Examining Kyle Shanahan's aggressive fourth-down plays in 49ers-Cardinals

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Examining Shanahan's aggressive fourth-down plays vs. Cards originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The 49ers' 17-10 loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday didn’t only have a different quarterback under center, but also showed a different approach by Kyle Shanahan. 

The head coach used an aggressive play-calling style on fourth-down plays in Week 5. While a few of the 49ers’ fourth down situations occurred at midfield -- where a field goal is not an option and punting has a likelihood of becoming a touchback -- Shanahan made the decision to go for it five separate times. 

September’s Special Teams Player of the Month, Mitch Wishnowsky, was only called upon to punt twice. 

Successful fourth-down conversions could have led the 49ers to a win in the desert, and Shanahan would be considered a genius by fans. In reality, Trey Lance and the offense were only able to convert one of their five fourth-down attempts and the team returned to the Bay Area with a record of 2-3. 

Here’s a look at all five of the 49ers' fourth-down attempts where the offense stayed on the field. 

Fourth-and-2 on the Arizona 34-yard line 

This play occurred with 4:51 left in the first quarter. Shanahan could have called for newly signed kicker Joey Slye to attempt a 51-yard field goal, but instead opted to keep Lance on the field to attempt to convert. The rookie quarterback was only able to gain one yard and the Cardinals took over on downs. 

It was a tough way to end a seven-play 42 yard drive, which got an assist from Cardinals penalties that accounted for more than half of the yardage (22). A field goal in this situation is not guaranteed but a successful attempt would have only left the 49ers down four points with a 7-3 score. 

Fourth-and-1 from the Arizona one-yard line

With 11:34 left in the first half, the 49ers had put together an 11 play 93-yard drive, putting them one yard away from a score. Instead of a nearly guaranteed three points from a field goal, Shanahan kept the offense on the field to tie the game. 

Shanahan called a pass play that broke down, and Lance ended up diving towards the end zone but was stopped just shy of the goal line. The rookie collided with Cardinals defenders Isaiah Simmons and Tanner Vallejo in a violent hit that left the former shaken up. 

While being one yard away from tying the game makes it understandable why the decision was made to go for it, a field goal would have at least put points on the board. If Slye would have been able to make both attempts, the score could have been 7-6. 

Fourth-and-5 from the Arizona 40-yard line 

This was the only successful fourth-down conversion of the game. With 9:12 left in the third quarter, Lance threw a short pass to Mohamed Sanu for a completion to the left side of the field for six yards. The conversion kept the drive alive, but shortly thereafter the 49ers ended up moving backwards toward the wrong end zone. 

On first-and-10, Travis Benjamin was called for holding. After a short completion to Charlie Woerner for four yards, giving Lance second-and-16, the quarterback was sacked for a loss of six yards. An incompletion on third down forced the 49ers to punt facing a fourth-and-22 situation from Arizona’s 46-yard line. 

Fourth-and-1 from the Arizona 48-yard line. 

Facing a fourth down from the Cardinals' 48-yard line, Shanahan kept the offense on the field. With 9:23 left in the game, a direct snap to Kyle Juszczyk was stopped on the line of scrimmage and Arizona took over on downs. 

After the game, Shanahan admitted that the play did not go according to plan but did not go into any further details. 

“There’s lots of things that go into it that don’t work out the way we wanted it to,” Shanahan said on Sunday. “But yes, there’s some things that we messed up on the play, and I’ll leave it at that.”

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At the time, the score was 10-7 in favor of the Cardinals. The choice to potentially give the ball to the home team at midfield instead of pinning them back by their own goal line could have been costly. 

On the Cardinals' second play of their ensuing drive, 49ers defensive back Dontae Johnson forced a fumble and recovered the ball, keeping the score within three points. 

Fourth-and-4 from the Arizona 48 yard line  

On the following drive, the Lance threw two incompletions and carried the ball once for six yards before facing a second consecutive fourth down from the Cardinals 48-yard line. Lance’s pass to Deebo Samuel fell incomplete after being tipped by Cardinals’ J.J. Watt. 

“I know our defense had just gotten a turnover,” Shanahan said. “I thought it was our chance to take that game right there, and we got into a situation where we felt pretty strong about what they were going to do. Really felt good about the play call, felt good about the guys. Just ended up not getting it, I think it got tipped on the play. It was unfortunate.”

While arguments can be made for both sides, it is understandable why Shanahan made the calls to not punt the ball from midfield, but should he have tried to put points on the board on field goals when he could early in the game? 

Slye has a 79.7 percent overall success rate on field-goal attempts, and is 17-of-22 from 40-49 yards and eight of 11 from 50 yards or more. At the half, the 49ers had 142 yards of total offense and no points to show for it. 

While six points would still not have won the game for the 49ers, it seems the aggressive nature of Shanahan’s play-calling made sense in Arizona. 

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