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When a local media member asked 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh what kind of work the 49ers coaching staff needed to get done during their bye this week the answer was simple, "Preparation for upcoming opponents and self-scout and there will be players that will come in and we'll be available to those players."
Let's focus on what the 49ers might find when they do their self-scouting.
It has been clear since the 2011 draft that Jim Harbaugh wanted to open the offense up. With their second round draft pick the 49ers selected Colin Kaepernick who had broken NCAA records running the pistol spread offense at Nevada. Two picks later they selected running back Kendall Hunter who had been successful running out of the spread offense at Oklahoma State. They followed that with the selection of Daniel Kilgore from Appalachian State, another spread offense.
Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh followed this up by drafting LaMichael James, and Joe Looney in 2012, Vance McDonald, Marcus Lattimore, Quinton Patton in 2013 and Carlos Hyde, Brandon Thomas, Bruce Ellington and Trey Millard in 2014. The common theme among all of these players is that they spent their collegiate careers in the spread offense.
With the foundation that has been built it was only a matter of time before the 49ers were going to open up the offense. There have been glimpses over the past few seasons, but this year we have seen a major change. In 2013 the 49ers were near the bottom of the league in the use of 11 personnel, 1 running back and 1 tight end, utilizing it roughly twenty five percent of the time. The 49ers almost never ran a play without a tight end, yet this season has seen the 49ers come out in 5 wide often.
As the 49ers coaches begin to do their self-scout they should start by taking a look at their balance when in 11 or 10 personnel. So far they have run 42.5%, or 211 of their 496 offensive plays out of these personnel groups. As the 49ers coaches go over the film and their call sheets they will find that they are very unbalanced when employing these groups, with passing plays being called 78% of the time, compared to only 56% of the time when in all other personnel groups.
The coaches should also find that so far they have been very successful when running the ball from 11 and 10 personnel. The 49ers big three: Frank Gore, Carlos Hyde and Colin Kaepernick have averaged 4.6 yards per carry with two touchdowns when running the ball out of their 11 and 10 personnel groups. When running the ball out of their other groups such as 21, 22, or 12 the big three have averaged nearly a full yard less per carry, 3.8, with only one touchdown.
The success the 49ers have found running from the spread is simple to explain, fewer defenders are in the box. Defensive coordinators often base their personnel off the personnel that the offense puts onto the field, and as a result when the 49ers go into 11 or 10 the defense is usually taking a linebacker off the field. This will typically leave the defense with only six men in the box giving the 49ers a numbers advantage for their run game.
Gore from 11 personnel vs St Louis
Gore from 11 personnel vs Denver
When the 49ers come out in their 21, 22, or 12 personnel they often face a loaded box. This often will put the offense at a disadvantage in the running game because there are too many defenders to account for.
Gore from 12 personnel vs St Louis
Gore from 21 personnel vs Denver
As the 49ers get set to open the second half of their season next week it will be interesting to see if their self-scouting has changed the way Greg Roman and Jim Harbaugh approach their play calling from the spread offense. Based on the information available they would be well served to move towards a slightly more balanced approach.