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Kyle Shanahan delivers on his promise to help 49ers find their identity

San Francisco’s head coach is going back to his squad’s bread and butter.

Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The San Francisco 49ers were a team without an identity after the embarrassing Week 5 loss to the Miami Dolphins. The Niners’ offense looked like a shell of the version we saw in 2019.

Head coach Kyle Shanahan’s scheme is predicated on having a strong running game and San Francisco rediscovered its rushing mojo in a Week 6 victory over the Los Angeles Rams. After the win, Shanahan acknowledged that numbers show just how effective his team is when it focuses on running the ball down the opponent’s throat.

“Usually when you run the ball over 30 times, I think you do win. I think we’re ... I want to say we’re like 11-0, I think, when we’ve done that,” Shanahan said. “I know someone can get the stats, but I think we’re undefeated when we’ve done that. Whenever we’ve had less than 20, I don’t know if we’ve won or our record’s like 5-12 or something like that.”

The 49ers backfield hasn’t escaped the injury bug that has ravaged the roster early in this season. The team’s top two running backs — Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman — were out for the Week 7 matchup against the New England Patriots, leaving the Niners with two undrafted free agents and Jerick McKinnon as their potential starters.

Shanahan decided to roll with Jeff Wilson Jr., who was dealing with an injury early last week.

“The plan was to rest Jet (McKinnon) a little bit with how much he’s gotten the last few weeks, so we were going to go with (JaMycal) Hasty or Jeff (Wilson) depending on their health,” Shanahan said. “Jeff showed in practice that was healthy enough to go, got cleared and it was a pretty easy decision.”

Wilson put on a show in the first half, rushing for 92 yards and two touchdowns, showing San Francisco is back to what made it so successful last season. Wilson and the 49ers torched New England’s run defense, leaving the unit confused and helpless.

The 24-year-old Wilson ran like a man possessed each time the ball was in his hands. When he wasn’t making defenders miss with his agility, he was using his power to run through them, something his teammates love to see.

Tight end George Kittle spoke about how the running back goes into a dark place before games, something he doesn’t see from Wilson on practice days.

“You can tell he’s angry, he attacks it, he wants contact, he delivers pain, it’s awesome,” Kittle said. “You can just see it in his eyes, totally different person. The way he runs, it’s crazy, I love being on the field with Jeff Wilson.”

San Francisco went on to an easy 33-6 blowout win over the Pats. The 49ers finished the afternoon with 197 yards on the ground, averaging 5.3 yards per carry.

Unfortunately for the Niners, Wilson suffered what appears to be a high-ankle sprain after scoring his third touchdown of the game midway through the third quarter. He finished the night with 120 total yards and three scores.

The hope is that Wilson’s injury won’t keep him out for an extended period. But, if it does, Hasty will get his chance to shine in the upcoming showdown against the NFC West-leading Seattle Seahawks.

Regardless of who starts at running back on Sunday in Seattle, Shanahan has refocused his offense’s energy to the run game. The 49ers have had 37 rushing attempts in back-to-back contests, both of which were wins.

San Francisco made it to the Super Bowl through its rushing attack and stingy defense last season, an identity it took six weeks to rediscover in 2020.

“When you play the defense the way our guys have been playing, running the ball like we have been, just how physical our all our guys have been playing, every play seems like the last play for our guys,” Shanahan said. “I’m just very impressed with the character of our guys individually, which adds up collectively.”