The San Francisco 49ers went through a record run earlier this season in letting running backs surpass 100 yards each game. They were getting bulldozed by starters and backups, and there was no sign it would stop.
However, in two of the last three games, the 49ers have held opposing running backs to less than 100 yards, and running back averages under 3.0 yards per carry. It’s a low bar when not giving up 100 yards is a rare positive, but with this defense, it is a starting point.
On Wednesday, NFL Films producer Greg Cosell was on KNBR, and the hosts asked him what has led to the running game’s improvement. Cosell offered this response:
I think my answer would probably surprise you in the sense that it’s not rocket science. Because, the run game, when you play the run game, it’s really about stalemating your gap, holding your gap, winning in your gap, playing with what we call gap integrity, so that guys don’t get in the wrong gaps. It’s about tackling. It’s rarely about something where you go, “oh my god, really?” When guys get moved at the point of attack, the run game works for the offense, and I think they’re doing a better job of playing at the point of attack, and I think their linebackers have played better in recent weeks. Bellore, I think Hodges has had a couple of good games now, playing against the run, something he struggled with. He was a guy who tended to play without a lot of discipline, and I think he’s played with more discipline in recent weeks. Down to the cliched terms, which are true, holding the point, gap integrity. But all those things are true.
GM Trent Baalke acknowledged the improved run defense over the weekend, and defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil was asked about it on Tuesday.
“We tweaked a couple things to help out who we have playing at inside backer and to fit our personnel up front. Like we’ve talked all year long, as the season goes on you learn more and more about your football team. With this being our first year, you think you know and you think you learn about your guys and what you’re going to be good at throughout the spring and throughout the summer and preseason, but the reality is you really don’t truly know until you’re playing real games on Sunday. So, yeah, every week we tweak stuff. We tweak stuff in the pass game. We tweak stuff with our blitzes. We tweak stuff in the run game. So yeah, as the season’s gone on like we always talk about, we’ve tried to put guys in position to make more plays and do what we think that they do the best.”
Pro Football Focus analyst Jeff Deeney offered up this information about the personnel packages the 49ers have used on first and second down recently.
#49ers D using a lot more 3-3-5 personnel when in nickel D on 1st & 2nd downs the last two weeks, has helped vs. run, not so much vs. pass.— Jeff Deeney (@PFF_Jeff) November 30, 2016
It seems like the personnel groupings, and more use of traditional defensive linemen is helping the situation. In reality you could probably look to multiple things above, including personnel, and better technique and execution. The 49ers still struggle with missed tackles, but compared to their stretch earlier this year when even I probably could have gained 30 or 40 yards on the ground, we are seeing improvement.
The 49ers face the Chicago Bears this weekend. The Bears will be rolling out backup quarterback Matt Barkley. He put up some big numbers last week, but the real issue will be how the 49ers handle running back Jordan Howard. He is averaging 5.1 yards, and has not had a game with fewer than 4.5 yards per carry since Week 7.
The 49ers did strong work against Jay Ajayi, and will want to build on that. They forced the Dolphins into more passing, although Ryan Tannehill was able to burn them repeatedly. I would not be surprised if we saw some more of that this week against a lesser quarterback in Matt Barkley. It is possible Barkley puts together a big passing day, but given his history, it seems like it is worth risking that.