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It’s a perplexing thing, the 49ers run game. The bread-and-butter of Jim Harbaugh’s offenses in his first three years with the team has seemed more like a stale piece of toast for much of this season.
San Francisco finished each of the last three regular seasons with more than 2,000 rushing yards and a Top 4 ranking in 2012 and 2013. The 49ers averaged 155.7 ypg and 137.6 ypg, respectively, in those years.
The 49ers will be hard pressed to top the 2,000 mark this year -- not with a 114.8 ypg average for 1,378 total rushing yards through 12 games.
Still, the ground attack remains the strength of the 49ers offense as the passing game has yet to find any footing. The 49ers currently rank twelfth in the NFL in rushing. They need to tap into the assets they have in that area to have any shot at the playoffs.
"No drastic measures need to happen," tight end Vance McDonald said after Monday’s practice as the team prepared for the Raiders. “We have the weapons to execute. We have the players to get it done. We know we can get it done. We just kind of get lost every now and then.”
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McDonald grades as one of the Top 3 run-blocking tight ends in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. Left tackle Joe Staley and left guard Mike Iupati rank among the Top 3 in run blocking for their respective positions as well. Overall, only Baltimore and Philadelphia are graded as better run-blocking teams than San Francisco at this point in the season.
That seems to defy logic for a team that has been held to under 85 yards rushing in five games, has dealt with instability on the right side of the line, has had a change at center, and has had all of its tight ends miss games due to injuries. McDonald himself has missed four, including the last two.
“I don’t think that has anything to do with it,” McDonald said. “We just gotta get back on track and get our heads to where they need to be, and that’s to win football games. We’re capable of doing that.”
At various points of the season, several players have pointed to a simple lack of execution for their struggles in the run game.
“Week in and week out, no matter what the look is, no matter what the play is, I definitely think that there’s been some breakdowns,” fullback Bruce Miller said. “When you have 11 guys counting on each other, if you have a breakdown, even if it’s one guy each play, it causes negative plays and that’s what we've had a lot of lately.”
Another factor: Opponents easily recognize the 49ers tendencies and are prepared for them. Frank Gore has been held to under 40 yards in five games this season, including only 10 yards on six carries against Arizona in Week 3. It’s his lowest output since Seattle held him to nine yards on seven carries in the final regular season game of 2011.
“Defenses adjust and we've seen that as we've tried to do some similar things, maybe even being a little bit repetitive. Giving them the same looks,” Miller said. “That's what we've tried to get away from -- doing the same things. Because we've found ourselves struggling and stalling.”
“With the motions and things like that, we tried to get reactions from the defense and figure out what we’re playing against and getting man-zone keys. That’s what a lot of that’s for. We’re not really looking to trick people. Now, we have caused confusion with defenses by adjusting, moving and shifting. Yeah, I think that’s gone, creating the confusion. We're not exactly getting the reaction we expect from defenses. I think that’s caused some error on our part.”
Miller added the 49ers run game will have to evolve over the final four games with the players working better together if they are to have any chance of reaching the playoffs. The belief is there that those things will happen.
“No doubt we have the coaches and the staff to get it done,” McDonald said. “We are going to get our heads back where they need to be and focused, and we're going to approach Oakland this week with the right mindset.”