How Shanahan's brutal honesty made Aiyuk a complete receiver


SANTA CLARA -- Brandon Aiyuk caught three passes for 73 yards in the 49ers’ 41-23 win over the Seattle Seahawks in the first round of the NFC playoffs.

Afterward, Aiyuk was kicking himself over a dropped pass in the end zone late in the game.

But he and 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan had plenty of reasons to be ecstatic with Aiyuk's performance -- especially when the ball was not thrown his way.

Essentially, the final 40 yards of Deebo Samuel’s game-clinching touchdown and 50 yards of Christian McCaffrey’s 68-yard first-quarter run Saturday were made possible by Aiyuk’s downfield blocks. That's 90 yards of production from Aiyuk that will never show up on the stat sheet.

“I’ve realized you can have a great game without touching the football,” Aiyuk said last week.

Shanahan is a tough critic of wide receivers. It's the position he played in college, and so much of the 49ers’ ability to bust a big play is contingent on their receivers making third-level blocks.

On Samuel’s 74-yard catch-and-run TD pass from quarterback Brock Purdy, he likely would have been stopped at the Seattle 40-yard line had Aiyuk not taken care of free safety Quandre Diggs and cornerback Tariq Woolen along the left sideline.

“Once I came around and I saw the safety up top, I wanted him to think I was going to go that way,” Samuel said. “I knew Brandon was going to seal the sideline for me, and he did a great job, and I just ran off his block.”

Aiyuk not only does the little things, but he has emerged as a legitimate No. 1-caliber receiver, too. He registered career highs with 78 receptions for 1,015 yards and eight TDs during the regular season. His production has risen every season, and so have Shanahan’s expectations for him.

Last season, the 49ers’ GPS tracking provided evidence that Aiyuk wasn't going hard in practices when the ball wasn't in his hands. As his practice habits became better and better, so did his production in games.

At times, Shanahan has been brutally honest in his assessment of Aiyuk’s play. To his credit, Aiyuk kept his ears and mind open.

“Now that I know where he’s coming from with everything, it’s easy to take their coaching, because they want nothing but the best for you and for the team,” Aiyuk said. “It’s easy to take their coaching when they know how to get their points across. And they’re super-persistent on making sure you get with them.”

The biggest realization for Aiyuk has been that he still has a lot to learn.

“You come in and you think you got it figured out,” Aiyuk said. “You’ve played receiver for some time and had some success, and you think you understand it. And now you have somebody tell you, 'This is the way to do it.' So, it’s a little bit different.”

RELATED: Purdy's jaw-dropping playoff debut was one for the books

The 49ers traded up to No. 25 overall in the 2020 NFL Draft to select Aiyuk. He ran 4.50 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine with a 40-inch vertical leap, but the physical tools, Aiyuk has learned, is only one small part of the big picture.

“As a player, you only have as much talent as you have today,” he said. “Maybe in the offseason, I can get a little faster and a little stronger, but that’s only going to take me so far.

“The only way I can get better if I take all these lessons from him -- just like reading multiple books. If I can learn what [the coaches] know, I can put that into my game and I feel I can get better -- much better -- way faster.”

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