Since Jim Harbaugh took the reigns of the San Francisco 49ers in 2011, the main staple of the offense has been the running game. The 49ers rushed for over 2,000 yards in both 2011 (2044) and 2012 (2491). They averaged an outstanding 5.1 yards per carry last year which was third best in the league behind only the Washington Redskins and Minnesota Vikings. So far this season, whether it has been by design or because of what the game dictated, that run first philosophy has been ineffective and, at times, abandoned all together.
In the first two games of 2013, 49er running backs have carried the ball 38 times for only 81 yards (2.1 yards per carry). They showed more of a commitment to the run in Week 1 than they did in Week 2 but the results were not what the team is used to. Not counting scrambles or runs by quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers ran 27 times for 68 yards for an average of 2.5 yards per carry in the season’s opening game. Take away a 23 yard run by Kendall Hunter and they only gained 45 yards over 26 attempts which is 1.7 yards per carry. They were especially dismal against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 2, only getting 11 attempts for 13 yards. While Frank Gore seemed like an after thought in the offense with only nine carries, Hunter rarely even saw the field which was perplexing. He got the ball one time and was hit immediately for a seven yard loss.
One theory on why the 49ers are struggling to find their form is that they have attempted so many of their runs from the shotgun formation. While they were effective running the ball from that formation last season, they simply have not appeared comfortable in 2013. With a big, mauling offensive line, it might be best if the 49ers lined up with Kaepernick under center a little more moving forward as they attempt to get Gore and company going.
Another reason why it’s so important to start running effectively is, despite his talents, Kaepernick is still a young quarterback and prone to struggles (as was the case in week 2 at Seattle). Kaepernick appeared to be as jittery in the pocket as anyone has ever seen him against the Seahawks and he seemed to play rushed and missed receivers. An example of this was on a third down play in the third quarter with the 49ers down 12-0. The team was inside the five yard line and ran an empty backfield set. Kaepernick had rookie Quinton Patton wide open in the right side of the end zone but never saw him, instead throwing an incomplete pass in the other direction. That play could have made it a one score game but instead the 49ers settled for a field goal and never retained any momentum.
While the 29-3 final score was lopsided, the 49ers were still in the game with the Seahawks well into the third quarter. Although they were not gaining much on their runs, it may have helped them to keep grinding out rushing attempts anyway in an effort to pound on the Seahawk defensive front. Instead, pass play after pass play allowed the Seattle front seven to pin their ears back and keep coming after Kaepernick.
In all likelihood, the 49ers will return to the power running offense that made them so successful sooner rather than later. Their is too much talent on the offensive line and too many good running backs on their roster for them to keep faltering. The situation bears watching, however, as the team transitions into the Kaepernick era.
Photo Credit: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
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