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49ers’ film room: San Francisco’s running attack leads the way for a top-five offense

With Kyle Shanahan’s play design and the 49ers’ offensive line’s protection, the running game continues to thrive

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Running back Jerick McKinnon went down before the season began. Tailback Tevin Coleman was out after Week 1. It didn’t matter for head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense as the 49ers possess the fourth-best rushing attack in the NFL, behind the Ravens, Vikings, and Cowboys.

The difference between those teams and San Francisco? The Vikings and Cowboys employ elite, highly-drafted running backs and the Ravens’ quarterback is a dual-threat player. San Francisco has been able to gain 175 yards per game on the ground with undrafted free agents running every snap.

Shanahan didn’t let that slow his offense down against the Steelers this past weekend, as the 49ers rushed for 168 yards on 40 attempts, including two touchdowns on the ground. San Francisco’s rushing offense features a three-headed monster, with running back Matt Breida as the workhorse, tailback Raheem Mostert as the change-of-pace, speedier player and halfback Jeff Wilson Jr. as the goal-line power rusher.

Re-watching Sunday’s matchup between the Steelers and 49ers, it became evident that between the play design, blocking along the offensive line and the running backs’ vision, the rushing attack was in great hands.

In this first play, wideout Marquise Goodwin comes across the formation, and it takes Steelers’ defender Bud Dupree out of the play, allowing the 49ers to run to the right side of the offensive line. Guard Laken Tomlison pulls and puts a huge block on edge defender T.J. Watt, tight end George Kittle stuffs defensive end Stephon Tuitt and fullback Kyle Juszczyk stops rookie Devin Bush in his tracks. That allows Breida to make a move for a five-yard gain.

This next play demonstrates the vision of Breida and the use of his stutter step to be able to gain an extra few yards. Kittle stumbles on this play and doesn’t get a good block on his defender, and Breida is still able to sneak through for a six-yard gain.

The right side of the 49ers’ offensive line continues to be awesome. Right tackle Mike McGlinchey and right guard Mike Person get out in front and create a highway-sized lane for Breida to run through, freeing him up for an eight-yard gain.

But, not all plays create positive yards. In this instance, Goodwin runs a jet sweep, but that doesn’t draw Dupree away from the play. Tomlinson misses his block, and suddenly Breida swallowed in the backfield by two Steelers’ defender for no gain on the play.

It doesn’t matter who’s in the backfield for the 49ers. Now with Mostert lined up behind quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, Tomlinson puts a huge block on Watt, Juszczyk lead blocks and clears the way. The fake with Goodwin fools linebacker Mark Barron and Mostert has a hole for a nine-yard gain.

Steelers play zone defense on this next play, with the safeties lined up 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Wideout Richie James runs across the formation and Barron follows, taking him out of the play. Watt rushes upfield, and suddenly Mostert has a lot of green grass in front of him.

Goodwin once is again is a perfect decoy on this play, pulling a Steelers’ defender to the weak-side of the formation. Tomlinson and Juszczyk once again make pivotal blocks that opens up the path for a 19-yard gain.

Unfortunately, with Mostert, one of the issues is his fumbling. On Sunday, there were two fumbles and here’s the first one. As Garoppolo pitches the ball back to the 49ers’ running back, Mostert’s eyes look up to the blockers upfield before he secures the ball and suddenly it’s a goose chase for the loose ball.

On this play, Steelers bring their newly-acquired safety Minkah Fitzpatrick on a slot blitz, fooling the 49ers’ offense. Juszczyk recognizes the blitz at the last moment and nudges Fitzpatrick to the side, allowing Breida to sneak through for 10 yards.

While the result of the play was a fumble, the hole created by the 49ers’ offensive line in this play is so giant that anyone can run through it. Mostert makes one cut and is firing through the hole. However, he loses control of the ball at the end of the play.

On this touchdown play, the 49ers bring a wide receiver across the formation, and Deebo Samuel freezes the Steelers’ edge defender on this play. Tomlinson and Juszczyk provide solid blocking once again, and Wilson can find the gap for a touchdown.

While McGlinchey has been an absolute stud at right tackle, I’m not exactly sure what he’s doing on this play. The 49ers’ right tackle blows by the Steelers’ defender, and suddenly Heyward’s in the backfield stuffing Wilson in his tracks and the 49ers don’t gain a yard on the play.