49ers' Kyle Shanahan and Rams' Sean McVay always thinking pre-snap motion -- after too much coffe...

ByNick Wagoner and Lindsey Thiry ESPN logo
Saturday, January 29, 2022

Editor's note: A version of this story first published on Nov. 15 ahead of a Week 10 Monday Night Football matchup between the Rams and 49ers. The story has been updated ahead of the NFC Championship Game.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- No matter where he is or what he's doing, football is never far from San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan's mind.

On a recent Friday night, Shanahan ventured to a local theater as part of a family birthday party, with the animated film "The Addams Family 2" on the big screen. By the time Shanahan left, he hadn't spent much time basking in Snoop Dogg's swing at the voice of Cousin Itt.

Instead, he spent the one hour, 47-minute run time on his iPad concocting new play ideas, many of which included the biggest staple of his offense: pre-snap motion.

"It was awesome because I got to just sit there with my iPad for two hours and do that type of stuff," Shanahan said. "It's hard to leave your job, and I guess I enjoy thinking about football."

Indeed, whether he's at dinner, driving in his car, lying in bed, Shanahan always has his iPad or a pen and paper nearby in case inspiration strikes and he needs to quickly jot down an idea.

It's an obsession Shanahan shares with Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay, who is looking to snap a six-game losing streak to Shanahan's Niners on Sunday at SoFi Stadium in the NFC Championship Game (6:30 p.m. ET, Fox). It's a game that will feature plenty of similar offensive concepts, but none more so than the duo's shared affection for movement before the snap.

Since the coaches took over their jobs in 2017, Shanahan's 49ers and McVay's Rams rank first and eighth in the NFL in pre-snap motion used at 69.1% and 46.3%, respectively.

Given the frequency with which both teams use pre-snap motion, it should be no surprise both coaches spend their spare time dreaming up new shifts, even when they're supposed to be doing something else.

"Usually, I'm delirious or have way too many coffees," McVay said, laughing about his play-design process. "Usually, it'll be a cool idea or it's really dumb and there's a lot more dumb than there are cool ideas probably coming from me on some of those things."

The results indicate very little dumb. Since 2017, the 49ers are second in the NFL in points scored (10.35) per game off plays with motion and fifth in yards per play (5.87) on snaps with it. The Rams are fourth in yards per play (5.89) and tied for 14th in points per game off plays with motion (7.2).

Shanahan's love of pre-snap motion dates to his early days in coaching, especially working with Jon Gruden and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as an offensive quality control coach in 2004 and 2005 and coaching wide receivers for the Houston Texans in 2006.

McVay points to his many coaching influences, including Gruden and Shanahan. His fascination with it has grown as a head coach, coincidentally from studying how the Rams utilized speedy receiver Tavon Austin in motion before he arrived and how he could continue to expand Austin's role in his first season as coach.

"You try to have an understanding of, 'All right, what is the intent of this play?' and how can you utilize it to try to create numbers, change the math, give yourself better angles from an offensive perspective when you're attacking the 11 guys on defense," McVay said. "It's kind of been an evolving and ongoing thing, but there's always an intent behind it. It's not just to look cool."

'Taco, taco, hot sauce, hot sauce'

Before any 49ers play, it's common to hear two voices on their side: quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and fullback Kyle Juszczyk.

Juszczyk not only shifts before the snap 38% of the time (second-most among players with at least 100 snaps) but also helps Garoppolo direct the offense. If Garoppolo is the pilot flying the plane, Juszczyk is the air traffic controller.

Among the things Juszczyk will do after the Niners break the huddle: make check calls, alert Garoppolo the play has more than one shift so he will slow his cadence, point out things the defense is showing and scream out nonsense.

Yes, for the sake of consistency and so as not to tip off the defense, Juszczyk makes dummy calls as another way to create defensive confusion.

"I'll do some stupid stuff sometimes," Juszczyk said. "I'll yell, like, 'Taco, taco, hot sauce, hot sauce,' I try to make it as ridiculous as possible."

The hope is the calls, real or not, will force the defender to spend an extra moment thinking about why Juszczyk is saying what he's saying. That could be the difference in the play succeeding or not, though he also acknowledges he has to be comfortable with his own teammates knowing what's real and what's not so he doesn't accidentally throw off the play.

Given the advances in how much motion there can be in a play today and how creative it can all get, there are multiple things that can go wrong at any point long before the ball is snapped.

Any play that involves motion also means more opportunity for mistakes. Having that many pieces moving can create chaos for the defense, but it can for the offense, too, if one player doesn't know his assignment and when to execute it.

Rams receiver Cooper Kupp, who motions on 20% of his snaps (second most on the Rams), says each player has a distinct path and that getting the spacing and timing right is essential in avoiding unwanted crashes.

"The timing as people are passing should say that it's a well-oiled intersection," Kupp said. "There's no stoplights, just everyone knows exactly what they're supposed to do and everyone kind of goes through the intersection the right way.

