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What Happened to the 49ers’ Running Game?

Sep 20, 2013 at 8:16 AM

49er fans remember the previous two seasons: a power running game characterized by blocks both thunderous and subtle, with backs regularly sprung loose into the secondary. Yes, we thought it might last forever. Actually, the demise of the Niners' consistent running prowess coincided with the arrival of Colin Kaepernick as signal caller. Why?

Well, for one thing, Kaepernick himself became a larger part of the ground game. For another, Kaepernick emerged as potentially more than a "game-manager QB," with the arm to hurl the ball, accurately, far down the field. The 49ers, in the midst of a playoff run, took advantage.

But another reason for the ground-to-a-halt has little to do with the quarterback. Remember, Alex Smith himself could run some, albeit not with Kaep's explosiveness. Simply, NFL teams do adjust, and most good teams can stop any one aspect of an offense. Great defenses, like Seattle's, can stop more.

When Harbaugh and Roman first arrived in San Francisco they implemented a run-offense both traditional and innovative. This old-is-new-again approach proved not only effective in itself, but also delightful to watch. Now, NFL defensive coordinators have had two years, and nearly forty videoed games, to watch it themselves. Actually, watching the Ram games alone provides copious clues on how to stop ground-Greg. (Also, many NFL offensive coordinators appear to have watched the Niners, and copycatted their plays, making them more familiar overall.)

What do the Rams, and other teams, do to confound the Niner ground game? A brief summation: shoot the gaps, rotate defensive assignments, follow the pulling linemen, stunt, disrupt blocking angles, reroute runners, tackle efficiently, change defenses, maintain discipline, and in general initiate enough mayhem near the line of scrimmage to stop potential gash plays before they start. Gore often looks frustrated because defenses have learned how to curtail his cut-back lanes. The alternative alleys he once found when original holes were stuffed have closed. In other words, NFL defenders no longer "catch" the 49er blockers; they attack the running game preemptively.

Can't the 49ers, with their stout line, make counter-adjustments? Sure, they do, and will. But when defenses over-commit to stopping the run, and often use de facto eight-man fronts to do so, the adjustment of choice usually dictates throwing the ball down the field. Why keep "pounding the rock" into a gravel crusher? Against Green Bay, the 49ers passed successfully. Against Seattle, not so much.

With the running game, however, one should regard the Seattle contest as an outlier. In CenturyLink Field visiting offensive linemen lose one of their penultimate advantages: simply, they cannot hear the snap count, which, in home stadia, allows them to fire off the line of scrimmage a split second before defenders. Neither, in such noise, can offensive linemen work together as cohesively.

Will the 49ers ever again bring the thunder runs that characterized the team during the glory years of the early-Harbaugh era? Probably. Adjustments that did not work amid Seattle caterwauls will work better in quieter times. Also, of course, the 49ers could loosen up run defenses by utilizing Kaep more in his immense capacity as a runner himself. Given the team's legitimate caution in keeping their young star healthy, don't look for them to run this run-risk anytime soon, until the playoffs, or maybe in a must-win game, say the second Seattle contest. (Let's hope they don't lose so much that every game becomes a must-win.)

Ultimately, though, Colin Kaepernick must continue to mature into his full potential. As against Green Bay, he must make teams pay for stacking defenders against the run. He must learn to read defenses more accurately, make better decisions, and develop quicker reactions. Remember, the young guy is still learning the intricacies of the pro game, adjusting to its speed and trickery. This maturation process will not inscribe a straight line upward on a quarterback-skills graph, and will require patience. There will be setbacks, mistakes, frustrations, and, yes, occasional losses. But he's in the right place at the right time, surrounded by folks who want to see him succeed, and with the capacity to help ensure said success.

But Colin Kaepernick cannot by himself rescue the 49er run game. For that, we must turn to the offensive line.

Offensive linemen want to run the football. Unlike pass blocking, which requires them to necessarily assume a more defensive, back-on-their-heels, posture, run blocking allows them to display the power for which their bodies were born. Run blocking lets them attack the defender(s) aggressively, to snarl and spit and swagger and outsmart. Damn, now that's football! Offensive linemen take pride in drive blocking, and regard it as an insult when their own coaches abandon the running game.

Once upon a time a third-year NFL coach with a young prodigy at quarterback found himself with a team capable of making a playoff run. His team could have made the playoffs simply by passing their way to regular-season victories. However, this coach reckoned that, in order to win when they got to the playoffs, his team would need a balanced offense. So, despite his acknowledged brilliance in drawing up passing plays, the coach stuck with the running game anyway, to the point of risking regular-season losses. In effect, he sent an unspoken message to his offensive linemen:

If we don't run the ball, as well as pass it, we will lose games. If you do not block well, I will let you lose those games. Our quarterback will not come to your rescue, and neither will I. Now block.

