle Shanahan has always featured pre-snap motion in his offense, but he's steadily increased it by about five percent in each of the last four seasons, per Pro Football Focus. He's at a peak in that department this season, utilizing pre-snap shifts or motions on 79 percent of all offensive plays.

For comparison, Andy Reid's Chiefs are also at a five-year peak in this area, but their peak is just 62 percent, 23 percentage points higher than two seasons ago.

As is the case with plenty of things when it comes to the coach, Shanahan is ahead of the curve.

In case you didn't watch the postseason to this point, you should know the 49ers are highly successful on the ground. In fact, they were so successful, they dominated the Green Bay Packers while throwing the ball just eight times in the NFC Championship Game.

The 49ers aren't strictly a running offense, but they are a highly effective one. It's not running back dependent, either, as Tevin Coleman (if healthy), Raheem Mostert, Matt Breida and Jeff Wilson Jr. are all capable of exploding for big gains. In the conference title game, it was Mostert's turn to shred the opposition, racking up 220 yards and four touchdowns.

There's no telling who could find the greatest success on the ground in the Super Bowl, especially if Coleman proves healthy enough to play. That's what makes this offense so difficult to prepare to face -- and that's before you factor in the additional discipline needed to ignore the lure of the pre-snap motion.

These motions don't just help in the run game, either. While they can serve as a source of deception and cause confusion, they can also help identify defensive coverage (man coverage will see the defender mirror the man in motion, while zone will see smaller adjustments at most).

"It's a lot of what we do pre-snap," 49ers tackle Joe Staley said Monday of the offense's effectiveness. "If you look at analytics or whatever, it's the most pre-snap motions or movements, just create all of the confusion over exactly what the defensive responsibilities are.

"I think all 11 of us have a pride in the run game and being able to understand that to run the ball successfully, it takes every single person. It takes the quarterback doing his fake, it takes the receivers on their assignments, getting the safeties, and they all have a real desire to do well in that because they understand that that's going to open up in our system stuff in the passing game for them and bigger opportunities. I think it's just a real selfless attitude in the run game, that's the main thing."

The 11-man requirement is a sentiment that has clearly been drilled into every 49er's head by Shanahan. Fellow tackle Mike McGlinchey said nearly the exact same thing about the run game needing contributions from every player -- with Staley and McGlinchey first mentioning the quarterback executing his fake -- when asked about San Francisco's ground attack two days later. But it doesn't end there.

"We're not one-dimensional, though, and I think that's what makes it so hard for teams is because they study every single snap of every single game and they don't fall into the media traps of 'these guys are a run-first team,'" McGlinchey said. "No, we've proven time and time again that we can make plays all over the field however they need to be made and I think that's really what makes it hard is because of our capabilities in the pass game with our receivers, with Kittle, with Juice, with the running backs that we have in the pass game, and our No. 1 guy Jimmy G."

The 49ers' offense is effective because it's filled with good football players, but also because its coach utilizes all of his players' talents, including ones they might not even know they have. Shanahan's ability to bring the best out of his players fits excellently with his mind for the game. As McGlinchey said, "there's nobody more tactical than him."

"A defense is not used to seeing a fullback as a No. 1 wide receiver," fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. "There's been many times where I've been the X. Defenders, they don't anticipate a lot of the routes I might run from there. Usually a running back, it's a pretty basic route tree, it's gonna be pretty simple. I do think we catch people off-guard."

A current key 49er was caught off-guard by Shanahan's ingenuity back in 2016, when Shanahan was coordinating Atlanta's offense and Richard Sherman was still a member of the Seattle Seahawks. Shanahan called a route combination that included a go route, a flat and a corner, a concept that was commonly seen against Cover 3. But Shanahan's was different.

"He had run it in a way that was so unique, we had never seen it before," Sherman recalled. "The corner route was wide open. We went to the sideline and we're like, 'Hey, so, what do we do about this play?' And they were like 'uh, we don't have an answer for that play.' I'd never heard a coach say that. I'd never heard anybody say that, but there was really no answer for what he had designed and the way he had designed it."

Once again, Shanahan was ahead of the curve.

"It's a copycat league," Sherman continued. "So if somebody sees a cool play, a successful play and they'll run it and they'll be like 'Oh, man, this guy came up with this crazy play.' It's like no, this dude ran this in 2016, a long time ago, in a playoff game, a ballsy play, and it worked."

As for this week, Clark was right: The Chiefs can't afford to take the eye candy. The 49ers have the fourth-highest yards per rush (5.3) on runs with motion, compared to the lowest (3.4 yards) on runs without motion, per PFF. This appears to be targeting a weakness for the Chiefs, who allow 5.2 yards per rush on motion plays, fifth-highest in the NFL.

This comes as a result of San Francisco's disciplined, precise approach to blocking on each play. Sometimes it only takes less than a second of doing their job perfectly for a big play to pop for a huge gain worthy of a celebration fit for Mostert's imaginary surfboard.

"It's the best feeling, man," Juszczyk said of opening a hole for a touchdown run. "Those guys make it so easy. The way that they are so decisive and hit holes so quickly, I really don't have to hold that gap that long. I know that if I can just come barreling through as fast as I can, I really just need to hold that block for half a second and they're gonna squeeze through."

Other times, it's simply a collective group winning the battle of desire upfront.

"I always talked about it in college, our O-line coach always said 'impose your will on your opponent,'" McGlinchey said. "That's an O-lineman mindset and that's something that we've adopted here, too, and these last couple weeks have kind of shown that."

Add in San Francisco's potential to win through the air and you have quite a challenge for Kansas City's front. It's not just about stopping the run, but playing disciplined enough football to contain the 49ers. Limiting big gains is the key, perhaps the sole route to victory over the NFC champions.

"I think it's just our willingness to do whatever it takes to win that game that day," Juszczyk said. "We're not strictly a running team, we're not strictly a passing team. We feel like what we do in each phase really compliments the other side and whatever we need to do that day, we can do."

It starts with activity before the ball even snaps. Should it be as successful as it was through January, it could end with plenty of motion -- such as raising the Lombardi Trophy -- atop the postgame podium in Miami.

Super Bowl LIV details

When is the Super Bowl? Super Bowl LIV between the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers will take place on Sunday, Feb. 2, 2020, at 6:30 p.m. EST.

Where is the Super Bowl? Hard Rock Stadium will host the game in 2020, marking Miami's 11th time as Super Bowl host city.

*How to watch the Super Bowl: Tune in on Fox, with the NFL App, Yahoo Sports App, and on NFL.com. Check out more updates and info here. *

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