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What’s wrong with the 49ers running game?

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It’s not on one person

San Francisco 49ers v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The San Francisco 49ers are evolving on offense. Jimmy Garoppolo had thrown the ball over 37 times in each of the past three games. Before this stretch, Garoppolo only had thrown the ball more than 30 times in a game twice this season. That evolution may not be by choice, though. Here is a look at the running game from the offense against the Carolina Panthers compared to the past three games:

49ers rushing yards vs. Panthers: 38 rushes for 232 yards, five touchdowns, ten rushing first downs. Three games since: 77 rushes for 222 yards, 0 touchdowns, eight rushing first downs.

Coming into the first game against Arizona, the 49ers were running the ball on 64% of their first downs. San Francisco’s divisional opponents have come prepared to stop the run on early downs. ESPN’s Bill Barnwell said the Cardinals ran eight men or more into the box on eight of San Francisco’s 19 running plays Sunday; that 42.1% rate was the fourth-highest in the league. Arizona and Seattle have middle of the pack run defenses. So what has been the reason for the struggle? It’s impossible and unfair to pin the offenses struggle.

Finding the reasons

The obvious answer is George Kittle. His versatility as a blocker, paired with Kyle Juszczyk, gave the 49ers the most dynamic and diverse rushing offense in the NFL the first two months of the season. Without Kittle, Ross Dwelley has filled in admirably, but there’s no replacing Kittle. When you lose a blocker like Kittle that can execute on the move or as an inline blocker, you lose the ability to call different types of runs. Let’s go back to the Carolina game when Tevin Coleman had a 22-yard run on a stretch zone play:

Luke Kuechly is one of the best linebackers in football, and Kittle drives him and throws Kuechly to the ground like he’s a middle-schooler.

Aside from Kittle, we don’t see runs like above out of shotgun, or much of any misdirection. The offense seemed to run more misdirection against Carolina than they did in the past three games.

The offensive line isn’t dominating in the way they did to begin the season. Arizona had 26 tackles that were “stops” against the 49ers on Sunday. Let’s review the first three runs of the game:

The first run of the game is a toss play to Coleman. Tomlinson gets pushed back a couple of yards into the backfield. Juice overruns the middle linebacker, and he makes a tackle for one.

On the second run, play is a draw to Mostert, and McGlinchey gets pushed into the hole, Tomlinson gets thrown to the side, and his man makes a tackle for a gain of three.

The third run play is “Wanda sift,” which is Shanahan’s bread and butter, a weak-side zone run play. On this play, Garrett Celek gets beaten, which forces Juice to pick up his man. The guy that Juice was supposed to block is now free to tackle Mostert. For good measure, Mike McGlinchey misses two blocks on one play, and his man assists with the tackle.

See the theme here? The running backs may be able to avoid players in the open-field, but if you can’t get to the open-field, that doesn’t matter.

Another part is not getting in good looks. Here’s Kyle Shanahan from Monday’s press conference:

You mentioned yesterday against the Cardinals that they were loading the box and making it tough for you guys to run the ball. Seattle did something similar. How do you diagnose the inability to find a rhythm or the effectiveness of the rushing game?

”You know, we didn’t have a lot of great looks yesterday, and when we did, I thought we just had one guy short. When you don’t have a lot of good looks, when you do have a good opportunity, you better hit a long one. When we had our few opportunities at a long one, they ended up being about a two-yard gain. We just had one guy that didn’t get blocked, or we just got tripped up, so when you have that, it can be pretty drastically bad. It was just kind of a situation where I definitely got away from it as a play-caller. We started throwing the ball well. They started softening up a lot, which I think got our screen game going a lot. I think that was the first game that we really had to get away from the run or made the decision to get away from the run. It ended up working out for us.”

The 49ers love using motion, and that has given them a numbers advantage in the running game. The draw play I mentioned above was one of those runs that had a chance, but once Celek was beaten off the snap, a domino effect followed.

What’s the solution

Shanahan found an in-game solution: throw the ball. Looking at run/pass splits doesn’t tell the entire story. When you hear analysts mention “balance,” they never talk about the check-down throws, which are higher percentage run plays. To me, balance is using the entire field. Jimmy Garoppolo did just that on Sunday. He was 26/30 under ten yards but used the left, middle, and right parts of the field.

Another key part of play-calling is not giving up on play-action. The biggest myth in football is that you need to be successful in running the ball for play-action to work. That’s proven to be false. Garoppolo was 10-11, 151 yards, one touchdown, and had a 149.1 passer rating when using play-action against Arizona.

A healthy Matt Breida will make a difference. You don’t see him get tripped up. You do see Breida avoid tackles in the backfield and turn those two-yard runs into 12-yard gains.

When your top running back and blocker return from injury, your ground game is going to improve. I imagine we’ll see more diverse runs like the first two months of the season. I don’t think we’re at the point of panic, but it’s tough to ignore a Shanahan offense struggling on the ground. Green Bay is 25th in DVOA when it comes to stopping the run. The Packers may be just what the doctor ordered to get the 49ers back on track.