Offensive linemen love being given that responsibility. But, in order to practice their craft effectively, they need just that: actual game practice, not just training-camp or practice-field reps. They need to get in sync with each other and with their backs. They need to experiment, adjust, and improve in actual game situations. In short, the 49ers' current offensive line must regain their collective mojo, and during the regular season, so that they will have it in the playoffs. To accomplish that, the coaching staff must have the patience and fortitude to risk losses. Above all, the players themselves must maintain their confidence and commitment, even when the plays don't always work.

By the way, in the aforementioned season, everyone remembers "the catch" made by Dwight Clark against Dallas in the corner of the end zone. What some forget is that, in that late-fourth-quarter drive leading up to the famous play, the Niners mixed runs in with passes. Their offensive line had their mojo working. Harbaugh has watched many game tapes from the Walsh era; let's hope he watches not only for schemes, but for season-long strategy as well.

At any rate, given Jim Harbaugh's coaching acumen, along with his staff's, I doubt the 49ers will completely abandon the running game, with or without watching scratchy old tapes, any time soon. Let's just hope that Harbaugh's short-term competitiveness, his hating to lose even a single down, let alone game, doesn't sabotage his team's long-term goals. After all, both the first two contests, admittedly, qualified as big games, important games to win by any means necessary. Now the 49ers can settle into the rest of the season.
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.


  • Steve
    the running game is not suffering. Gore is not too old. The running game is not being called from the sideline. there's your problem. How is there supposed to be a running game when they dont call run plays? We ran the ball 8 times on our only scoring drive and 4 times the rest of the game. I seem to remember Gore with 82 yds on 11 carries. And you guys say hes old? no he isnt. They just need call the plays. Running the ball 4 times in the second half on sunday after that scoring drive is unnacceptable.
    Sep 24, 2013 at 8:09 AM
    Response: Most of the fan comments about Gore were posted before the game, before Gore looked so spry. As for the Niners not sticking to the run game, I can't disagree, since the article's third-to-last paragraph mentioned this last week.
  • brian
    the only part I agree is the lack of running game has made Collin 1-dimensional, plus he doesnt have the weapons at wide out with Crabtree gone. He's then put in a lot of 3rd and long situations. Defenses are stopping our drives early. Don't forget, with game manager AS, the 49ers were good because we won the field positioning war. Alex for many of his short comings could not win a game on his arm, unlike Kap, but he did record a lot of 1st downs and put niners into field goal position. Remember, Akers breaking the NFL all time record? Now we focus on Gore's ro, he IS getting old and the 49ers mgmt have not looked to a replacement. Lamarcus James and Kendall Hunter are not power backs. Gore seems to walk off gingerly after every hit. Doesn't have the explosive game break run anymore. Last but not least, our "guru" Roman shares blame. He rarely calls 1st down runs anymor. Roman relies on Kap's skill to much and now that he's getting pressured, since our wide outs can't get open, Kap is not as effective, especially against physical teams like Seahawks. Versus the Colts , I have seen Kap make the wrong reads alot. He stares down bolden instead of swinging out to Hunter. ALL bad...
    Sep 22, 2013 at 3:43 PM
  • Dca
    I agree, the 49ers need to go back to a power running game. Running Gore from the shotgun isn't doing him any favors. It's just not the kind of RB he is. Use Hunter in those sets. 49ers need to go under center, run Gore 15-20 times and then run play action from heavy sets, much like Seattle did. I disagree Gore is too old and slow. He's still quite capable, IMO.
    Sep 21, 2013 at 10:14 PM
  • charles
    simply put Gore is too old and too slow,they need to play the young running backs more.
    Sep 21, 2013 at 3:43 PM
  • AJ Dembroski
    I'm not SEEING the old running game, or any significant attempt at it. It was normal to see a lot of short runs early in games when this was the centerpiece of the offense, and those runs would pay off late when the defense tired. Here's the problem: Kaepernick's too good. The team has not opened up the offense with Kaepernick, they've closed it in around him. Instead of doing more, they're just shifting to an NFL version of a Spread/Pistol hybrid, and the old power running game makes an appearances a few times a game rather than being the focal point. I believe that under Kaep, they've abandoned their identity. Using Kaepernick's ability to augment what they were already great at would have been fantastic, but making Kaep the end-all be-all of the offense at the offensive line and Frank Gore's expense was the wrong move. They need to get back to what they do best.
    Sep 20, 2013 at 2:17 PM
  • Ladale
    The 9ers have down hill runners only. Guys are not a real threat to bounce it out and make a man miss. They know they can beat Frank to the edge. And like you wrote, just follow the pulling lineman or fullback and the runner will just show up. Just a lack of explosion against good defenses.
    Sep 20, 2013 at 8:34 AM

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