"Do a perfect [merge] where no one has to slow down, that's what we're trying to do."

That, of course, is easier said than done and comes with countless hours of study and repetition.

A mental and physical toll

The heavy use of motion increases the amount of work for players both mentally and physically.

Playcalls are longer because of it, and players must learn concepts and understand how one motion works in concert with others.

The constant movement can make it hard on even the most grizzled veterans. In an August training camp practice, Niners tight end George Kittle went in motion but lost track of the snap count and committed a false start.

That from a fifth-year pro who has earned two Pro Bowl bids and motions on 26% of his snaps, second most on the team.

"It's still hard," Kittle said. "It's something that you learn and got to work through every single day."

When the 49ers coaching staff gets access to players in the spring, they emphasize the intricacies of the pre-snap shifts. The goal, according to offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel, is to make it so natural players think nothing of it when they get the call.

To help, the 49ers have designed their system so the players are listening for certain segments or, as Juszczyk calls them, buzzwords. A playcall might contain as many as 20 words, but a tight end might be listening only for the four words that apply to him.

"It's just laid out in a way where we can order things where they hear it, they know where they need to go," passing game coordinator Bobby Slowik said. "They know where they need to be, and then they can get the playcall and execute the play."

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford hasn't been in Los Angeles long but has grown accustomed to McVay popping into a meeting room comically overcaffeinated and armed with a new set of motions he wants to test out.

"He's fully aware of it," Stafford said. "He'll make fun of himself when he's saying, 'Maybe I had a couple of too many cups of coffee this morning trying to figure this one out.' But nine times out of 10, it's a home run and a sweet play."

Taking those classroom lessons to the field presents another challenge that mixes mental and physical endurance. Players who already run a great distance in games have to be in even better shape because of the additional toll of the motions.

Nobody knows that better than Rams receiver Robert Woods, who ranked first in the NFL in snaps when he went in motion (119) before suffering a season-ending left knee injury. Woods had run an additional 1,120 yards from shifting this season, fourth most in the league, according to NFL Next Gen Stats data.

Woods said before the injury he didn't mind the extra work.

"Nah," Woods said, a smile growing across his face. "As long as the ball comes with it."

How it works

While pre-snap motion can have many functions, the two primary objectives are to coax the defense into revealing its intentions and to force additional defensive communication on short notice.

"We get a good snapshot of what the defense is in, what they're about to be in," Woods said. "Sometimes it dictates our plays, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it's just a bunch of eye candy to give the defense something to look at and make them play honest."

To illustrate how it works, Matt Bowen, ESPN NFL analyst and former NFL safety, selected a play from each team and detailed how it led to a big gain.

In Week 1 against the Chicago Bears, Stafford hit tight end Tyler Higbee for a 37-yard gain after a pre-snap motion paired with play-action, which created an opening at the intermediate level of the defense.

With Chicago playing Cover 3 zone, the Rams lined up with two pass-catchers on each side and sent Kupp on a jet motion, which forced the Bears defender assigned to the "curl" route to settle in his zone rather than getting deeper. With a Rams receiver running a vertical route outside, it opened a void for Higbee to run his route to the boundary, where Stafford hit him in rhythm.

In Week 3 against the Green Bay Packers, Garoppolo hit receiver Mohamed Sanu for a 16-yard gain in the fourth quarter after using a "ghost" motion. With the Packers playing quarters coverage (four defenders deep, three underneath in zone), the Niners sent receiver Jauan Jennings in motion behind running back Trey Sermon.

That motion forced Packers linebacker Oren Burks to widen toward the sideline to defend Jennings while receiver Trent Sherfield ran a vertical route, which forced Packers cornerback Eric Stokes to stay with him. Mix in some play-action to freeze middle linebacker De'Vondre Campbell and it unfolded exactly how the Niners wanted, as Garoppolo had a window to hit Sanu on an intermediate crossing pattern.

Moving forward with motion

Although the Rams and Niners have been two of the strongest advocates of pre-snap motion, the Niners have ramped it up while the Rams have remained steady this season.

In 2021, the Niners used it the most (76.9%) of any team in the league, while the Rams are at 47.4%, which was 14th in the NFL. But leaguewide trends show that all 32 teams are using pre-snap motion at an all-time high.

Across the NFL, teams are shifting 46.8% of the time before the ball is snapped. Just four years ago, the league average was 34.9%. Considering the proliferation of coaches around the league who have worked with Shanahan and McVay, it's reasonable to think that number will continue to rise.

Just as likely: Shanahan and McVay will be at the forefront of finding innovative ways to expand what they're already doing.

"I'm not very good at thinking of stocks and investments," Shanahan said. "I'm thinking of different ways to draw plays, but I think it's all based off of how you see defenses. There's only so many ways you can move five guys, so you don't just do it to do it, you do it for a reason. You do it to help one of your players or you do it because you see something that you think will affect the defense."

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