There’s plenty of negative press to read about the San Francisco 49ers. This article hopes to add a little sunshine to your life. Last season, we saw Carlos Hyde have one of his best seasons, and Matt Breida showed a lot of potential in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. While a lot of the attention went to Jimmy Garoppolo, the run game did well. This should’ve been expected given Shanahan’s success in Atlanta, where he turned Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman into a dangerous two-headed monster. We hoped to see similar things between Breida and Jerick McKinnon. This was only further hyped given the fact that McKinnon and Breida were college teammates reunited. Then the floor fell out on the season with injuries to Jet and eventually Jimmy G. Despite all our woes the 49ers running game has consistently been alive and well all year.
Breida is tied in runs over 20 yards with rookie sensation Saquon Barkley. They both lead the league with 10. He’s also ranked 11th in total yards this season, and only about 20 yards out of a top 10 spot. As a team we’re ranked 4th in the NFL averaging 155 yards a game. All this behind what’s seen as a less than optimal offensive line. Joe Staley, the one vet, surely isn’t playing at the Pro Bowl level he once did. Rookie Mike McGlinchey is still learning his way. The interior lineman are a hodge-podge of players cast off or acquired from other teams who were willing to trade them away, or didn’t feel the need to pay them and let them leave in free agency.
The success stems from Kyle’s ability to creatively choreograph misdirection and outside runs that all look alike but are different at the same time. His ability to use formation, motion, and pre-snap alignments are great. Teams are often out flanked before the play starts. Next season, the 49ers need to continue to build on this foundation. We need to run more outside runs in the red zone. We’re not a power team, yet continue to run our backs into brick walls because our lineman get no push. If we do decide to run inside we need to limit the reach blocks and go with standard double team, power blocking schemes. We could also use some competition and improvement at the guard positions. While Mike Person and Laken Tomlinson have been solid, there’s a reason they were available and it shows on game day. Let’s get into some of the success runs and concepts from last week.
One play that I’ve seen be successful almost every week are designed cutback runs. Initially the “cutback” was a move simply done out of improvisation by running backs. Teams now strategically create cutback runs almost as a variation of a counter play. We have a great example below.
Very first play of the game, Kyle Juszczyk starts right, then peels left, Breida follows suit and goes for a big gain. The play is further sold by the offensive line imitating a stretch zone run right. This allows them to get the Bucs defense even further out of position.
Another play the 49ers ran well on Sunday and all season are variations of the counter sweep. They have all kinds. Some with motion, sometimes it’s George Kittle as the lead, sometimes it’s Juszczyk. Sometimes the motions goes opposite the counter, other times the motions goes with the counter, it’s really fun to watch.
First variation, fake jet sweep counter left. Nick Mullens fakes the jet sweep to Dante Pettis, Tomlinson and Juszczyk pull around and create a wide open lane for Breida to run through.
Second variation. I highlighted how Breida’s initial jab step effects the weak side backer. He initially takes steps forward expecting a dive because of the fake, this allows Tomlinson to get around him for the block. On the edge, Kendrick Bourne does a great job sealing the defensive end inside, which allows McGlinchey and Person to get outside as the lead blockers. Unlike before Juszczyk continues the fake to the opposite side. Also at the snap the jet sweep fake goes opposite the run this time around.
Another play we run well is the half-back sweep. Our lineman can move and pull with the best of them. As noted before pre-snap alignment and variation take this simple play to new levels.
This first clip is pretty standard. The tight end Kittle and WR Bourne crash down to pin the defense inside. McGlinchey and Juszczyk lead Breida to the outside. There’s no one there initially, the offensive front does a great job to keep everyone inside. A hat on a hat as they say.
Our first variation shows Mullens from the shotgun who then puts Kittle in motion. He moves next to Mullens then outside, as he runs outside you can see multiple defenders point and shift in his direction. The run goes to the opposite side. It’s a zone read look, with a stretch blocking concept. Some scenarios will call for Mullens to fake the run and throw a quick pass. Watch Person and McGlinchey totally pancake their guys. Breida shows good patience and doesn’t immediately hustle outside he instead waits a tick and runs into a nice hole created by the backside blocks. Weston Richburg also does a nice job of getting to the second level.
Our next sweep clip is from the I-formation. Juszczyk motions into the backfield and becomes the lead blocker on the play. This time instead of pulling lineman and crashing down WRs, Kittle mans the edge, folds his guy up like a lawn chair. Richburg gets out to the second level to catch the backside defenders, and Juszczyk meets the frontside backer in the hole. It’s text book running 101. Bourne gets away with a bit of a take down on his defender but we could use a few breaks this season right? Breida isn’t even touched until he’s almost eight yards down the field.
I love watching all the moving parts in the running game come together. It’s like poetry in motion. I look forward to Breida having possibly his first 1000 yard season with several games left to go. Kyle should continue to lean on Breida. I felt in this game he passed too often in the 1st quarter which kept the offense from getting in rhythm early. I mean you have to think, the Buccaneers have a prolific passing offense, what would you assume the defense saw all offseason. Tackling Peyton Barber was probably an afterthought when they were trying to cover Mike Evans and Desean Jackson all day in the hot Florida sun this summer. There were virtually no open windows in the passing game.
In the second quarter the 49ers ran more and this lead to the offense driving more and eventually reaching the end zone. We had to get away from the run because defensively we got too far behind, even though we scored twice, possibly three times from the one inch line but got shafted by the stripes. As the season goes on, I’d have to consider the 49ers bringing in a power back for those tough goal line runs next season. Our offense flies from the 20 to the 20 but inside the 20 we seem to hit a wall. Having a solid power back, or a big body WR option would do wonders for those results next year. I also think the depth at tight end could be fortified. Kittle is a great run blocker as seen above, but he’s much better suited as a target the red zone. Next week we play our old friends the Seattle Seahawks, let’s see if Kyle and the run game have any more tricks up their sleeves to pull a W out of the hat. Go Niners!