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For the 49ers, it all starts with the run

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Coach Shanahan’s efforts to build his run game are paying off

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Detroit Lions v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

There was lots of doom and gloom about the San Francisco 49ers’ win over the Detroit Lions in Week 2: “felt like a loss,” “couldn’t put them away,” “unable to beat man coverage.”

It’s not getting enough attention, but the win also showed something very positive: Kyle Shanahan’s plan to build up his run game is falling into place. And that’s crucial, because his trademark play-action passes don’t work without the “play-” part working first.

Garoppolo was 18 for 26, for 206 yards, 2 TDs, and no interceptions on Sunday, which isn’t exactly the disaster that was portrayed. His 118.4 quarterback rating was his best with the Niners, though the coverage sacks were pretty bad. But specifically on play-action passes, he was 7 for 9 for 123 yards, and that’s excellent by any measure

The Lions hung back a bit after Garoppolo’s struggles versus Minnesota, daring the 49ers to run. That was a bad idea, especially for a team with a run defense as porous as Detroit’s. Don’t discount the 190 yards (on 28 carries) that resulted just because Breida broke that one 66-touchdown. Even without it, 124 yards on 27 carries is a solid game; only six NFL teams average more per game this year, and the 49ers are one of them (3rd at 140 ypg).

And all that has been accomplished with the team’s best running back, Jerick McKinnon, out for the year injured.

Yes, Matt Breida is having a breakout year, but this improvement is a lot more methodical than just Lynch and Shanahan hitting on a single draft pick. The front office made several steps over the off-season that are coming together:

  • Getting rid of Trent Brown (6’8”, 380)

The huge tackle is an excellent pass blocker. But run blocking, especially on Shanahan’s outside zone runs? No. PFF actually highlighted one of his blocks on an OZR in Week 1 as a block of the week, but the tape shows his problem. He’s barely mobile and basically just shoves a defender to the ground. That’s great if he happens to be in perfect position to shove, but a lot of defenders will just run around him.

  • Drafting RT Mike McGlinchey

It was hard to get excited about drafting an offensive lineman not named Quenton Nelson, but the move looks smarter every game, even if it felt like eating your vegetables. (Dessert will be drafting a bruising running back as the final piece of a championship team, but that will probably be 2 or 3 years from now.)

McGlinchey — should we call him Mr. Glinch? I can’t tell if that’s a great nickname or a terrible one — had a rough Week 1, thrown into the guard position (which he had never played before) on short notice due to multiple in-game injuries, but the fact that the coaches even considered doing that shows how much faith they have in the rookie.

After a much stronger game against Detroit, PFF ranked the 49ers’ line as the 6th best in the league and wrote:

“...the former Notre Dame standout was back to his best at right tackle against the Lions. McGlinchey allowed only two hurries on 36 pass-block snaps and was the seventh highest-graded tackle of the week. Here’s to hoping there are no more position switches forced upon him in the near future.”

  • Signing C Weston Richburg in free agency

The Niners paid a lot of money to sign the free agent center, especially since the New York Giants simply let him walk, after leaking word that they “considered him a bust.” That may have been a bargaining tactic — hoping to sign him back cheaper — that backfired, though.

The New York Daily News is in despair over the Giant’s offensive line after all their changes.

The futility of Pat Shurmur’s offense is most jarring, of course, with Manning checking down all of his passes even when he has time, and the offensive line proving ill-equipped to handle even the simplest pass rush ploys, surrendering six sacks.

Four of those sacks were in the first half, against the Cowboys’ mediocre DL.

Different players fit differently on different teams, of course. (Otherwise no one would ever trade.) Richburg’s mobility makes more sense in a mobile, zone-blocking scheme like Shanahan’s. But it looks like the Giants may have outsmarted themselves.

It’s still possible that the 49ers overpaid, hoping to achieve the instant improvement that Shanahan got in Atlanta by signing Alex Mack as a free agent. But for now, the Niners are well under the salary cap and Richbug is a big improvement. NFL.com singled out McGlinchey and Richburg as big contributors in naming the 49ers as a top 5 offensive line for Week 2.

  • Signing FA Alfred Morris

How great of a last-minute pickup was Alfred Morris? The veteran running back knows coach Shanahan’s system from their time together in Washington and adds some size, at one inch taller and 32 pounds heavier than speedster Matt Breida, as well as pass catching ability.

He’s not a dominating back at this point in his career by any stretch, but for a guy to sign off the street when your starting RB goes down for the year, he’s at the very least the football equivalent of a thrift shop score. Mike Person was a good value pickup, too.

It’s easy to second-guess the player acquisitions of Shanahan and Lynch. And since they’re both new at their jobs, they will definitely make mistakes.

But so far they have worked together very effectively to implement Shanahan’s vision of a perfectly multiple offense, where any play could be a run or a pass, and every skill player is a risk to carry the ball on every play. Even the best defenses have weak links, and this approach gives Shanahan the ability to scheme his skill players right at those weak links.

Play-action works both ways. The run threat opens up the passing attack, but the threat of going deep also holds off the linebackers and discourages run blitzes. As Kyle Shanahan gets the players he wants, this offense will get tighter and tighter.