The San Francisco 49ers have taken the league by storm this season. The Kyle Shanahan-John Lynch project has finally gotten off the ground following two long disappointing seasons. Although the Niners did struggle the previous two seasons, avid watchers of the NFL could see that there was something special brewing in Santa Clara.
It’s safe to say that the potential the Niners showed the previous two years is finally being realised. The 49ers are currently 5-0 thanks to a combination of a violent yet cultured running game, a suffocating defence featuring 4 former first round picks along the defensive line and the borderline genius play-calling of Kyle Shanahan.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the key component of the 49ers success on offence this season- the run game.
Week Five vs The Cleveland Browns: Matt Breida, 83 Yard Touchdown
What better way to start Monday Night Football than an 83 yard touchdown on the first offensive play of the game. Here we see the Niners lined up in i-formation with 21 personnel, 2 running-backs and 1 tight-end. The key to this play is the counter concept. The entire offence shifts to the right side of the field and at the last second, FB Kyle Juszsyck cuts in unison with HB Matt Breida to the open side of the field.
Browns rookie linebacker bites hard on the fake to the right and is blocked out of the play by LG Laken Tomlinson. Juszsyck and Kittle deliver two perfect seals to the outside and Breida has one man to beat, Browns safety Demarious Randall. Breida does so with ease, hitting a speed of 22.3 miles per hour.
Not many teams in the NFL can have their full-back swivel their hips with the running back with such fluidity. Shanahan takes full advantage of Juszsyck’s skill-set to run this play to perfection. This play is as much a highlight of Juszsyck as it is Breida’s.
Week Five vs Cleveland: Tevin Coleman, 19 yard touchdown
Sticking with the Browns game, the Niners continued their dominance by going up 21-3 just before half-time. This play stresses San Francisco’s depth in the backfield. Tevin Coleman had his most successful season under Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta, Coleman turned down the possibility of more money elsewhere in order to play for Shanahan again. This is the reason why.
This time, Jimmy Garoppolo receives the ball out of shotgun, rather than under-centre. The Niners are in 12 personnel with George Kittle split out-wide to the right. We see some minor pre-snap movement (a staple of the Shanahan offence), due to Kittle being out wide and Coleman’s threat as a reciever out of the backfield, the defence is immediately thinking screen or a swing pass to the right. You can even see Browns middle linebacker Joe Schobert signal to the right and shift his body by half and inch. This gives Coleman the half a yard needed to finish the run and score, instead of being tackled on the goal-line by Schobert.
Take notice of the 49ers offensive line, outside of tackles Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey, this o-line was relatively unknown. However, with McGlinchey and Staley missing time, the inside of the o-line has risen to the challenge and become on the best units in the NFL. The hustle and get-off LG Laken Tomlinson and C Weston Richburg show here is elite. Mike Person #68 does a great job of sealing the A Gap here as well.
Once again, this is an example of Kyle Shanahan and the Niners showing the defence a different look and executing out of it. Unpredictability is a key concept at the heart of the Shanahan offence, that’s why all three of his running backs and his full back can catch, his tight end can block and his receivers have fantastic YAC ability.
Week Two @ Cincinnati: Matt Breida, 34 yard highlight run
Whereas the previous two runs were largely sprung out of Shanahan’s scheming and pre-snap contributions, this piece of film highlights Breida’s talent as a runner. All game long the Niners were gashing the Bengals with the run game. San Fran finished the game with 259 rushing yards (whilst missing Tevin Coleman.) That was in part due to scheme, but we have to appreciate and take into account the talent the 49ers possess at the running back position.
Once again, the Niners are lined up in a different set, 13 personnel with Kittle, Levine Toilolo and Juszsyck on the line of scrimmage. This is a fairly simple play called by Shanahan, just a run to the left designed to get 5-10 yards at most and keep the chains moving. However, the play breaks down and we see the talent of Matt Breida. Instead of putting his head down and taking the yards the Bengals D gives him, Breida keeps his head up, navigates the pile and explodes right juking the Bengals defender out of his shoes. The fluidity of the former UDFA’s hips is Barry Sanders-like.
As well as having one of the best coaches in the NFL calling the plays, the Niners have extreme talent coming out of the backfield. As much as the first piece of film in this article displays Shanahan’s skill as a run game play-caller, this play shows the 49ers running backs skill as pure runners.
Week Four vs Pittsburgh: Raheem Mostert, 10 yard run
Whereas the previous three plays were highlight plays, I felt it was necessary to show a different type of film. Here we see the Niners at a 3rd & 15 in the red zone against a Steelers D that forced 5 turnovers in this game. The Niners are lined up in our fourth different formation, 11 personnel with the receivers lining up closer to the line of scrimmage. The Steelers have matched the Niners personnel and are in Tampa 2 nickel, so there’s only two linebackers on the field.
As the ball is snapped, speedy WR Richie James swings out right trying to spread out the defence and make them think pass. The Niners do achieve this to a certain extent, linebacker Mark Barron follows James and leaves the box, opening space for Raheem Mostert to run in to. An amazing little niche on this play- George Kittle is one-on-one blocking T.J. Watt, Kittle does a great job here, damn near blocking Watt out of the play. Just goes to show how well rounded of a player George Kittle is.
The Niners had no right to get a first down or even a touchdown on this play, but they almost do. If Goodwin #11 does a better job of blocking downfield then maybe Mostert scores here.
The San Francisco 49ers are 5-0. Down their starting LT, starting RT and FB. Missing these three key components of the run game, the Niners ran for 99 yards against Aaron Donald and had two touchdowns on the ground. The next real test for the 49ers will be at home against that Carolina defensive front in Week Eight. If the Niners are to fully realise their potential and reach the playoffs, or even go deep in the playoffs, then this running game will be at the centre of that success.