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5 reasons the San Francisco 49ers will remain a running team in 2014

Al Sacco
Aug 25, 2014 at 12:24 PM7

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Make no mistake about it, the NFL has evolved into a passing dominant league. The rule changes that have gone into effect in recent years make it easier than ever to throw the ball, and we've seen quarterbacks and receivers put up numbers like never before as stat sheets look more and more like those you'd see in video games rather than real life.

As the new NFL has taken shape, it seems like the San Francisco 49ers have flirted with the idea of slowly changing their power running attack into more of an air assault. The flirtation looks to have grown more serious this season, as players like Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd were added to give the team additional targets to go along with already impressive names like Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin.

Despite the additions and possible ideas to alter their philosophy, I'm here to make the prediction that the 49ers flirtation with throwing the football will never materialize into anything significant (at least not in 2014 anyway).

Here are five reasons the 49ers will stay with a ground centered attack this season:

1) The offensive line is built to run

A common misconception around the league is that the 49ers have an elite offensive line. The truth of the matter is San Francisco has a strong run blocking unit that struggles with pass protection. Need proof?

Since 2011, the 49ers have been in the bottom six in the league in sack percentage every season. 49er quarterbacks were sacked on 8.9 percent of their drop backs in 2011 (6th worst), 8.6 percent in 2012 (3rd worst) and 8.6 percent in 2013 (4th worst).

On the flip side, they've been in the top 10 in the league in yards per carry in 2012 (5.1, 3rd) and 2013 (4.4, 10th). However, you could argue some of that success is due to having Colin Kaepernick taking off from time to time, as San Francisco came in 19th in the league in 2011 (4.1 yards per attempt) with Alex Smith at quarterback.

Still, running the ball behind a massive front is what this team is built on, and what has made them so successful recently.

2) Can't ignore a possible two-headed monster at running back

Taking nothing away from Kendall Hunter or (for a brief period) LaMichael James, the 49ers may have never had a combination of ball carriers like they will in 2014.

While Frank Gore is entering the twilight of a borderline Hall of Fame career, he still should have enough left in the tank to be in the upper tier of backs in the league. However, the 49ers will have to do a better job of limiting his touches so he doesn't approach upwords of 280 carries like he did last year.

Enter rookie Carlos Hyde, who appears to have the makings of a feature back. Hyde was widely regarded as a steal when the 49ers selected him in the second round of the draft, and has looked the part so far this preseason. Hyde is averaging nearly 5.9 yards a rush with 88 yards on 15 carries through three games.

On average, the 49ers' second running back carries the ball about seven times a game under Jim Harbaugh. While it won't be a complete time share with Gore, look for that average to go up as long as Hyde continues to show he's a future star in the league. The tandem will be too good to not be the feature of their offensive attack.

3) They've tried this before

Truth be told, the 49ers have tried to be a passing team, it just didn't work. It started out fine, as Kaepernick lit up the Green Bay Packers to the tune of 412 yards and three touchdowns on 39 attempts in Week 1 of 2013. Those numbers could be a little misleading though, as the team still attempted 27 (non-Kaepernick) rushes.

It was in the following weeks that the Niners abandoned the run, as they only handed the ball off 27 times total in Weeks 2 and 3. Kaepernick attempted 55 passes combined in those games and was sacked six times. His numbers were putrid, completing only 47 percent of his throws for 277 yards. He didn't throw a touchdown pass and was picked off four times. The result was back-to-back losses by a combined score of 56-10.

In the end, San Francisco found success by reverting back to their bread and butter, the rushing attack. They reeled off five straight wins after the mini losing streak, handing the ball off an average of 33 times a game.

4) Kaepernick still has limitations

While he improved significantly over the second half of last season, Kaepernick hasn't shown in the past that he can be the type of quarterback who can sit in the pocket, scan the field and hit his fourth option if need be. In fact, he seems to bail out of the pocket if his first or second read is not there.

From Weeks 2-10 in 2013, Kaepernick only completed 53.7 percent of his throws and averaged 154 yards passing a game. Granted, he was without Crabtree and lacked weapons beyond Boldin and Davis, which was difficult for a developing young quarterback.

Kaepernick did turn his season around though, as his completion percentage jumped to 61.8 percent over the final six games of the regular season. He threw 10 touchdown passes (1.6 per game) to only one interception during that stretch, and his passing yards per contest jumped to 232.

