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Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

GMF: 49ers’ run game, defense keys to success in 2018

Jul 19, 2018 at 12:58 PM--

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The San Francisco 49ers are looking to build on their five-game win streak to end last season. They reeled off three-straight victories against playoff teams to finish the season. Two of the 49ers' first three games this season will be against playoff teams from last season, and they will kick things off with a matchup against last year's top-ranked defense.

There is a lot of hype surrounding San Francisco as it heads into its second season under head coach Kyle Shanahan. While the team is predicted to be competitive, it is still in the process of a rebuild with several question marks when it comes to its personnel.

Kyle Brandt and Nate Burleson of Good Morning Football were joined by former NFL center turned analyst Shaun O'Hara to examine the 49ers' "road to recovery." The running game and defense were the discussed areas of improvement if Shanahan and company are to take the team to the next level.

Burleson looked back at what made the 49ers teams of the past so special. Even with fantastic quarterback play, San Francisco always complimented its passing game with a strong running game.

"The guy that comes to mind recently? It's Frank Gore," said Burleson. "He left a few years ago, and since then, of course, they haven't had a 1,000-yard rusher. I think they've only had four games with a 100-yard rusher. Previous to that, Frank Gore was just reeling them off. Eight out of nine years, 1,000 yards.

"What that did for their quarterbacks, whether it was Alex Smith or Colin Kaepernick, it gave them the ability to have comfort within the offense ... You look at San Francisco, Jimmy G, he's going to need [Jerick McKinnon] to come in and make an immediate impact."

The 49ers paid top dollar in free agency to add McKinnon because he fits what Shanahan wants to do within his offense. He is a versatile player who can be dangerous in both the run and pass games.

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"He's a little bit of who he had in Atlanta all in one," O'Hara said. "He's a little bit Tevin Coleman and a little bit of (Devonta) Freeman. I think him out of the backfield is pretty scary in that offense."

O'Hara likes what the 49ers did up front on offense with the signing of center Weston Richburg and selection of Mike McGlinchey in the draft.

"They're really shoring that up, and they are helping out," he said. "When you look at that offensive line, in the last two years, only five teams have given up more sacks than the 49ers. So the quarterbacks have been running for their lives. It changed when Garoppolo showed up. It's amazing how much more efficient, how different the offense looks when the ball comes out on time, when you know where it's supposed to go."

On the other side of the ball, O'Hara believes the defense needs to finally reach its potential – particularly when it comes to defending against the run.

"It seemed like every team playing the 49ers rushed for 200 yards," he said.

O'Hara points to the five first-round draft picks on defense with four of them along the defensive front. Defensive back Jimmie Ward is the only one not along that front. Before this year, the 49ers used first-round picks in three-straight drafts to select defensive linemen. They are Arik Armstead (No. 17 overall in 2015), DeForest Buckner (No. 7, 2016), and Solomon Thomas (No. 3, 2017). The 49ers also used a first-round selection on linebacker Reuben Foster last year.

"Yet, the 49ers defense ranked dead last against the run over the last two years," O'Hara said.

While San Francisco allowed a league-worst 165.9 rushing yards per game in 2016, that number improved to 116.3 yards per game in 2017, which ranked 22nd in the NFL.

"Defensively, when you don't have a quarterback who can win the game, I think you lose your confidence," O'Hara continued. "We saw, remarkably, when Jimmy Garoppolo was playing quarterback, all of a sudden, now the defense is playing better. Why? Because they say, 'I'm going to go make that tackle because we've got a guy who can win the game in the fourth quarter."

Burleson adds that not being on the field as much also contributes to improving a defense's play and statistics.

Brandt believes Reuben Foster needs to play like an All-Pro when he returns from his two-game suspension. The 49ers defense will face tough NFL West running backs in Todd Gurley and David Johnson.

"Someone needs to tackle those dudes and, by the way, first game back for Reuben Foster, Week 3, he's going against the reigning rushing champ, Kareem Hunt, [of the] Kansas City Chiefs. They drafted him to be Bowman, to be that guy in the middle who is the whole identity."


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