Prior to the game between the San Francisco 49ers and New Orleans Saints, I suggested that the 49ers could have success running the ball, given that the Saints don't have a strong run defense. I said that the Saints "could be exploited." I still think that's the case, but there were a few reasons why the 49ers generally failed to get things done against New Orleans.
Frank Gore carried the ball 13 times for just 48 yards, which equates to a per carry average of 3.7 yards. Now, that's not even a particularly poor YPC at this point, and I'm still a bit salty that Gore only got 13 carries on the day. I was pretty adamant that, even if the Saints stacked the box, the 49ers would be able to run it.
As it turns out, the Saints did stack the box. The 49ers don't have much of a pass offense these days, and the Saints were frequently sending eight players or more in the box. San Francisco faced eight-plus players in the box on 34 of 57 offensive plays.
Thing is, this was working in their favor for much of the early going. Mike Iupati, who has come under fire for some inconsistencies in his pass blocking this season, was playing extremely well in the running game. Gore had his best runs behind Iupati, and Pro Football Focus even graded Iupati out with a positive grade in run blocking.
Running to the left side of the left guard, 49ers running backs picked up 40 yards off of six carries. Running to the right of the left guard, they only managed 16 yards off of 13 carries. One of the biggest problems was the fact that the 49ers' typically sound blockers all struggled in some way. That is to say, the supporting cast outside of the offensive line in Vernon Davis, Vance McDonald and Bruce Miller all struggled on the day.
That supporting cast was on the field en masse -- meaning both tight ends and Miller together -- on 14 of 22 first down plays on Sunday. The 49ers had an average gain of 1.6 yards on those 14 plays, of which 11 were runs, according to PFF's Jeff Deeney.
Whether or not you're a big believer in PFF's grades, it's worth noting that those three players all received the lowest run blocking grades on the day. Miller missed two key blocks in the second half, and McDonald was beaten soundly by Junior Galette multiple times. It's bad enough that the 49ers lost Iupati, but with those guys under-performing as well, there was little chance to make things happen.
Then again ... it's not like the play-calling was excellent, either. When LaMichael James carries the ball up the middle on a 3rd and 2, something is fundamentally wrong. In fact, both of James' carries went right up the middle of the offensive line. Be right back, I have to go bang my head against the wall repeatedly while I question the direction this offense has gone in recent years.