How the 49ers’ perfect execution sprung Christian McCaffrey’s TD run in Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH — Christian McCaffrey had enjoyed a productive first half, but the San Francisco 49ers knew that there was still meat on the bone at intermission of their eventual 30-7 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“I told Christian in the locker room, ‘It’s about to pop,’” 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk said after the game. “Because you could feel it in the first half. They were giving us a lot of really good looks, which is the M.O. for every team that ever plays us. We were right there — like half a guy off each time — and I told him, ‘Dude, the second half, one of these is going to pop.’

“And on the second play, it popped.”

McCaffrey’s 65-yard spin, sprint, cut, dive and score was — for all intents and purposes — the 49ers’ knockout punch in their season-opening rout. Pittsburgh had finally shown offensive life to end the first half, scoring to cut the 49ers’ lead to 20-7, but McCaffrey’s quick strike to open the third quarter effectively extinguished any flicker of hope for the home team.



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Perhaps even more significantly, the play exhibited perfect execution across the board in the run game — which has been a staple of successful 49ers’ teams under Kyle Shanahan in recent years, but not until much later in the season.

McCaffrey’s score came on a play called “19 Structure Fool,” a staple of the 49ers offense under Shanahan, which features zone-blocking schemes.

“The structure is as basic as it gets,” Juszczyk said. “It doesn’t matter if they’re in nickel or if they’re in base. Everybody just blocks the guy that’s in front of them. It’s true zone.”

Basic concepts aren’t necessarily easy, though — especially in Shanahan’s offense, which demands atypical athleticism and effort from its blockers. Several 49ers faced difficult assignments to make this play sing.

Right guard Spencer Burford had to explode from the line and seal off a significantly lighter linebacker, Cole Holcomb. Burford executed his job while center Jake Brendel, left guard Aaron Banks and right tackle Colton McKivitz all did effective work against defensive linemen.

Meanwhile, left tackle Trent Williams and tight end George Kittle combined for the most critical task: neutralizing safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and edge rusher Alex Highsmith, two of Pittsburgh’s best defenders who were attacking right where McCaffrey was supposed to run.

“My specific assignment was to open up the C-gap,” Williams said. “So me and George worked a double-team on the safety and we got those guys to widen, which made the gap pretty big and it’s hard for that flowing linebacker to make that play scraping over the top when Christian can widen out.”

Williams essentially handled Fitzpatrick — who’s listed as 111 pounds lighter than him — alone in space. That’s remarkable for a 300-pounder. The space-eating efficiency allowed Kittle to zero in on Highsmith.

That’s where the true secret sauce came in for the 49ers: Kittle enjoyed extra help from wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk in his work against the edge rusher. The “Fool” part of the play title came into play here. There was deception at play. Aiyuk engaged Highsmith, but only for about a second — just long enough for Kittle to register the knockout. Aiyuk then sprung downfield.

The replay captures the extraordinary sequence. Aiyuk, only about four seconds after meeting Highsmith at the line of scrimmage, wipes out Pittsburgh safety Damontae Kazee 15 yards downfield.

That’s obviously a very difficult two-block sequence for anyone — and especially a wide receiver — to execute. It almost seems as if Aiyuk is in two places at once. But that’s what Shanahan demands of his wideouts, and that’s why the 49ers feel that their run game has a uniquely high ceiling whenever all of its tough jobs are performed correctly.

“It was a crazy game plan in the run game,” Aiyuk said. “Just in terms of our assignments on the outside, having to go in tight, blocking those guys on the inside, linebackers. (Pittsburgh) did a great job. They gave us some different looks, so it was messy that play. I didn’t even know what to do. I just saw Christian breaking free and I went to chase somebody.”

Kazee is who Aiyuk caught and flattened.

He then sprinted alongside McCaffrey down the sideline. Fellow receiver Ray-Ray McCloud III, who’d lined up on the far side of the formation, joined them about 40 yards downfield.

Once McCloud noticed McCaffrey break free from the grasp of Steelers’ cornerback Levi Wallace with a vicious spin move, he kicked into full gear.

“Sometimes that backside block means a lot,” McCloud said. “Once I heard the crowd going, I took off. It means more when you like your teammate, and I love my dog McCaffrey. It’s a family, man. We go so hard for each other. It shows on the field.”

McCloud engaged Pittsburgh’s last line of defense, cornerback Patrick Peterson, at about the 20-yard line. He drove Peterson backward for about 17 yards, to about the 3, to clear the way for McCaffrey’s final dive.

“It was awesome blocking by those guys up front,” McCaffrey said. “It’s an 11-man job. I got a little spin in there, got sprung. it was Aiyuk and Ray-Ray downfield. When you have receivers who block like that, it’s a special feeling for a running back, because you truly feel like guys have your back. And that’s an awesome feeling to have when you’re out there.

“When all 11 are committed to the run game, you have a fullback who’s the best in the league, you’ve got a tight end who’s the best in the league at what he does, all five offensive linemen just working their ass off all day, it’s fun to be able to go out there and run behind people who are so committed to do it.”



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The result was on display in the 49ers’ overpowering showing in Pittsburgh, which saw McCaffrey amass 152 rushing yards — his most in a single game with the team (the previous high was 121 rushing yards against the Las Vegas Raiders last season).

The highlight, of course, was the 65-yard strike that suggested the 49ers, who’ve emphasized the importance of starting fast in 2023, might already be in midseason form.

“It was a perfect call,” Williams said. “We ran into a really good look, everyone got a hat on a hat, and you see what can happen.”

(Photo: Joe Sargent / Getty Images)

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