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How should the 49ers handle the snaps at running back?

The 49ers have given Christian McCaffrey a heavy load this season.

The San Francisco 49ers swiftly defeated the Jacksonville Jaguars 34-3 on Sunday, improving to 6-3 on the season and remaining atop the NFC West over the Seattle Seahawks.

In the win, the 49ers were dominant offensively, as quarterback Brock Purdy threw for 296 yards and three touchdowns, while the team ran for 144 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries on the ground.

As usual, Christian McCaffrey was the leader for the 49ers on the ground, but he saw just 16 of the team’s 30 carries, while demanding a higher volume in the air with six catches for 47 yards on 10 targets.

Over the past four games, McCaffrey’s run totals have been lower, as the running back has battled injuries, leading him to have 11, 15, 12, and 16 carries, respectively, which are all lower than the totals he saw over the first five games of the year.

However, only this game was important, as McCaffrey had time to fully heal over the bye week, and those rushing totals were still not as high as the first few weeks of the season.

Instead, it appears the 49ers are targeting McCaffrey more in the passing game, looking to utilize him in space more rather than take the brunt of hits as a runner.

So, how did they divvy up the remainder of the carries with McCaffrey seeing only 16 of the team’s 30?

Run Distribution

Here’s the carry distribution from Sunday’s game.

Christian McCaffrey: 16 carries, 95 yards (47 total snaps)

Elijah Mitchell: 8 carries, 23 yards (17 total snaps)

Deebo Samuel: 3 carries, 29 yards, 1 touchdown (35 total snaps)

Sam Darnold: 3 carries, -3 yards (13 total snaps)

McCaffrey paced the team, but Mitchell saw a good workload with eight carries and 17 snaps on the day as the clear-cut No. 2 running back.

Samuel is primed for his few carries a game, providing the 49ers a different element out of the backfield, which led to one of the team’s touchdowns on the day.

However, there is one prominent name not on this list: Jordan Mason, who has been active every week for the 49ers, but has seen minimal to zero action thus far, playing just three snaps in Week 10, which came during garbage time.


McCaffrey has been the clear-cut No. 1 running back, and deservedly so, given how vital he has been to the team’s offensive success since being traded to San Francisco at last year’s trade deadline.

But, he’s also seen significant volume this season, leading the NFL in rushing yards and ranking third in carries, while also commanding 47 more targets in the air.

That’s why the 49ers have incorporated a second running back into the mix with Elijah Mitchell, but the results haven’t gone as anticipated; through six games this season, Mitchell has seen 30 carries and produced just 73 rushing yards, good for 2.4 yards per carry.

Meanwhile, Jordan Mason has seen 21 carries, but has rushed for 117 yards and two touchdowns, good for 5.6 yards per carry.

So, that leads to the question: why have the 49ers continued to play Mitchell at a high rate instead of Mason?

The answer: I truly don’t know.

Now, reports have circled about Mason’s pass protection issues, and it appears that the 49ers may want their backup to best resemble Christian McCaffrey and his dual-threat ability, allowing them to keep the entirety of the offensive playbook at their arsenal when their star is off the field.

But, Mason has proven to be efficient with his opportunities, and that comes with the implied understanding to defenses that the 49ers are running the football when he’s on the field.

Now, looking deeper into the statistics, there is one clear difference when it comes to the yards-per-average between the two backups.

Elijah Mitchell has only gained 1.1 yards before contact per carry, while Mason has seen 3.8 yards before contact. That implies a blocking issue for the 49ers with Mitchell on the field, as he doesn’t have enough space to work before defenders reach him, which hasn’t been the case when Mason is on the field.

Both players have similar yards after contact, with Mitchell going for 1.3 per carry and Mason seeing 1.8 per carry.

But, the fact of the matter is that Mason has been efficient with his carries, regardless, leaving questions as to why he can’t see the field more for the 49ers, even with Mitchell’s injuries.

It’s extremely tough to take Christian McCaffrey off the field for the 49ers, given how much he provides to the offense, which is why those snaps without him are integral.

Could Mason fill some of the void left by McCaffrey when off the field?