I began to work on this piece before the Jerick McKinnon injury. Neither McKinnon or Matt Breida showed anything this preseason to really wow me. You would read practice reports every other day about how explosive everyone was, but then when the lights came on the preseason, they all seemed to be wearing concrete shoes. Then everyone got hurt.
Enter Alfred Morris, signed halfway through the preseason in what seemed to be an after thought. I always liked Morris, even from his Washington days. Back then I knew nothing about Kyle Shannan, outside of the fact that he was the son of a great coach and coordinator. I knew Morris as a solid back out of Florida Atlantic University, a school about 90 miles north of my hometown of Miami. He played well at the small school and eventually was drafted.
In comparing the running backs, Morris is a total change from what we would call a “Kyle Shanahan back.” At least if we solely looked at his measurables. He’s short, and ran a 4.67 forty yard dash at the NFL Combine. We had defensive lineman hitting that number this year. The film says otherwise. Morris is shifty, he runs with purpose and doesn’t chop his feet. He’s fast and hard to tackle. His career pales in comparison to Frank Gore, but their styles are similar. Gore wasn’t seen as a burner out of the University of Miami, but how many times did we see Gore out-running defensive backs on Sunday? Here’s another off the wall comparison: Emmitt Smith. In no way am I saying Alfred Morris is destined for first ballot Hall of Fame honors. I’m simply comparing the way they pick up their feet and put them down. The way they get small though the holes, and then explode into the secondary. It’s poetry in motion.
Now that I’ve turned all of you against me, let’s go to the film.
To start, several things went right for Morris’ debut. The Colts for one, aren’t that solid of a defensive front. To add, the tackling from their secondary has been an issue since Bob Sanders was released in 2011. On the 49ers side of things, the offensive line found their mojo. The unit performed better with each passing week. I have clips where the blocking was on point. I have clips where it still needs work. Either way, it worked out for Morris, and gave him a chance to really put his skill set on display.
This first clip is an example of Morris’ vision and burst. I paused the film at every missed tackle. There were three defenders you could say got a hand on Morris, but he often runs through arm tackles. He has that “always falls forward” lean to him, and is hardly ever driven backwards. This clip shows a clear whiff by the offensive line (Come on, Joe Staley). When these situations happened to Joe Williams, or even McKinnon, they would often chop their feet, or try to change the direction of the play. They aren’t “veterans” in the running back sense. Alfred Morris has probably seen defensive tackles blow by guards for over six years now. He doesn’t even flinch on this play. He runs right by the guy, then proceeds to split two more defenders, and lastly runs through another arm tackle before he’s brought down. I know the reaction by everyone watching this first play of the game was, “wow this guy might be pretty good.”
This next clip is a designed cutback run. The play starts to the top of the screen only to have Morris cut back against the grain on purpose. Unlike when this is done naturally, the fullback who started outside, comes back around to lead Morris through the hole. We can see right at the snap, center Weston Richburg is having some trouble with the defensive tackle. Morris again calmly side steps the guy and goes to work. Big ups to Staley getting almost ten yards down field redeeming himself. Even still Morris breaks several tackles on his way to another big run. Watch his feet during these runs, no wasted steps. Everything is north and south, and as usual he always falls forward.
Our next clips shows how Morris will continue to overcome the offensive lines issues. I think he excels at setting up blocks and his vision is great. As he approaches the handoff here, he already sees the defensive end squeezed past Laken Tomlinson, the left guard. What we saw from other backs is they would take the hand off at the same approach angle, then try to use their speed to get outside. It’s subtle but Morris instead changes his angle of approach, takes the hand off closer to Jimmy Garoppolo, hesitates, and then wiggles past the defenders. I had to rewind it for you guys and play it back at game speed because you hardly notice it until you slow down the tape. These are the things I feel the other backs couldn’t do when the blocking broke down.
Let’s get into my next point, great offensive line play and blocking. Again, not sure how much of this is related to the game three “gel” of the offensive line, or simply the Colts being the Colts, but in these next few clips Morris isn’t often touched until he’s several yards past the line of scrimmage. On this next play specifically, it’s another designed cutback, but this time it’s the tight end coming around to lead the running back. Morris isn’t touch until he’s already gained close to ten yards.
This next clip is textbook stretch run left. The five offensive lineman moving in unison, not allowing penetration and getting to the second level. The fullback running wide for the kick out block. The running back making one cut off that block and gaining yards, it’s all here. Morris shows good patience and rides Kyle Juszczyk’s hip until the time is right. It looks like Morris is going to be taken down right at the line, but he manages to slither past the defenders for an additional five yards.
This next play is another clinic courtesy of our offensive line. Similar play to the clip above, but this one is to the right. Also instead of a fullback lead, we have two tight ends on each side, a variation of an Ace formation. Some also call it “12” personnel. Morris seriously isn’t touched until he’s 12 yards down the field. Once wrapped up he carries the defender for another 3 yards as he burrows through the crowd for more.
Our last clip shows Morris take a draw and turn it into a positive gain given the down and distance. I read a lot online about how Morris will be a limitation in the passing game, and some don’t consider him an every down back. I didn’t add any pauses or anything in this clip, I just wanted everyone to see how smooth he cuts and sets up defenders. He then, in usual fashion, takes on the tackle and falls forward for a few more yards. It’s 2nd and 17. We’re in shotgun, “Morris can’t catch” apparently, so no one is expecting a run here. He manages to gain 10 yards, and save this drive, just how Morris will save this season.
Alfred Morris is the beneficiary of several factors here in San Francisco. He’s fresh, playing a limited role the past two seasons. He only saw significant action in Dallas when Ezekiel Elliot was suspended. The system is one he knows and excels in. As everyone has said, Morris’ best seasons were in Washington, with Shanahan calling the plays. The offensive line, while not perfect, is the best it’s been all off season.
If these factors can continue to run true during the season, I could see Morris having a big year. He could easily surpass 800 yards on the ground. Most teams probably won’t even game plan for him, they will be too preoccupied with Jimmy G and his “weapons” or Kyle and his “scheme” to even think twice about a 29-year old running back who’s apparently over the hill. This scenario has so many factors that simply give Morris an advantage, and that is why I feel he will excel. What do you think? Go Niners!