The 49ers' offensive calling card is their ability to throw so many different shots to the opposing defense that they can't play as quickly as they'd like or need to to keep up with San Francisco's abundance of playmakers. Head coach Kyle Shanahan's ability to understand what the defense wants to do against certain situations and then design plays to counter those defensive decisions is why the 49ers can stay at the top of the league on offense.

A trend from last season suggests the 49ers could be heading in a new direction.

To counteract the modern offense, which has moved to a faster, more horizontal approach, defenses have become smaller and lighter to slow down the highly efficient modern passing attacks.

It looks like San Francisco's answer is to get bigger.

Last year, the 49ers used 11 players (a running back and a tight end) in just 38.4 percent of their games, according to Sumer Sports. That was the second-lowest rate in the league. In 2022, they used 42.6 percent.

21 players (two tight ends, one running back) remained their most important squad with a usage rate of 37.8 percent – the second highest rate in the league and on par with their league high of 34 percent last year.

However, we also saw the 49ers use a lot of 22-man personnel (two TEs, two RBs). Their 9.1 percent 22 usage rate was the second-highest in the league and 7.8 percentage points higher than the NFL average, according to Sumer Sports. It was also 3.0 percentage points higher than their 22 usage in 2022.

This 22-man personnel group is especially interesting because the 49ers signed TE Logan Thomas as a free agent. Thomas is a true pass-catching TE in the NFL, having as many catches (55) last season as former 49ers reserve TEs Ross Dwelley and Charlie Woerner had in their careers with San Francisco.

Despite not having a second pass catcher at the TE position, the 49ers managed to rank first in total expected points out of 22 players with 0.41 EPA/game. Their EPA/pass was a whopping 1.01, while their EPA/rush was 0.09.

San Francisco only managed to do so 34.8 percent of the time despite using 22 players, and that's where we could see a change this season.

TEs without George Kittle caught just four passes for 44 yards on five attempts last season. One of those catches and 20 of those yards came in the last game of the year when Kittle didn't play. That means the TEs' numbers without Kittle last year were three passes caught for 24 yards when Kittle was on the field.

Not only could we see more frequent use of the 22 from the 49ers this year, but we could also see more passes from these formations, as the versatility of Kittle, Thomas, fullback Kyle Juszczyk and running back Christian McCaffrey could seemingly turn this run-heavy formation into an empty backfield with five wide receivers. Last season, they were successful with passes from this formation, with a second TE who played no role in the passing game. Now with Thomas, Shanahan will be able to diversify this personnel group and make his plays less predictable.

The result of this is a potential increase in 12 personnel (one RB, two TEs). Juszczyk's versatility has allowed the 49ers to play 21 that looks like 12 because their fullback can essentially function as another TE. Last season, San Francisco actually had negative EPA/rush in pure 12 personnel, which the 49ers played at the eighth-lowest rate in the NFL. Probably in part because teams could scramble to stop the run knowing the other TE wouldn't be much of a threat, although there are a whole host of factors that could lead to such poor performance from one of the NFL's best rushing attacks.

Shanahan's offense always develops just ahead of the NFL curve, and then teams tend to move in the direction he goes. Given what we know about the changes in defensive personnel, the 49ers' successes last year, and what they accomplished this offseason — don't be surprised if we see San Francisco rely more on size this season as they pre-pendulum swing back toward old-school smash-mouth football.

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