The San Francisco 49ers are largely viewed as a running team. During the regular season, they had the second-highest run rate on offense and they just clinched a Super Bowl berth thanks to 285 rushing yards against the Green Bay Packers.
It could be argued exactly how effective the 49ers’ ground game was overall; despite being run-heavy, San Francisco wasn’t among the most efficient rushing offenses in the league. The 49ers used a well-schemed running game and routinely benefitted from a lead, which allowed them to run as much as they did. Of course, when it’s working the 49ers have no problem keeping the ball on the ground like they did in the NFC Championship Game.
Kyle Shanahan on why #49ers had 42 runs and eight passes: “Because it was working.”
— Eric Branch (@Eric_Branch) January 20, 2020
But when the 49ers run the ball, they’re not just trying to establish it. San Francisco has a variety of run looks and each attempt is trying to accomplish something and take advantage of defensive weakness. Running backs, especially Raheem Mostert, have gotten much of the attention, but there might not be a better team at using receivers and tight ends in the running game — as ball carriers — than the 49ers.
Per Sports Info Solutions charting, the 49ers had the third-most rushing attempt from wide receivers and tight ends (22) behind the Los Angeles Rams (31) and Carolina Panthers (31). While that is an incredibly small sample of runs over the course of a season, they were incredibly effective. During the regular season, San Francisco had negative Expected Points Added on their running back rushing plays, but led the league with positive EPA on WR/TE rushing plays.
49ers runs by position, 2019
|Position||Attempts||EPA||Positive Play %|
Much of San Francisco’s wide receiver run game goes through Deebo Samuel, who had 14 carries during the regular season and led all wide receivers with 159 rushing yards. The wide receiver run has become a regular part of the 49ers’ offense. Samuel has at least one rushing attempt in every game since Week 13, including a carry in the Divisional Round and two against the Packers in the NFC Championship Game.
The wide receiver run game is just as diverse as the rest of the running game, which keeps defenses from keying in on the runs. It also helps that the 49ers lead the league in pre-snap motion and having Samuel in motion before a snap does not give away a play.
San Francisco’s favorite run with the Samuel is the end-around. It was most effective at the end of the season and the 49ers made it look a little different each time they used it. Let’s first take a look at the run in back-to-back games, Week 13 against the Baltimore Ravens and Week 14 against the New Orleans Saints.
Against the Ravens, the 49ers had a 1st and 10 at their own 25. Samuel motioned across the formation but at the snap, looped back around into the backfield for the handoff. The run is faked to the right (with the help of a pulling left guard) but Samuel took the handoff to the left and the center, right guard, and right tackle all snuck out to lead the way down the field. It was a gain of 20.
The following week, San Francisco faced a 2nd and 10 from their own 35 with a two-point lead late in the fourth quarter. The 49ers ran another end-around for Samuel, but not much else was similar to the Baltimore run. Samuel was initially lined up on the left and there was no pre-snap motion. Again, they helped sell the run to the right with a pulling guard, but the other blocking has changed. Tight end George Kittle started to the right but turned around to lead block once Samuel caught the ball. This time it’s the center (Ben Garland, 63) and the left tackle (Joe Staley, 74) who snuck out to the second level. The play is a gain of 31 and the 49ers kicked a field goal at the end of the drive.
Against the Seattle Seahawks in a de facto NFC West Championship game in Week 17, the 49ers used another end-around. This play came late in the first quarter from the Seattle 30 with San Francisco holding just a 3-0 lead. The look is close to the New Orleans run with Kyle Jusczyck playing the Kittle role with the fake and turnaround for the lead block. He took out both Shaquill Griffin and Bobby Wagner. Center Ben Garland was again a key with his sneak out from traffic all the way down the field to take out the safety. The play went for 30 yards and a touchdown.
Last week against the Packers, the 49ers flipped the play to the right side with Jusczyck, Garland, and Mike McGlinchey as the lead blockers. The play gained 32 yards.
It’s not just end-around, though. San Francisco has been successful with a number of other looks throughout the season. There was the inside handoff following pre-snap and jet motion from Emmanuel Sanders in Week 8 against the Carolina Panthers for a 20-yard touchdown.
And there was the straight handoff as a split back with Mostert against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 16. That went for a 19-yard touchdown.
The 49ers have done all of their rushing damage on first and second down this season. While first down runs are generally inefficient (and the 49ers ranked 16th overall with a positive play rate of 40% on first down), they had their most success on these handoffs on first down. Just one WR/TE rushing attempt was on third down in 2019, a two-yard loss from Kittle from the opposing 2-yard line in a rain-soaked game against Washington.
49ers WR/TE runs by down, 2019
|Down||Attempts||EPA||Positive Play %|
Kittle was a small part of the rushing attack as a ball-carrier, but was much better as a blocker. Kittle’s runs were all jet sweeps and usually had a defender waiting behind the line of scrimmage more often than the wide receiver runs. Though Kittle did have an 18-yard gain early in the season against the Cleveland Browns.
San Francisco has one of the most diverse rushing attacks in the league under Kyle Shanahan. The receiver run game is just a small part of it but the timing and execution of those plays have often led to big gains.
Given the volume, we’ll see at least one of these runs in the Super Bowl. At worst, it’s one more thing the Kansas City Chiefs will have to plan against. If done well, like so many other runs this season were, it could be one of the most impactful plays of the game.