While those numbers are excellent and show proof of an effective quarterback, they're hardly prolific. Even if Kaepernick averaged 232 yards and 1.6 touchdown passes over a 16 game season, his totals would end up being 3,712 and 26. While good, it would have put him in the middle of the pack in the NFL in 2013, at 15th and 10th overall respectively.

Kaepernick certainly has the ability and talent around him to eventually grow into a prolific passer, but he's not there yet.

5) Running is in Harbaugh's nature

Despite their possible intentions, you get the feeling that Harbaugh won't stray from the approach that has been his bread and butter his entire coaching career. The 49ers have attempted 1,304 passes since Harbaugh took over in 2011, which is the fewest in the NFL during that stretch. In contrast, the have attempted 1,495 rushes.

Harbaugh is a Bo Schembechler disciple who will stick to his roots. Barring a major jump in accuracy and reading defenses from Kaepernick, the team will most likely stay true to what Harbaugh believes. After all, this is a coach who had Andrew Luck while at Stanford, and still based his offense around the run. If Luck couldn't get him to alter his approach, it's possible nothing will.
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.


  • DackJack
    Uh, looking back on this year, your original prediction fell way short of reality. They tried to be a passing team all year and failed.. they should have stuck to the run, but that's not what Baalke wanted when he brought in all of the wideouts and let Iupati hang without a contract, caved in to Boones demands and then watched him stink up the place for a good part of the season and brought in Martin to fill in (very poorly I might add) all of which created the 8-8 finish.
    Dec 29, 2014 at 12:34 PM
  • Gonzola
    What a nice piece of work? Great job... I missed you Uncle Al. Run, Walk, or Fly... whatever it takes to WIN. This season they 49ers MUST ditch the loser mentality and believe they can win and WIN BIG. Pre-season has not looked good and there is really no excuse for losing any game at anytime - preseason or not. I just hope they let Kappy play his game and not the one that Roman decides is best for him. That goes for most of the offense - I still think Roman needs to go bye bye... Playcalling is boring and predictable and always ends up representing the absolute worst in what the current group of offensive players has to offer. I hope this changes this year, but so far just looks like more of the same on offense -- so other than the punch-them-in-the-mouth hardcore running plays the offense looks ho-hum. I am not taking a LOSS today! Rock on Uncle Al and welcome back to Niner Football!
    Aug 26, 2014 at 4:03 PM
    Response: lol...Thanks, buddy.
  • Scarecrow
    Completely agree. Some may counterpoint that bringing in Johnson and Lloyd indicate a heavier emphasis on the pass, but as 3rd and 4th options, they'l rarely see the ball (unless Kaep improves dramatically in a short period). No, those two are decoys. It's a good strategy - last season, Patton was too wet behind the ears (when not hurt) as a 3rd option, and no one else was a threat (adios, Baldwin). Lloyd and Johnson are more akin to 2012 Randy Moss. Defenses will have to respect those guys for being out there, but don't expect big numbers.
    Aug 26, 2014 at 10:28 AM
  • Marty
    I completely agree with you. This is why 49ers will finish second behind Seattle in the division. Wilson is a much better QB. He will make a couple big plays. Where as, Kaepernick seems to be struggling even more. He panics in the pocket & is taking big hits. He really seems to turn the ball over against tough defenses like Seattles way to many times. It really hurts the 49ers defense. They are stuck on a short field.
    Aug 26, 2014 at 5:46 AM
    Response: He has to improve as a passer this season. He has weapons everywhere, so if he struggles this year...we could have a problem...
  • bumblebeelassoer
    Nice article. I agree the best was saved for last. Harbs didn't throw a lot with Luck. The genius though, is that with all these defenses geared to stop the pass they aren't heavy enough to defend an Oline/ run game like ours.
    Aug 25, 2014 at 9:16 PM
    Response: Thanks Anthony!
  • JRSanDiego
    All points well made - you saved the best for last! I was going to say: A. The offense will shift to more passing only when Kap starts showing his passing is the more lethal and productive part of the offense. When he has success, the passing attach will grow. B. BUT THEN, you rightly pointed out JH didn't change even when he had Luck at QB - lol. Good point - maybe the 49ers never go pass heavy even if CK is killing it with passes! Thanks for the good article :)
    Aug 25, 2014 at 2:20 PM
    Response: Thanks Jeff!
  • Bobby LeQuia
    They didn't bring in Stevie Johnson, Brandon Lloyd just to be a running team!
    Aug 25, 2014 at 12:28 PM

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