The San Francisco 49ers love heavy personnel on offense. They lead the league in the use of 21 personnel on 36% of their offensive plays. No other team is above 24% and only three others are over 20%. The versatility of fullback Kyle Juszczyk allows the 49ers to do a number of things from that personnel grouping to keep a defense guessing.

San Francisco is now embracing that philosophy from 11 personnel. Three receivers, one tight end, and one running back remains the most used offensive personnel grouping across the league. It’s even the 49ers’ most used personnel, even as the 47% ranked 27th among all teams in 2021.

Yet the 49ers have used 11 personnel more in 2021 than in the rest of the Kyle Shanahan era, going from 39% in 2018 to 40% in 2019 to 44% in 2020.

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2022 Playoffs record: 26-10 (72%)
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Part of the problem with the 49ers leaning into 11 personnel would be having the receivers to still make the run feel like a threat. Regardless of how run-heavy the 49ers can be in a given year or game, so much of the play design is built to look the same run or pass. Then having receivers who can succeed as both receivers and blockers is a necessity.

San Francisco currently has that as a group with Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, and Jauan Jennings. Jennings, a second-year seventh-round pick out of Tennessee. The 6-foot-2, 212-pound receiver plays a power slot and has worked his way into the receiver rotation. Jennings has been a consistent presence on the field since Week 10 and has been the third piece of one of the top three-receiver sets in the league.

When all three of Samuel, Aiyuk, and Jennings have been on the field (208 plays), the 49ers average 0.24 EPA per play and 0.36 EPA per dropback, according to TruMedia.

Because 11 personnel so often comes with a pass (67% pass rate league-wide and 62% on early downs), defenses go light against it in nickel — five defensive backs. This season, even though the 49ers have stayed fairly consistent with league-wide pass rates out of 11 (67% overall and 61% on early downs), opposing defenses didn’t completely buy it. The 49ers saw base defense on 14% of their snaps in 11 personnel, well above the league average of 5% in 2021. On early downs, that base split was 19% for the 49ers and 6% league-wide.

Defensive Backs vs 11 Personnel, 2021

TeamBaseNickelDime
NFL5%79%15%
SF14%71%15%
Early Down NFL6%86%7%
Early Down SF19%74%8%

It should be noted that San Francisco’s opponent in the Wild Card Round, the Dallas Cowboys, lives in nickel defense — 78% of plays with just 1% in base during the regular season. That could give the 49ers an advantage when they go heavy in 21 and 12 but San Francisco has also blown through defenses that oppose their 11 personnel package in nickel with 0.24 EPA per play.

What makes the 49ers’ 11 personnel package so dangerous is there is no easy out for a defense — especially when you factor in the tight end on the field is George Kittle. San Francisco spreads the ball around so well and effectively, it’s impossible for a defense to key in on where the ball is going to go. With the Samuel-Aiuyk-Jennings lineup, all four receivers (Kittle included) have at least a 20% target share.

49ers Targets From 11 Personnel, 2021 (per TruMedia)

PlayerTarget ShareYards per Route RunaDOTYAC/ROutside%
Jauan Jennings22.7%1.559.564.1748.6%
Deebo Samuel21%2.238.3211.4750.5%
Brandon Aiyuk21%2.4911.048.076.9%
George Kittle20.2%1.927.794.429.0%

Jennings isn’t the biggest threat of the group, but has found a way to get open and lead in targets. In overtime against the Rams, Jennings had a big 34-yard catch and run on a third-and-6 that helped set up the game-winning field goal.

The play highlighted the strain this group can put on a defense. San Francisco came out in a 2×2 set with Samuel and Aiyuk to the left and Jennings and Kittle to the right which spread the defense out. While Kittle drew the attention of two defenders deep, Jennings caught cornerback Dont’e Deayon flat-footed off the line, broke to the outside, and ran through a tackle attempt to gain 34 yards.

 

 

San Francisco has pulled a ton of different looks out of this personnel package. At the start of the third quarter against the Tennessee Titans in Week 16, the 49ers had a three-play stretch that worked a pass out of empty (a Jennings drop), came back with a Samuel run from under center with the back in jet motion, and then they hurried into a straight dropback from under center that had the defense waiving at each other before the snap and opened the middle of the field for a big Samuel catch-and-run.

 

 

In overtime against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 14, the 49ers had back-to-back 20-plus yard plays that set up the game-winning touchdown. The first came on a second-and-7 with Jennings in the slot and Aiyuk out wide to the left. Before the snap, Samuel ran orbit motion from left to right as the play set up a slot fade to Jennings, who caught a contested ball for a 25-yard gain.

 

 

The next play flipped the receiver sides with Samuel to the right with Kittle in-line to that side. From the straight under center dropback, San Francisco attacked vertically from all four receivers and Kittle was open on a post in the middle of the field for a 21-yard pickup.

 

 

While everyone can move around in this package, maybe the biggest piece is what the 49ers have done with Deebo Samuel as a rusher. Samuel has 34 rushing attempts for 189 yards with five touchdowns, 0.42 EPA per rush, and 17.6% of his carries going for 10 or more yards from this personnel grouping.

That Samuel run above came in the series of plays from 11 personnel. A 27-yard touchdown run against the Bengals came with Samuel in the backfield, jet motion to the opposite side, and blocking from Jennings and Kittle on the play side to open up the edge.

 

 

A 19-yard touchdown run against the Rams used the same formula. Samuel in the backfield, JaMycal Hasty shifted out then back across the formation in jet motion before the snap, with Jennings and Kittle to the play side. Kittle came inside to lay out Greg Gaines and Jennings had just enough contact to slow down cornerback David Long and get in the way of linebacker Troy Reeder.

 

 

Samuel in the backfield has been one of the most dangerous weapons for the 49ers this season and the use of 11 personnel keeping the defense on its toes has helped set up some of those big plays.

The 49ers aren’t suddenly going to turn into the Sean McVay Rams with 84% of their snaps in 11 personnel and this package still represents less than half of San Francisco’s offensive plays, but it’s another changeup the offense now has in a system that’s built around misdirection.