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Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Why the 49ers run game has experienced a decline in 2022

Rohan Chakravarthi
Oct 18, 2022 at 1:30 PM--

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The San Francisco 49ers have struggled offensively in 2022, scoring just 20.3 points per game, which ranks in the bottom half of the NFL.

Their stagnant offense has been the reason that the team currently stands at 3-3, despite sporting one of the top defensive units in the NFL in nearly every metric.

One of the major areas of decline has been the running game, especially after the injury to quarterback Trey Lance and the transition to quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

Let's dive into the numbers and understand exactly why the decline has occurred, resulting in a change with San Francisco's offensive approach.


First and foremost, the 49ers have experienced a significant decrease in efficiency according to several metrics following the injury of Trey Lance in the running game.

With Trey Lance under center, the 49ers were seeing success on the ground, averaging 5.8 yards per carry on 49 attempts, while utilizing a varying degree of zone-read, forcing defenses to account for the rushing threat at quarterback.

Many might point to the factor of Elijah Mitchell, who rushed for 6.8 yards per carry in Week 1 before spraining his MCL, but the 49ers were nearly as efficient without his presence, averaging 5.65 yards per carry on the 43 other attempts.

Following the injury to Lance, that efficiency has decreased to a meager 3.87 yards per carry on 119 attempts, while ranking 29th in the NFL in expected points added per play(EPA/play), a good metric to evaluate the efficiency of the running game as a whole.

Why has that occurred?

Entering the season, it was clear that Kyle Shanahan intended to utilize Lance's rushing ability as a threat to opposing defenses, as many other offenses have recently done to improve their efficiency. And, it worked.

While unfavorable weather conditions forced the 49ers to run the football to a significant degree in Week 1, San Francisco saw immediate success with Lance operating the zone-read scheme in Week 2, leading to 108 yards on 12 carries, with the quarterback rushing three times.

As a result, the Seahawks became more aggressive to stop the run, opening up the pass game for Kyle Shanahan on the ensuing drive that led to a quick four-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, which would've occurred had Lance been the quarterback either way.

With several teams adapting to the 11-on-11 football strategy, it was clear the 49ers found that valuable, hence the selection of Lance with the third overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.

However, with Lance's injury, the 49ers have been forced to revert back to 10-on-11 football without a mobile backup quarterback, which has resulted in the lack of zone-read utilization, as the threat of using Garoppolo in the ground game is not present.

Opposing defenses have continued to stack the box, but the run game has become more stale as a result of depleted personnel, occasional woes at center, and a limited quarterback on the ground.

Despite Garoppolo having the highest big-time throw-rate of his career according to PFF, defenses have stacked the box against top running back Jeff Wilson Jr. at a top-three rate in the NFL, according to Akash Anavarathan.

To adapt, head coach Kyle Shanahan had to be more creative than usual, given teams' understanding of Garoppolo's limited skillset and their familiarity with the scheme involving this specific personnel.

In Weeks 4 and 5, the 49ers began utilizing the toss-counter to a significant degree, which, in a way, kept defenses off balance, as the blocking scheme would indicate a certain run, but the misdirection would occur.

That led to several significant gains, bolstering a weakened rushing attack, and boosting the 49ers' rushing stats.

Against the Rams, Jeff Wilson had a 32-yard touchdown off a toss-counter, which accounted for 36% of the team's rushing yards on that night. Apart from that, San Francisco rushed for just 2.67 yards per carry against Los Angeles.

Similarly, Wilson had 41-yard and 37-yard rushes against the Panthers and Broncos, respectively, showcasing the chunk-play ability off Shanahan's creativity.

However, efficiency-wise, the 49ers have significantly declined, which has led to a staler offense and put more pressure on the 49ers' passing attack, where execution woes have limited San Francisco from several scoring opportunities.


What has caused the efficiency issues listed above for the 49ers?

First off, it begins with the personnel issues that the 49ers currently have in the running game, which includes Trey Lance's season-ending injury.

