Coming into this season, an area of emphasis for the 49ers’ front office was the offensive backfield. In 2017, Kyle Shanahan employed a bottom-third rushing offense, averaging 104 yards per game on the ground.
GM John Lynch went to work, letting running back Carlos Hyde walk and signing ex-Vikings’ RB Jerick McKinnon to a lucrative deal. Lynch brought back Raheem Mostert to compete with second-year RBs Matt Breida and Joe Williams.
The 49ers’ brain trust also revamped the offensive line, securing center Weston Richburg to a five year, $47.5 million contract and drafting offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey with their first pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Signing Laken Tomlinson to a contract extension locked up four offensive line spots, with one of the guard positions still up for competition.
Through two preseason games, Kyle Shanahan is the proud owner of the NFL’s No. 1 offense (421.5 yards per game). So where’s the problem on that side of the ball?
Well, San Francisco has only rushed for a measly 182 yards on 53 rushing attempts (3.4 yards per carry). The primary tailbacks, McKinnon and Breida, did not participate in the second preseason game with injuries and aren’t set to return until Week 1 of the regular season at Minnesota. While that’s creating extra reps for Joe Williams, Jeremy McNichols and Jeff Wilson, and resulted in the addition of veteran Alfred Morris, it’s not helping the 49ers improve their rushing attack.
In last Saturday’s preseason matchup against the Texans, the 49ers’ second-leading rusher was backup QB C.J. Beathard. McNichols was the leading rusher (28 yards), Williams rushed for 18 yards on eight carries, and Wilson averaged four yards per carry. Against the Cowboys in the preseason opener, Raheem Mostert was fantastic running the ball, but Breida was injured after one carry and McKinnon finished the game with a negative rushing total.
While the running backs have not been impressive, the blame for the rushing struggles falls on the shoulders of the 49ers’ offensive lineman.
In the first quarter against the Texans, McNichols had a one-yard carry because Weston Richburg got pushed back into the tailback while trying to block the Texans’ linebacker. If the 49ers’ starting center can hold his block, McNichols has a lane to gain additional yardage on the first-down carry.
In another rushing attempt for McNichols, he’s forced to make an early cut because Mike McGlinchey gets pushed back by the Texans’ edge rusher. As a result, the run only goes for two yards on first down.
Later in the game, Williams gets tackled right at the line of scrimmage as linebacker Zach Cunningham comes un-touched past the 49ers’ offensive line. The 49ers’ tailback has no chance to break out a run as he’s hit immediately.
While a majority of the rushing attempts didn’t result in significant gains, there were a few times when the 49ers’ running backs were able to break out for a positive carry.
In this clip, all the lineman hold their blocks up front, McNichols makes the right cut back and is able to create a six-yard gain.
Williams was also able to join in on the party, as he gained six yards in the hole created by tight end Cole Wick and fullback Malcolm Johnson.
The 49ers’ rushing attack continues to be the sore spot on an otherwise well-oiled offense. While most fans rush to blame the running backs, a majority of the fault falls to the young and inexperienced offensive line.
In order to solve this, Kyle Shanahan will likely have to be smart about his play selection, favoring passing over running plays early in the season. The 49ers’ running backs are also well equipped to catch the ball out of the backfield, more so than years past, with the addition of McKinnon.
In Houston, the 49ers’ backfield caught nine passes for 79 yards — which is nearly as many yards gained on the ground. McKinnon was also productive as a pass-catching back, hauling in 51 receptions for 421 yards in 2017.
While the offensive coaching staff patiently waits on the offensive line to gel, look for Shanahan to allow the running backs to find rhythm with catches out of the backfield, rather than direct run plays. With the dress rehearsal game coming up in Indianapolis, the 49ers’ rushing attack should be closely monitored after their head-scratching performance in the first two weeks.