The 49ers Run Game is Looking Dangerous Once Again

The 49ers appear to be back. After a 3-5 start, they’ve won three straight games, scoring more than 30 points in each and averaging 178.3 yards per game on the ground. If the Niners go anywhere this season, it will be on the strength of Kyle Shanahan’s rushing attack, which was rolling on all cylinders in Week 12 against the Vikings.

The game plan in this one was to stretch Minnesota’s defense sideline-to-sideline. The 49ers created some big plays by both attacking the perimeter and taking advantage of cutback lanes. They also generated steady offense with motion and misdirection.

On their first touchdown drive, Shanahan attacked the perimeter with a toss to the right. Focus on linebacker Nick Vigil (#59) sprinting to the sideline to try and scrape over the top and get to running back Elijah Mitchell. That, and Mitchell doing a good job of pressing the hole to get the defense to flow right, opened up the cutback:

On the very next play, Shanahan attacked the outside again with wide receiver Deebo Samuel aligned in the backfield. Here, the 49ers motioned running back Jeffrey Wilson (#22) across the formation before the snap to get a 5-on-5 to the right of the center, allowing Samuel to get to the perimeter. Watch linebacker Nick Vigil again (the would-be 6th defender here). He was a little slower to get to the edge on this one after over-pursuing on the previous play. Samuel was able to speed past him down the sideline:

The 49ers forced the Vikings to defend the run sideline-to-sideline for 60 minutes.

One of the key elements of the Niners’ rushing attack is their use of all skill players in the run game (whether they get the ball or not). Shanahan uses everyone at his disposal on shifts, motion, and misdirection to manipulate the defense. The below play is a great example.

First, notice how wide receiver Deebo Samuel motioned across the formation, getting Minnesota linebackers to shift to the motion side:

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

But then Deebo changed directions and went into orbit motion behind the running back:

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

However, since Samuel had still not crossed the center by the time the ball was snapped, linebacker Anthony Barr (#55), did not shift back to his initial position:

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

The run action, including the fullback, initially went to the offense’s right. This got most of the defense to flow in that direction as well:

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

However, Samuel’s motion going back to the offense’s left pulled safety Harrison Smith (#22) to the outside. That created the cutback lane:

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

As it turned out, this was a designed cutback as fullback Kyle Juszczyk used counter-lead action, starting to the right before moving back to the left and pinning the defensive end inside:

Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

Because of his alignment at the snap and the initial run action, linebacker Anthony Barr (#55) got caught in the wash and pinned in the middle as well:

Shanahan was able to use motion to successfully manipulate the defense, create a hole in their alignment, and then attack it. No one in the NFL does that better than him.

The Vikings didn’t seem to know what was coming on the ground all afternoon. In the 3rd quarter, Deebo Samuel again burned them for another big run to the outside:

But Shanahan wasn’t done tormenting the Vikings with his motion and misdirection:

On that play, you had gap scheme blocking up front, a fake jet sweep to a wide receiver, counter action in the backfield, a crack-back block by a wide receiver, and a tight end pulling across the formation opposite the jet sweep. From the defense’s perspective, this run could have gone in a number of different directions.

The 49ers ultimately racked up 208 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns on 39 carries. The running game is returning to 2019 form.

Hopefully, Deebo Samuel’s injury doesn’t keep him sidelined for too long, because he has become a key cog in the 49ers’ rushing attack of late. In their last 3 games, he’s run the ball 19 times for 181 yards and 4 touchdowns. But as you could see above, he can impact the defense even when he doesn’t touch the ball.

The Niners are peaking at the right time. Don’t be surprised to see them start to make some noise in the NFC.