It's clear that the loss of Lance has made a clear impact on the running game, but there have been even more issues regarding personnel, with some stemming prior to this season.

The loss of Elijah Mitchell has left San Francisco without a running back capable of hitting the edge in the outside-zone scheme, which has forced additional creativity from Kyle Shanahan and made the running game into a one-dimensional threat.

While Jeff Wilson had played well in the previous two weeks, his lack of speed and true explosiveness have forced runs primarily between the tackles, for which defenses have become more prepared.

Tevin Coleman was a recent addition to the running game, and showed glimpses of the potential to hit the edge in Week 5, but struggled with vision during his limited playing time in Week 6, including a poor decision on a 3rd & short that forced a punt.

San Francisco's rookies, Tyrion-Davis Price and Jordan Mason, haven't showcased the ability to hit the edge either, or, in the latter's case, haven't been provided the opportunity to do so.

With the continuous injuries to 49ers' running backs, San Francisco has shied away from its committee approach that made the rushing attack so dangerous in years past.

In 2021, while Elijah Mitchell rushed for 4.7 yards on significant volume, he was consistently injured, due to the reliance on him as a bell-cow back.

2022 provided more hope, as the 49ers returned a fully-healthy Mitchell and Wilson, which would've provided some stability as a one-two punch for San Francisco, but the latter suffered a sprained MCL after just six touches in Week 1, ruining that plan.

The reluctance to provide opportunities to the rookies, especially Mason, has been appalling as well, as it has limited the 49ers' to one major rushing threat, which has become more predictable for opposing defenses, while also wearing Wilson, who has faced his fair share of injuries, out.

When Mitchell returns, which head coach Kyle Shanahan presumes should be after the bye week, the 49ers will regain their one-two punch, making their offense more explosive by creating the potential of chunk plays, while also elevating their floor.

However, when looking at the efficiency of the 49ers' rushing attack over the past several years, it's consistently declined, from 6th in rush EPA/play in 2019, to 24th in 2020, to 16th in 2021, to 29th in 2022.

In 2021, I'm specifically looking at the efficiency prior to the utilization of Deebo Samuel(Weeks 1-9), as the EPA/play skyrocketed to 9th over the entire year when San Francisco involved more than just Elijah Mitchell in the running game.

Now, what has been the common denominator in this trend? The involvement of several effective players in the running game.

In 2019, the 49ers had a fairly even split between Tevin Coleman(137 carries), Raheem Mostert(137 carries), and Matt Breida(123 carries), leading them to average 4.6 yards per carry as a team on significant volume.

In 2020, the efficiency depleted due to injury, as Raheem Mostert played in just eight games, while the 49ers faced several major health issues across the entire roster, forcing Jeff Wilson Jr. to be somewhat of a bell-cow back, as he rushed for 600 yards on 126 carries.

In 2021, the 49ers involved Deebo Samuel over the second half, boosting their average rushing attack to a top-tier ground game, as the wideback averaged 6.2 yards per carry on 59 attempts.

But, in 2022, with the injury to Mitchell, San Francisco has heavily relied on Jeff Wilson Jr., making their run game one-dimensional and more predictable as a result.

The loss of Raheem Mostert, who has 309 yards on 71 carries, has stung, as San Francisco currently doesn't have an outside-zone threat, but Shanahan deserves some of the flack for not utilizing his backups, especially Jordan Mason, over the past few weeks.

Can the 49ers succeed with their current personnel? Yes, if execution occurs, especially in the passing game. However, does that success come easier with the utilization of a committee? Yes, and San Francisco spent draft capital to do so, yet haven't incorporated their rookies into the gameplan.

Now, it's up to Kyle Shanahan to right the ship until the return of Elijah Mitchell, as the 49ers remain at .500 with the Chiefs and Rams up next.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.

1 Comment

  • Jon Hyde
    How can the run game be critiqued without significant attention paid to a below average, inexperienced offensive line?
    Oct 19, 2022 at 6:52 AM


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