Kyle Shanahan is one of the best schematic head coaches in the NFL. There might not be a better offensive coach right now in marrying the looks of the run game with play-action passing. The San Francisco 49ers have used play-action at the sixth-highest rate in the league this season (29%) and rank fifth in yards per play when using the play fake (9.4).

But while the play-action game for the 49ers has taken off this season, the running game has gone the opposite direction as of late. While many would consider the 49ers a running team, the production on the ground has trended downwards in recent weeks. Through Week 13, the 49ers rank ninth in offensive DVOA, but that’s split between a 10th ranked passing offense and 17th ranked rushing offense.

SUPER BOWL PACKAGE
Game, Total and Props

Over San Francisco’s first six games of the season (Weeks 1-7 with a Week 4 bye), the 49ers were more run-heavy than any team in the league with a 57% run rate, though as we discussed earlier in the season, they still relied on early down passing and ran late with the lead. Over the past six games, the 49ers have gotten a little more pass heavy (45% run rate) and that has meshed with the production they’ve gotten on the ground.

By Expected Points Added, the Niners were never the dominant rushing attack like the Baltimore Ravens, but it was effective enough and schemed up well enough to get by. However, over the past six weeks, the Niners have been one of the league’s least productive rushing teams, especially on a success rate basis.

WeeksRush AttEPAEPA/AttPositive Play%
1-7234-10.2-0.0441%
8-13166-12.0-0.0731%

Since Week 8, just 31% of San Francisco’s rushing attempts have produced positive EPA, the second-worst rate in the league for that time. The biggest hits came in the two-game stretch without tight end George Kittle. In Weeks 10 and 11, the 49ers had just a 19% positive play rate on the ground. With Kittle back on the field for the past two weeks, the San Francisco rushing offense has looked closer to what it did at the beginning of the season (41% positive play rate) but those games also came against two weak run defenses in the Green Bay Packers (28th in rush defense DVOA) and Baltimore Ravens (25th). Maybe Kittle is a good blocker after all.

As San Francisco goes into the final stretch of the regular season trying to get back into position for a playoff bye, they’re about to face a tough stretch of run defenses featuring the New Orleans Saints (sixth), Atlanta Falcons (13th), and Los Angeles Rams (third). There are a number of ways the 49ers can continue to help themselves out on the ground going forward.

Play the box

This season, no team has run into more stacked boxes (8 men or more) and no team has run into fewer light boxes (six defenders or fewer) than the 49ers. Per Sports Info Solutions charting, 41.75% of San Francisco’s rushing attempts this season have gone against stacked boxes and just 13.5% of attempts have come against light boxes.

Josh Hermsmeyer, now of FiveThirtyEight, has done research that showed simply identifying defenders in the box can account for around 84% of a running back’s yards per carry. That has continued this season with rushing success heavily influenced by the number of defenders in the box.

BoxYPCYards After Contact/AttBroken Tackle/attEPA/AttPositive Play%
Light (6 or fewer)5.082.50.180.0444.6%
Neutral (7)4.42.460.16-0.0640.3%
Heavy (8 or more)3.12.040.13-0.1635.8%

Another part of Hermseyer’s findings focused on how the offense’s personnel and alignment were the main influences on how many players the defense put in the box. That matters for a 49ers team that so often uses heavier personnel packages with either two tight ends or a fullback.

Using the Juice

Fullback Kyle Juszcyzk is a key player for the San Francisco offense, but his impact in the running game is much bigger when the defense doesn’t bring in an extra defender for him. On 52 rushing attempts from 21 personnel (two running backs and one tight end) against boxes of eight or more defenders, the 49ers have put up minus-0.9 EPA with a positive play rate of 38%. But on 52 attempts from 21 against a seven-man box, the 49ers have tallied 5.4 EPA with a 44% positive play rate.

When Juszczyk is on the field, the 49ers could send Kittle out to the slot more often, which could clear the defender from the box, but also keep Kittle close enough to the line to still make an impact blocking. Just manipulating one defender out of the box has made a huge difference for San Francisco from this personnel package. 

Juszcyzk’s biggest impact on the offense is giving the look of the run so they can throw the ball, especially off play-action. On 31 play-action attempts from 21 personnel this season (most in the league), the 49ers have 13.1 EPA (0.42 EPA per attempt) with a positive play rate of 69.7%. But on the season, the 49ers have run more than they have passed when using that personnel grouping (59% run).

Splitting the load

The 49ers have been the running back by committee poster team this season with three separate backs getting at least 90 carries so far. The split, though, has not been as efficient as it could be. Tevin Coleman has gotten most of the carries, but has arguably been San Francisco’s least productive back.

49ers Running Backs, 2019

PlayerAttEPAPositive Play%
Tevin Coleman120-9.933%
Matt Brieda109-2.036%
Raheem Mostert926.343%

Raheem Mostert has gotten the fewest carries of the three, but has done the most when he has gotten the ball. That split has gotten even bigger over the past six weeks when Mostert has filled for Matt Brieda as the No. 2 while Brieda has missed the past three games.

49ers Running Backs, Weeks 8-13

PlayerAttEPAPositive Play%
Tevin Coleman60-6.228%
Matt Brieda36-7.522%
Raheem Mostert475.140%

Mostert took the lead in Week 13 against the Ravens (146 yards with a touchdown) and should continue to see an increased workload even though Brieda is expected back for Week 14.

Looking Ahead

The 49ers are considered a run and play-action team and while the play-action part has been working this season, the run game has seen its ups and downs. The past two weeks have been an improvement, but with a tough slate of run defenses upcoming, the Niners are going to have to figure out which parts of the run game will work and which won’t. Figuring out the balance between the run and pass, personnel groupings, and running back usage will all be key into determining whether the 49ers will be playing on the road for Wild Card weekend or taking the week off to host a team the following week.